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What Causes Us to Feel Anger?

Anger is a complex emotion that serves several important functions. It is the primary emotion that is frequently triggered when we perceive someone has transgressed a boundary of ours. For example, if my roommate borrows my favorite sweater without asking and ruins it, I may feel angry because my boundary of private property has been violated. Anger can also be triggered when we believe the boundaries of others have been violated, like in situations of social injustice.

Managed effectively, anger can be beneficial in relationships, as it helps us identify and communicate our boundaries to others or take needed action.

When I work with clients, I try to help them see anger as the "check engine" light on their social-emotional dashboard. You can then ask yourself, "has a boundary of mine been violated?"

Suppose I tell my roommate her actions upset me, and I don't want her to borrow my things without asking permission. She now has an opportunity to change her behavior, which allows us to maintain a good relationship. In this case, my anger alerted me of a personal boundary that had been crossed, which I can appropriately express to help protect the relationship from falling apart.

It’s critical not to let anger kindle into rage, a more intense emotion lacking any pro-social function.

Rage is often dissociative, so we may say or do things in a state of rage that we later regret or don't even remember. When we are dissociated, we are not fully present, which makes it challenging to keep track of our actions.

We all dissociate at times, like when we drive home and can’t remember the last 5-minutes of our drive because we were on “auto-pilot.” But in a moment of intense anger, you may say or do something you didn’t mean and maybe can’t recall. It’s best to wait until we have cooled off before talking about what made us angry.

Taking time to cool off is not the same as stuffing the anger and never expressing it. It’s more about waiting until your nervous system can come into regulation so that you can effectively communicate your feelings.

One of the fastest ways to regulate our nervous system is to do some slow, deep breathing, sometimes called “diaphragmatic breathing” or “belly breathing.” This type of breathing causes our bodies to shift from an activated, sympathetic state (think “fight or flight”) into a more relaxed and calm parasympathetic state. Most of the time, breathing exercises work in just a few minutes. Exercise, taking a bath or shower, listening to calming music, or meditative activities are other great ways to self-regulate.

Taking the perspective of another and imagining why they may have acted as they did may also help you relax. They may see the situation differently or have a reason for their behavior that you don’t know about. Be open to the possibility that there is more to the story than you know.

The neuropsychology of stress-inducing emotions:

Stress-inducing emotions like anger and rage are generated in our brain’s amygdala, our body's threat appraisal system. The amygdala operates below the level of consciousness and sweeps for threats throughout the day.

If you perceive that someone has done something to upset you, your brain will translate this into a lack of safety and send signals to the rest of your limbic, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems to prepare for the threat. Unfortunately, whether this person intended to create this feeling of unsafety is irrelevant at that moment. Your body will respond to what it perceives as threat cues regardless of whether they were intended.

This is known as our "fight or flight" response which leads to an elevated heart rate and tense muscles. If the reaction continues to amplify, it can kindle into rage, leading to harmful behaviors. We may experience an amplification of anger into rage for a variety of reasons:

  • We may be physically depleted because of excessive stress or lack of sleep.

  • We had too much coffee or other stimulants, causing our nervous system to fire up more quickly.

  • We are modeling behavior based on an experience of witnessing intense anger that was not handled appropriately while growing up.

  • It's a reaction and desire to protect ourselves that stems from earlier trauma (abuse or neglect).

  • We hold cognitive biases that can add fuel to the fire. For example, a person who expects to be taken advantage of because of being trustful will go quickly from anger to rage because it fits their story that people are out to get them or can’t be trusted.

Anger as a secondary emotion:

Anger can also signal that you are experiencing vulnerable or uncomfortable feelings, in which anger serves as a "secondary" emotion. In this scenario, you experience a painful and often vulnerable feeling like sadness or shame; anger shows up very quickly to help manage that vulnerable feeling.

For example, if I experience embarrassment in front of my friends, in that moment, all I may be aware of is the sense of embarrassment. Within nanoseconds, I might also register anger if I believe someone else might have contributed to the situation I feel embarrassed about.

Sometimes anger can arise so quickly that we may not even consciously register the first emotion. When this happens, our psyche tries to help pull us out of a vulnerable feeling (like sadness or shame) into one with more energy available—anger.

Are some people more prone to ‘secondary’ anger?

In my experience as a psychologist, the people most prone to this reaction are those who did not receive enough emotional support in childhood. In this case, the person did not have a history of being able to experience painful and vulnerable feelings, like sadness, while getting adequate emotional support from caregivers. The feeling of sadness, for example, is internalized as something too painful to bear. When sadness shows up in the future, the psyche automatically triggers anger to come to the rescue. Instead of feeling sadness, which feels overwhelming and scary, anger will be there, which feels powerful and safe.

People who have developed this pattern in childhood or adolescence can work on it in therapy to learn how to identify the vulnerable feeling that preceded the anger. With the help of a skilled therapist, you can learn to tolerate the vulnerable feeling and get support, so you don't need to recruit anger to help you manage.

Regardless of what your anger is trying to signal to you, know it is a valid and useful feeling. Trying to avoid or suppress the emotion of anger is unhealthy and doesn't work in the long run.

View anger as your early warning light that something else is amiss and focus your attention on what that might be. Remember that anger is a normal feeling everyone has and can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and more healthy, sustainable relationships with others if dealt with healthily.


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