One of the most difficult emotions to understand is anger. Mental health professionals know that, from an evolutionary perspective, this complex emotion is vital to survival. Even in the modern world, anger is an emotional tool in an arsenal designed to protect us from real physical threats. More often however, anger is an expression designed to protect ourselves not from what’s happening around us, but from what’s happening inside us – from underlying fear, anxiety or insecurity.
Anger is almost never a primary emotion. Even if it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it. Clinical experts that study anger have come to understand that the outward expression of anger masks many underlying emotions that assault our sense of self-worth and control.
One of the hormones the brain secretes during anger arousal is norepinephrine. When a person is confronted with physical or psychological pain (or the threat of such pain) this chemical acts as an analgesic and in effect, numbs it. In this way, anger does have a place and a role to play in coping by lessening the pain of whatever hurt is being inflicted.
Unfortunately, while expressions of anger may help to cope with the threat, it typically does little to resolve the underlying causes of anger, and more often than not, exacerbates the problem. Thus, psychotherapists seeking to help individuals to address anger issues, typically begin by exploring the fears or vulnerabilities that our expressions of anger are attempting to protect us from.
Hurt is one example. Feeling ignored, devalued, underestimated, or unloved can create painful emotions tied to concepts of self-worth and self-confidence. For many people, expressing anger in response to these emotions is less vulnerable than expressing the hurt in more direct ways.
Tension and frustration is another. For some people, getting angry relieves themselves of inner tension. Road rage is one expression of anger that could be described as a buildup of tension and frustration, and where the release of norepinephrine during the anger actually helps to make a person feel better – if only temporarily. Frustrations in relationships, in communicating and in being understood, are another frequent scenario that evokes outward expressions of anger as a result of frustration.
Discomfort expressing intimacy in a relationship is another well-documented root cause for anger. People who have difficulty asserting and negotiating their wants and needs with their partner often feel unsafe and vulnerable. The fear is that by letting their guard down – expressing intimacy —the person is opening themselves up to disapproval or rejection. Psychotherapists see a correlation between these fears and the character of our earlier childhood relationships; how much trust and security, or lack-thereof, we experienced with early caretakers.
Individuals that lack self-confidence or are self-conscience may express anger to cover these insecurities. Clinical professions see this expressed frequently in work-place environments, between coworkers or between workers and their supervisors. Confrontational behaviors in meetings or other work environments may be due to feeling disrespected or undervalued. However, organizational psychologists that work with battling coworkers recognize that the problem is rarely a true disrespect for the skills or capabilities of another worker. More often it is the worker’s perception of events once it has passed through an individual’s filters of insecurity.
Finally, anger is a common reaction to loss and grief. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment because of a death or loss – including losses other than death – like a career or a marriage. Anger is recognized as an important stage in managing and recovering from grief. For many of the same reasons mentioned previously, anger has a supportive and restorative element to it, but as in all cases of anger, it is still an outward expression of other primary emotions.
While anger has a role to play in protecting ourselves from either real or perceived threats, it is not a healthy strategy for constructively solving underlying problems. Anger rarely improves a situation or changes things for the better. And because anger behaviors, how intensely the anger is expressed, and our susceptibility to an anger response is both learned and a component of our personalities, gaining better control and changing our reactions is not an easy process.
There is often little we can do to control the external factors that lead to anger – things like traffic, work deadlines and the behaviors of other people just to name a few. If we wish to feel better, respond more productively, and get better results when we’re faced with these situations, we must actively seek to lift the veil of anger and address the underlying emotions that our anger is trying to protect.