Anger is a public epidemic in America; it contaminates everything from media controversy to road rage to wars to mass shootings. But aside from the larger toxic scale of this basic human emotion and its connection to violence, anger affects us in our day-to-day personal lives as well, on an intimate scale. Everything from workplace frustration to family discord can erupt and contribute to overall stress, anxiety, and depression.
Given how destructive and painful anger can be, why are we all awash in its wake? Why do we continue to bask in rage despite all the dangerous consequences: legal, social, financial, physical, medical ramifications and more?
1. Human neurobiology rewards anger.
Part of the issue is that in the moment anger feels good, feels like the thing to do. It overrides all other moral and rational brakes in the brain because it originates from our primordial, original limbic system: the brain center of our most automatic emotions like fear and desire. The limbic system has the most direct links to our fight-or-flight response system, and that includes control over adrenaline rushes, alertness, and other instincts that prime you for battle or rapid escape.
2. Anger is similar to other addictions.
What happens is that anger can lead to similar “rushes” as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. Anger can become its own reward, but like other addictions, the final consequences are dangerous and real, and people follow impulses in the moment without regard to the big picture.
3. Anger boosts ego fragility.
There is also the psychological aspect of ego fragility and injury, often seen in narcissistic personalities; the rush behind anger can be triggered by underlying feelings of weakness or insecurity, a way to feel powerful in the moment and overcome those feelings. It also helps people feel briefly in control of things they typically have no control over. Unfortunately, the aftermath reinforces negative consequences that hurt you in the eyes of others, and continues the cycle of insecurity. It becomes a vicious cycle of tantrums and punishment that ultimately hurt the angry individual.
4. Anger may be familiar/comfortable and also a method of emotional avoidance.
Unfortunately for some people who are raised in continuously chaotic environments, the uncertainty and volatility of anger might become perversely comfortable, might help distract from or escape underlying uncomfortable feelings of emptiness or fear. The rush of drama and conflict feels familiar and produces a destructive intimacy that some might prefer than to confront other darker emotions like loss or grief or more. Aside from traumatic family environments, combat veterans are also at risk of similar addiction, as they remain in high-threat situations for long and repeated periods of time.
So it may be worth asking yourself, are you addicted to anger? If so, there are plenty of strategies for getting help, such as:
-- psychotherapy (sometimes targeted cognitive-behavioral therapy for anger management, and also therapy to confront/observe underlying interpersonal dynamics and past issues that might trigger anger)
-- treating any comorbid underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD that can show anger as a symptom
-- learning alternative behaviors like how to problem-solve constructively and rely less on impulsive outbursts, talking out anger triggers with others ahead of time before they build up, mindfulness training/acceptance, and more
-- discussing your tendencies honestly with family members and friends.
But as with any addiction, the first step is admitting there is a problem; and for many, this is the hardest step until unfortunately something happens that you can’t take back. It takes maturity and guts to admit your anger has become a problem, and sadly, many people have not yet stepped back to look and see how they affect everyone around them, let alone themselves. Awareness is the first step to recovery.
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