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From outrage to fury: Anger as the misunderstood warning system for wellbeing

In 2019, Guardian author Olivia Burkeman referred to current times as “the age of rage” citing political, environmental, and social causes to name a few. The following year, we came face to face with a global pandemic, which confined us to our homes and forced us to abandon normal life.

Unsurprisingly, tensions have been running high in families, organisations, communities, and nations. Perhaps you’ve noticed greater resentment towards a colleague, you’re more easily irritated by a family member, or you’re suddenly snapping at strangers out of frustration?

This shift in our emotional landscape becomes more understandable when we consider the bad reputation of anger. We’re raised to believe we must be always calm and collected because anger signals a lack of control. It’s a weakness. We only need to see the various self-help books, anger management classes and endless quotes like ‘control your anger, it’s only one letter away from danger’ to understand our aversion to this emotion.

Society’s stigmatisation of anger means that many of us try to repress it which can then have negative emotional and physical side effects. The truth is that anger is a gift, and this highly complex emotion can bring attention to the areas of our wellbeing that need nurturing.

Dimensions of anger: A cultural perspective

We’ve discussed in a previous blog how different cultures conceptualise wellbeing, and anger is no exception to this variation. According to Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, the ancient Greeks distinguished between ‘quick bursts of temper’ and ‘long-lasting wrath’ while the most common Chinese expression for anger, shēngqì, means ‘generate qi’, which points to the increase in energy we feel when angry.

These cultural differences point to the important idea that anger isn’t a single emotion. Barrett argues that anger comprises rage, bitterness, hostility, wrath, scorn, and grumpiness. This is useful given the extensive research showing that labelling our emotions with specificity allows us to regulate them more effectively, communicate our feelings with others, and open our minds to new experiences.

Society often misconstrues anger because of the behavioural outcomes that sometimes ensue, such as aggression. However, we must remember that anger is an emotion, and emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. The value of anger has always been acknowledged for centuries and gained prominence with Freud in the early 20th century who argued patients’ outbursts were cathartic. Nowadays, psychotherapists are interested in one question: where does anger comes from?

Roots of anger: Biology vs. psychotherapy

Before diving into its origins, let’s review the scientific underpinnings of anger. Imagine you’ve been queueing for a long time, and someone cuts in front of you. Firstly, your amygdala – the most primitive part of your brain – tells your body that you’re angry. This is when the adrenaline fires, heart rate increases, muscles become tense and attention narrows. You also produce testosterone and, interestingly, norepinephrine, which has an analgesic effect that’s designed to numb the physical or psychological pain of the event.

However, a more psychological perspective complicates the role of anger in wellbeing. Why does someone jumping the queue make you angry? Answers might include ‘it’s embarrassing they tried to take advantage of me’ or ‘it’s hurtful they think I wouldn’t mind’ or ‘it’s unfair they get to the front of the queue sooner’. We rarely spot the shame, hurt or injustice that precedes anger, but this illustration shows that anger is, in fact, a secondary emotion. It’s reactive. It also explains the famous iceberg metaphor: anger is driven by emotions hidden beneath the surface.

Expressions of anger: Normalise, scrutinize, and rationalise

‘Process’, don’t ‘manage’: Shift away from the idea that anger is ‘bad’ by replacing ‘managing’ or ‘controlling’ anger to ‘processing’ or ‘expressing’ anger. The words we say aloud (and to ourselves!) can reinforce our world view, and this alternative discourse allows us to internalise that anger is simply part of the spectrum of human emotion. It also fosters a curiosity around our personal experiences of anger. In other words, we learn anger is OK.

Delve deeper: Try to understand the primary emotion driving your anger by asking yourself these questions:

(1) When do you usually get angry? Do you have any anger patterns?

(2) In your childhood, did you learn to express your anger in a certain way by watching the people around you?

(3) Do you tend to express or suppress your anger?

For example, perhaps you’re prone to anger when you finish work, and it’s always preceded by a hot face and tight chest. Carving out 10 minutes of alone time can buffer the effect of potentially anger-arousing situations, whether it’s caring for children or replying to messages from friends.

What’s the story?: One consequence of anger is irrationality, but psychologist Leon Seltzer argues that this is more often due to the story we tell ourselves rather than the actual situation. For instance, we might think: ‘They jumped the queue on purpose. They’re out to get me!’ We then demand fairness, appreciation, or agreement and this is when our anger might result in us shouting or swearing at the stranger. Ask yourself: Do I have any evidence for the thoughts I’m telling myself? More often than not, you won’t. Harnessing this logic, even just briefly, can diffuse the frustration.

Published: 28th July 2021

References

American Psychological Association. 2021. Controlling anger before it controls you. [online] Available at https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control . Accessed on 25 June 2021.

Burkeman, Olivia. 2019. The age of rage: Are we really living in angrier times? The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/11/all-fired-up-are-we-really-living-angrier-times Accessed on 24 June 2021.

Davis, T. 20. Anger issues: Definition, management and tips to control anger. Berkley Wellbeing Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/anger-issues.html.  Accessed on 25 June 2021.

Dixon, Thomas. 2020. What is the history of anger a history of? Emotions: History, Culture, Society 4. 1-34.

Feldman Barrett, Lisa. 2016. The Varieties of Anger,’ The New York Times [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/opinion/sunday/the-varieties-of-anger.html. Accessed on 24 June 2021.

Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2016. Are you in despair? That’s good. The New York Times [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/05/opinion/sunday/are-you-in-despair-thats-good.html?_r=0 Accessed on 24 June 2021.

Wu, Jade. 2020. Why being angry is OK (even helpful). Psychology Today. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-savvy-psychologist/202007/why-being-angry-is-okay-and-even-helpful Accessed on 24 June 2021.

Seltzer, L. 2008. What your anger may be hiding. Psychology Today [online] Available at:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding Accessed on 24th June 2021.