Understanding negative emotions: anger
Despite enabling us to identify our needs and act in our best interest, anger is a misunderstood emotion. Because we tend to see anger in all-or-nothing terms, it is often perceived as a dysfunctional emotional expression. While anger tends to be connected to relationship problems and even abuse, it is not at all times experienced in its extreme form or linked to irrational behaviour. Anger also comes in a wide range of feelings and intensities, each with its own function and message, some of which are very powerful and motivational. To help you gain a greater understanding and respect for you anger, this article is dedicated to exploring it in detail.
The role of anger
Be it in its passive or more active form, anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone. When angry, we are reacting to an attack – real or imaginary – to our self-esteem, which leads us to feeling rejected, ignored, isolated, hurt or criticised. Anger also works as to give us back what we have lost from that (perceived) violation, namely, the respect and love for our own selves. Furthermore, anger is there to help us regain a sense of control over ourselves, as well as the negative emotions that surround it, such as sadness and fear. For that reason, anger also helps us regulate feelings of inadequateness.
Feelings related to anger
Frustration, irritation, resentment, annoyance and rage, for instance, are all forms of anger. When we are exposed to a great threat to our self-esteem for a long period, anger may be felt in its highest intensity and turn into hatred.
How anger is felt in the body
Like fear, an angry reaction is triggered by the amygdala. When we become angry, our brain prepares us to fight an enemy or flight the scene. As you will notice on the below list, the bodily sensations associated with anger are also the ones we tend to experience when taken by fear, another emotion connected to the fight or flight response:
- Fast heartbeat
- Short breathing
- Increased body temperature and blood pressure
- Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
- Stomach ache
- Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
- Shaking, trembling
Adaptive and maladaptive anger
Adaptive anger is like any other negative feeling that is experienced in a functional manner. When we experience anger healthily, it lets us know that something is not right and, then, it fades away after a little while (on average, 20 minutes). In that sense, healthy anger is productive, because it serves a specific purpose at a particular point in time, so it is short-lived and context dependant. That type of anger also directs our focus to change, or helps us start contemplating it. When we are stuck with maladaptive anger, however, it is neither felt nor regulated in that fashion, but it tends to last longer (build-up anger) or shorter than needed to create awareness and motivate us to act, or it is used as a sole means for regaining a sense of power and safety. Our failure to process and deal with the problems highlighted by our anger – when it arises – might result in behavioural, physical and mental health problems, such as relationship difficulties, migraine headaches and depression.
What your anger says about you
The anger warning reminds you that your needs are not being met. The nature of those needs may vary, from feeling loved and valued, to emotionally balanced, in control or safe. Anger highlights vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, like a reminder of our limitations as individuals. Therefore, we feel angry when we cannot meet our goals for happiness and wellbeing. When our core beliefs are too rigid and do not match objective reality, we feel let down and angry, not only at ourselves, but at others and even life itself. The relationship we have with our anger – be it by repressing it or becoming reactive and acting out – is also connected to a history of unresolved childhood trauma.
Before rushing to judge, deny or hide your angry feelings, check in with yourself and try asking the following questions:
- What needs have I got that are not being met?
- What feelings of inadequacy may my anger be masking?
- Is my anger productive or maladaptive?
By understanding your anger and registering its message, you start building a healthier relationship with it and yourself, so that all that energy that it so effectively triggers can also be directed to learning, better relationships and personal growth.