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Understanding the Anger Impulse and Rage

Learning to renegotiate the most volatile anger states.

Key points

  • Some people have felt more anger during the pandemic and different manifestations of anger.
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder involves the inability to control aggressive impulses and symptoms such as tremors, sweating, and twitching.
  • A healthy view of anger is that it contributes to agency and allows people to respond to threats in their environment.

Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on Anger and Rage (IED)

'Minerva Studio/Adobe Stock Photo,' 'People, licensed for use'
Source: 'Minerva Studio/Adobe Stock Photo,' 'People, licensed for use'

During the onset of the pandemic, I remember driving one day and coming to a stoplight. There was a homeless person standing across the highway on the median. Another individual, dressed in business attire, had pulled up to the stoplight where this person was standing and proceeded to get out of his car and suddenly scream at the homeless person. With exaggerated movements, arms flailing about, the man was emotionally locked into an expression of extreme rage and anger. He then got back into his car and drove away. In the following months, as the quarantine became even more of an imperative, there were more reports of similar kinds of incidents across the country.

The global pandemic had brought with it a new level of tension in the form of economic stressors, social inequities, ideological conflicts, personal daily crises, job losses, financial struggles, and disruptions that continue into what is now our new-normal lives. As a result, one of the emerging issues has been the rise in frustrations leading to anger, and for some, the possibility of explosive rage episodes or intermittent explosive disorder (IED). But let’s first explore the phenomenon of anger as a baseline to understanding how it might progress to full-on rage.

Anger is one of our basic emotions in a spectrum of other emotions we experience as humans. It can also have a significant presence and impact on our lives. This particular emotion of anger operates as a “signaling” system in our bodies, which moves through a diffuse series of channels of physical and mental processes ensuring our survival on the most basic level. If you think about the last time you were angry, you probably experienced any one or more of the following:

Physical Symptoms

  • Raised blood pressure
  • Variation in heart rate
  • Tingling sensation throughout the body
  • Muscle tension

Emotional Symptoms

Anger can be expressed in various ways, such as an internal reaction where we invoke negative self-talk, rage inwardly, or overtly characterized by shouting or acting out physically. At its most elevated state, anger may adversely turn into dangerous extremes where physical safety is compromised.

When Anger Turns to Rage

'BlackSalmon/Adobe Stock Photos', 'Anger, Licensed for use
Source: 'BlackSalmon/Adobe Stock Photos', 'Anger, Licensed for use

COVID-19 has underscored a trend of anger reactions and rage episodes in people that have become more noticeable. While many individuals experience anger, some struggle with more intensified and overpowering versions of anger in the form of rage. These same individuals may not even be aware of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) or the “Anger Impulse.” According to the American Psychological Association, IED is considered

“An impulse-control disorder consisting of multiple episodes in which the individual fails to resist aggressive impulses and commits assaultive acts or destroys property. These aggressive acts are significantly out of proportion to any precipitating factors, are not caused by any other mental disorder or a general medical condition, and are not substance-induced. Of additional note, DSM-5 also includes verbal aggression (e.g., frequent temper tantrums, arguments) and non-destructive physical aggression among the criteria for this disorder.”

Although the disorder is not easily distinguished, experiencing extreme symptoms more frequently is a telltale sign that one's anger requires immediate attention; typically measured by three outbursts that lead to any aggressive acts during a 12-month timeframe, which is enough for a diagnosis of IED. Symptoms of IED may include brief, high-intensity outbursts with some diverse bodily symptoms such as:

  • Tremors
  • Chest tightness
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Twitching

These intense spikes in emotional reactivity may then be followed by immediate feelings of quiescence, relief, pleasure, and later, feelings of remorse or guilt for having lost control. If suffering from anger outbursts or worsening anger symptoms is increasing, it’s time to take control.

How to Begin to See Anger Differently

'Fizkes/Adobe Stock Photos', 'People, Licensed for use'.
Source: 'Fizkes/Adobe Stock Photos', 'People, Licensed for use'.

Anger is a completely normal phenomenon and is something that serves a valuable purpose; such as signaling when we are being injured, threatened, deprived, or robbed of our expectancies or rewards. However, excessive anger leading to outbursts that feel out of our control should be managed thereby limiting the disruption to our lives and, most importantly, for the safety and well-being of others.

On the flip side, anger also does not have to necessitate destructive behaviors. Instead, it should be viewed as part of our self-agency, and as an essential part of our evolutionary organization. In fact, without anger, we would become vulnerable to a variety of environmental elements in our daily lives. Without the biological signaling of anger, we would not be able to recognize and respond proactively to various threats of harm or imminent danger.

While the typical instinctive enactment of anger can be experienced as physical and psychological outcomes such as withdrawal or aggression, such reactions can also be ultimately managed and regulated, where alternative pathways to dealing with the intense expression of anger and the instinctual drive reactions accompanying can be overridden.

Counteracting the anger impulse and IED can be challenging, but it is possible to modify the way you react and harness the potentials internally that are within your sphere of influence.

In part 2 of this series, we will look at ways you can effectively restructure anger and how CBT, as well as understanding your SIRO, can help stop the potential for out-of-control anger and rage.