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What Is Anger?

Innate Affects

November 2014 Newsletter

All the negative affects trouble human beings deeply … Anger is problematic above all.”
Silvan Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness, Volume III

Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.”
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

What is Anger?

We are exploring the three pillars of the origins of human development—affects (feelings), language, and cognition.

Currently, we are discussing two of our most important innate affects, interest (curiosity) and anger. In the last several newsletters, we have examined interest in some detail. This month and next, we will investigate anger.

We will then move on and begin to delve into the other two major areas, language and cognition.


To briefly review—here’s one way to think about our earliest feelings, which then become our more complex emotional life.


  • Interest
  • Enjoyment


  • Surprise (resets the nervous system, to prepare for the next stimulus)


  • Distress
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Disgust [a reaction to noxious tastes]
  • Dissmell [a reaction to noxious odors]


If curiosity – interest – is the most underappreciated feeling, anger may be the most misunderstood.

But anger need not be so misunderstood. Two huge clues stand out. First, anger is one of the negative affects. Thus, like all negative affects, anger is an SOS signal! It simply says to mother, or father, or the environment in general, “Something is wrong here…please help!”

Second, anger is excessive distress. As we described previously, any excessive stimulus—such as light or noise or pain—will cause the infant to change her facial and vocal expressions from distress to anger. If you’re having trouble with your own anger or your child’s or some other adult’s anger, just think “too much distress.” Anger is a quantitative concept; it is “too much-ness;” it is too much stimulation.

Anger is the final common pathway of all the negative affects. Any excessive negative feelings—distress, fear, shame, and so on—will result in anger. Also, interruption of interest will result in distress, and, if excessive, anger.

Distress and Anger

In order to understand Anger, we must also include Distress. Distress and Anger are linked.

Previously, we showed how Surprise, Fear, and Interest depend on the speed of the external (e.g. a loud noise) and internal (e.g. a stomach pain) stimuli. How might Distress and Anger work? What is their mechanism of action?

The feelings of Distress and Anger appear to depend on the quantity of the stimulus.

Any sustained increase in the level of neural firing, such as a continuing loud noise, innately activates the cry of Distress. If it were sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the Anger response.

For example, any sustained increase of a stimulus such as a continuing loud noise will innately activate the Distress signal and the cry and facial manifestations of the Distress feeling. And—this is important, and we will refer to this understanding of Anger time and again—if the noise is sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the Anger response.

Distress, then, is “too much” of something. Anger is excessive Distressreally too much.

Think of how we express this in everyday language. People are stressed out; they are under stress; there is too much going on, too much bombarding them, disorganizing them. They get irritable. Even more comes down upon them. They get more irritable. They get angry.

Initially, at a low level, Distress is triggered. And then excessive Distress turns into Anger. Practically any stimuli can create this sequence – memories, hurtful words, even other affects, such as too much fear or shame.

The Origins of Anger

Let’s return to the beginning. Anger is one of the nine universal built-in feelings. It is one of the responses to stimulation. It can be seen early in the infant’s life. Anger may show up as the “roar of rage,” with the red face, mouth open in a cry, eyes clenched. Or, the baby’s face may be marked by a somewhat more subtle anger, with the eyebrows down, the eyes slitted, the jaw clenched.

Again, anger is a quantitative issue. How does it help to think of anger as a quantitative issue, as excessive distress? Think of your infant or small child. When she is hungry or tired or sick, what happens? She gets cranky, irritable, angry. There is too much distress.

Or think of when you stub your toe. At first, as the sensation begins to register as the pain mounts, you feel distress. As the pain and distress accelerate, you get angry.

The common notion of someone being irritable or angry because they are “stressed out” is right on target: there is too much stress, or stimulation. The words we use for this transition from distress to anger include irritable, cranky, snippy, annoyed.

Thus, there is a process of summation with anger, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Things may be going along reasonably well, but then one event after another begins to push the envelope toward anger. Any one of these issues might be easily handled; too many of them piled up lead to anger.

Anger is also what is known as a contagious affect—anger in one person seems to spread to another. An angry child can readily make a parent angry. And, an adult can easily make another adult angry. A picture is sometimes worth a thousand words.

The notion of anger as a contagious affect is useful in helping the child with tension-regulation and self-soothing—it highlights the need to put water, not gasoline, on the emotional fire!

How and why is anger a contagious affect?

How and why? How—probably because someone else’s anger adds to your level of distress. Think of road rage, a car honking behind you. This increase in stimulation can feel like an attack, an assault, something personal. Why contagious? Probably, from an evolutionary perspective, because anger in another person creates enough stimulation to mobilize the distress and anger useful in responding to a potential threat.

Distress and Anger in Parenting and Relationships

Distress and Anger are among the most difficult affects for parents to navigate. It is useful to remember that feelings are signals. Negative affects are SOS signals. They convey that something is wrong.

So, Key #1:
Try to figure out what is causing the Distress and then attend to that. Put water on the fire, not gasoline.

And Key #2:
Yes, the expressions of Distress and Anger (whining, screaming, temper tantrums, etc.) can be upsetting. However, try to remember Key #1. And then address the expressions and behaviors associated with Distress and Anger: Help the child put the feelings and problems into words. “I can see you are distressed and angry…try to tell me with words what the problem is and I will try to fix it.”

References for Interested Readers

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

Studies of the Month

Holden GW, et al (2014). Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment. Child Abuse & Neglect 38: 902-908.

This is a very important study. The authors found that after reading brief research summaries on the problems associated with physical punishment, there was a significant decrease in favorable attitudes toward physical punishment.

These studies suggest that education about physical punishment may help decrease the prevalence of physical punishment.

Scott S, et al (2013). Early parental physical punishment and emotional and behavioral outcomes in preschool children. Child: Care, Health and Development, p. 337.

Preschool children who were “smacked” by the main caregiver in the first two years were twice as likely as those never smacked to have emotional and behavioral problems by age four.

Overview of Data on Physical Punishment

As Straus et al. put it in their summary of current data, the following are associated with the violent child rearing that goes under the euphemism of spanking:

  1. Increased antisocial behavior and delinquency as a child and as a young adult;
  2. Greater approval of other forms of violence, such as the belief that torture is sometimes justified to obtain information critical for national defense, or that there are occasions when it is justified to slap a wife or husband;
  3. Greater impulsiveness and less self-control;
  4. Poorer parent-child relationships;
  5. More risky sexual behavior as a teenager;
  6. Greater juvenile delinquency;
  7. More crime perpetrated as an adult;
  8. Poorer national average mental ability;
  9. Lower probability of graduating from college;
  10. Higher probability of depression;
  11. More violence against marital, cohabitating, and dating partners;
  12. More violence against non-family members;
  13. More physical abuse of children;
  14. More drug abuse;
  15. More sexual coercion and physically forced sex.

Straus MA, Douglas EM, Medeiros RA (2014). The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime. New York: Routledge.

About Dr. Paul Holinger

Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the acclaimed book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

More from Paul C Holinger M.D.
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