Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Unless you have been living in a sound proofed room with no internet connection or TV for the past few months, then you might have noticed that there is a lot of anger out there, both on our doorsteps and seemingly across North America. The pandemic has brought with it anxiety, financial insecurity, grief, loneliness, and fear for many people and these emotions can often be the good friend of anger. In addition to the pandemic, society currently seems to be permanently on the brink, with anger toward governments, individual politicians, anger toward the opioid crisis, anger toward people living on our streets, anger toward systemic racism, police brutality, and for some people anger toward progress, anger toward change, anger toward diversity and open-mindedness.
Anger is our brain’s response to something perceived as a threat. This could be a threat to our or someone else's physical safety, or it could be a threat to our psychological safety and our emotional safety. Though anger feels intense and all encompassing at the time, it’s not usually the emotion driving our response. For this reason, it makes sense to think of anger as a secondary emotion, that means if we look underneath what’s happening, there’s usually something else there pulling that trigger. Often what lies beneath is related to fear, sadness, embarrassment, shame, disgust, or hurt.
The Purpose of Anger
Anger has a purpose and like all of our parts, anger has good intentions. Think of it like anger is our emotional bodyguard and like an effective bodyguard when it senses a threat it acts immediately. Act first, think later. This happens because anger triggers our fight, flight, freeze, fawn response – it is a response to something our emotional brain sees as a threat and when our brain’s threat detector goes off, we have no access to our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows for logical and rational thought. It is offline.
Here’s an example of how anger works for us. If we see something that is horrific, like someone hurting someone we love, that anger we feel gives us the energy to act. That is its purpose, it gives us that drive to do something, to object, to stand up for something, to stop harm happening. Another way our anger part works for us is by protecting our emotions. For instance, if a person is scared of their partner leaving them because they have a core fear of being abandoned, then being angry is going to be easier to handle than being emotionally overwhelmed and upset. This is especially important for men as society tends to devalue emotional expression in men, but it promotes and rewards aggression and anger. Watch a game of NHL hockey if you aren’t convinced of this.
Anger can also protect us by pushing people away. If our brain senses a threat to our emotional safety, say perhaps a friend has betrayed us or a family member said something cruel, rather than face that hurt and pain our brain chooses to react with anger to push away any possible upset. This is safety from emotional overwhelm by avoidance.
So is Anger a Problem?
It’s true, anger is a part of being human and it absolutely has its place in our world. Anger though can be frightening for others and it can be dangerous for those who have a tendency to lose it. In addition to the interpersonal risks, out of control anger and rage are also hard on our physical selves. In fact, anger can activate physiological changes that put us temporarily at a higher risk of a heart attack, or other cardiovascular event, for two hours after the bout of anger. Prolonged periods of anger have also been linked to chronic headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and poor immune system health. These physiological effects are due to the chemical and hormonal changes our bodies put into effect to help us deal with the perceived threat. So you might experience an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, more shallow breathing, blood flowing to the limbs or face, a shaking feeling, or a higher temperature (hence the expression "made my blood boil").
Pushing anger away, or suppressing it, just doesn’t work. What we can do is change how we react to our anger, it may not seem like it in those moments of rage, but we do have a small space in which we can change how we respond to situations. It's not about not feeling angry, it's about not acting on the anger. By breaking down the brain's programming we can start to work on practicing new ways of reacting and new ways of calming our nervous system.
To get to the root of the anger, it’s incredibly important to figure out what the threat is that you are responding to and it might not be what you think. Just because the anger comes up in certain situations (like when driving or when at work) it doesn’t mean it’s actually anything to do with that situation. It’s likely that situation is just triggering some event that happened previously, weeks or months or years ago. When we figure out what that trigger is, we can be curious about why it’s showing up and how to best work with it. Try to take a look under your anger and see what’s there. It's also important to remember that anger is just a part of you, you are not your anger and most people really don't enjoy losing their sh*t.
Therapy cannot fix 2020, but if this article resonates with you and you would like to book a counselling session about anger issues then please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website www.helenwhitehead.ca
Thank you for reading!
Helen Whitehead, M.C., R.C.C.
Registered Clinical Counsellor, North Vancouver, B.C.