Managing Anger Series – What is Anger

We’ve all felt it at times, and depending on the circumstances and the trigger, anger can range from mild irritation through to intense rage. A normal emotion, anger is just one of the many ways in which human beings express themselves. For some people, anger becomes a default response even when it’s unwarranted or could cause them or others harm.

Anger serves as an indicator that we feel threatened by someone or something (regardless of whether the threat is real or perceived). The amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the processing of emotions such as anger, fear and sadness, is extremely efficient at warning us about threats. It’s so effective in fact that it prompts us to react before the cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) is able to check on the reasonableness of our reaction. In other words, our brains are wired in such a way as to influence us to act before we can properly consider the consequences of our actions. While this might seem the wrong way around, it’s this very mechanism that keeps us safe from harm (also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response).

The fight or flight response

Like every other emotion, anger is accompanied by physiological and biological changes. In the case of anger, the fight or flight response is triggered, allowing us the focus and energy to fight anything we see is threatening to our wellbeing. During fight or flight, we experience many changes in our body including:

  • Raised blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscles tensing
  • Skin flushing or paling
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Dilation of the blood vessels to increase blood flow to muscles
  • A significant peak in energy caused by the release of metabolic energy sources such as fat and glycogen
  • Heightened focus on the target of our anger
  • Disrupted memory creation (this is why we often cannot recall the exact details of an argument when in a state of high arousal).

The wind-down phase

Once the threat is gone, our anger subsides, and we enter the wind-down phase. However, the adrenaline which coursed through our body when we were angry can last hours or even days. Its presence lowers our anger threshold making us prone to losing our temper over minor things that we wouldn’t normally even register. Think of it as a ‘fight or flight hangover’. Unless we realise that we’re still in the thrall of adrenaline during the wind-down phase, it’s unlikely that we’ll be making a conscious decision to remain calm and measured.

When anger is healthy

Anger can be healthy when it’s under control, appropriate and doesn’t cause ourselves or others harm. We can all learn to express angry feelings in constructive ways and control how we express our needs.

  • Healthy anger isn’t overwhelming – we can think rationally despite being in fight or flight mode.
  • Healthy anger is a signal that we need to step back and ask ourselves what we’re actually feeling in that particular moment such as sad, frustrated, hurt or taken advantage of.
  • Healthy anger calls for us to promote healthy boundaries in our relationships and express our needs in an assertive manner.
  • Healthy anger doesn’t cause ourselves or other people suffering, but encourages honest and open communication, and ultimately can help to resolve conflict.

When anger is unhealthy

  • Chronic anger can cause serious physical health problems. Feeling angry on a regular basis can make us more susceptible to health issues including heart disease, diabetes, poor immunity, insomnia, substance misuse problems and high blood pressure.
  • Chronic anger is toxic to mental health. Anger consumes a huge amount of emotional and mental energy and makes it hard to enjoy life. It can also lead to issues such as low self-esteem, low mood, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
  • Chronic anger can affect your career. Most people agree that work can be stressful but if we’re coping by lashing out, we not only lose the respect of colleagues, managers, suppliers and clients but we may also be passed over for promotion or other career-related opportunities.
  • Chronic anger can damage your relationships. Things said and done in anger can cause lasting scars to the people we love the most. It can be hard for the people around us to trust us and be comfortable if they feel that they’re having to walk on eggshells for fear of triggering an explosion. Witnessing a parent’s anger is especially damaging to children and can cause them to develop a fear of the very person they should be able to rely on the most.