Anger Issues: Nature vs Nurture–Why Does it Matter?
Knowing the answer influences treatment and a client's attitude toward change.
Posted Oct 08, 2018
Several years ago I counseled Kevin, a client who sought my help following the failure of two marriages, fearful that his current yearlong relationship might suffer the same fate. During the intake session, Kevin sheepishly admitted responsibility for the difficulties in his relationships – all of which were marked by frequent episodes of anger. In a tone that reflected the uneasiness all of us experience when admitting our weaknesses, he declared, “I’m a little embarrassed to be here. It’s difficult to admit this to myself. Maybe I had to turn forty before I could.”
Kevin indicated that he had had issues with anger his entire life. This challenge reportedly undermined his personal relationships as well as advancement in his career as a college professor. He had come to accept that he needed help with his anger if he was to have greater success and fulfillment in his relationships and with work.
During the initial sessions, Kevin disclosed repeated examples of outbursts of anger – from the time he was a child, through adolescence and into adulthood. He recalled having a bad temper and would frequently become irritated and aggressive with his peers. He stated that while he did not consider himself to be a bully, he had, at times, bullied others. Both wives had accused him of being quite overbearing and intimidating in his anger.
Kevin also described his father as having a short fuse, sometimes smacking Kevin as well as his older brother. However, while his father yelled at them, he was not physically aggressive with his mother or his younger sister. When further questioned about these experiences, he was quick to minimize their impact by saying, “It wasn’t that bad.” “It wasn’t like he did that all the time.” “It was usually my fault.” And, “But I knew he loved me.”
It took many sessions and increased comfort with self-reflection before Kevin began to question whether his difficulty with anger was due to nature or nurture. “You know, his father, my grandfather, was really nice to me growing up. But my mother told me that his dad had a temper for most of his life and that he often beat my father, even into adolescence.”
Nature and nurture contribute to anger
His question concerning the influence of nature and nurture regarding anger is one that has been posed by many of my clients at some point in their counseling. And my response has always been “Yes,” and, “Yes”.
Research suggests that, in general, just like so many aspects of personality, we are born with a range of potentiality. For example, our genetics may determine the range of our potential intelligence, but studies have increasingly emphasized that nurture plays a major role in influencing whether intelligence settles at the lower or the higher end of that potentiality. Consequently, a child will establish a degree of intelligence consistent with functioning at the higher end of his potential when he receives cognitive stimulation, is encouraged to be curious, and develops verbal as well as visual motor skills. By contrast, a child born with the same potential, but with minimal stimulation and encouragement may function at the lower level of his potential.
With regard to temperament, some children are born “thin-skinned,” quick to be reactive to stimulation, a trait that can be associated with being emotionally reactive in general. Others are more “thick skinned,” less reactive to stimulation and perhaps more even-keeled in their emotions.
If the child who is thin-skinned is fortunate enough to be born to parents who are more thick-skinned, he may be sufficiently calmed and reassured and helped to learn skills to be more resilient. Additionally, parents who provide calmness, safety and validation help a child to develop greater emotional intelligence, which includes the capacity to be self-soothing and sit with uncomfortable affect.
By contrast, a thin-skinned child whose parents are similarly thin-skinned may result in interactions that only contribute to heighten his reactivity to stimulation and excitability in general.
Clearly, children who are more thin-skinned may have a greater tendency to be reactive with anger. This makes sense, since anger is about a perceived threat as well as a reaction to other negative emotions and knee-jerk appraisals regarding potentially triggering events.
Anger arises when chemicals (neurotransmitters) impact our physiology to cause an increased rate of heartbeat, higher blood pressure, more rapid breathing, etc. These neurotransmitters attach themselves to proteins called receptors and turn them on. When they reach a sufficient number, other proteins are also turned on, then leading to bodily changes. Our genes drive how these interact.
Research during the last decade has found that the relationship between our genes and anger and aggression is quite complex. One study, for example, found that people who are genetically predisposed toward aggression appear to have diminished functioning in the brain regions that help to control emotions (Denson, Dobson-Stone, Ronay, et. al., 2014). They studied the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene, one that has been found to have the most robust association with aggression in humans. Men who are aggressive can have high or low functioning version of this gene. These impact the functioning of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine), which help regulate emotions.
One study suggests that men who have a low functioning version of the gene might be more likely to become aggressive, but only when provoked (McDermott, Tingley, Cowden, et. al.,2009). Research in this area is determined to explore the interactions of genes with brain structure and how they impact our predisposition toward anger and aggression. However, the current perspective is that our genetics can influence our quickness for anger arousal.
Research may become more precise in determining the genetic influence on anger and aggression. And, perhaps findings from such research can lead to biological interventions to better address different forms of anger and aggression.
Why does it matter?
A primary reason for identifying contributions that nature makes is in treatment planning. For example, some anti-epileptic medications have been found to be helpful with intermittent explosive disorder (IEP), a chronic disorder involving intense outbursts that include rage, irritability, and increased energy. Additionally, anti-depressants have also been found to be helpful, as depression is often associated with a greater tendency toward irritability.
Additionally, knowing the belief of clients I work with is also important in treatment. For this reason, I asked Kevin a question I pose to all of my clients – “Why does it matter? What thoughts and feelings arise if you believe it’s caused by nature or if you conclude it is based on nurture?”
Some individuals immediately respond that it doesn’t matter. Others, who have achieved increased honesty with themselves – and with me – share their preference that their anger be based on genetics. “If that’s the case, I feel less responsible for my anger.” “I feel less guilty about my anger.” And, “Then, I believe I can’t change it,” are a few of the typical answers when nature is viewed as the dominant contributing factor.
Others share that viewing nurture as the dominant contributing factor leaves them more hopeful regarding change. They believe that if their past experience shaped them, they can have new experiences to correct for their habits. Certainly, concluding that they do not have any free will keeps many individuals from engaging in the commitment to change.
I’ve also observed that some clients with anger issues seem to hold onto them, as if doing so reflects a sense of loyalty to the angry parent. With or without awareness, it can become a thread of connection, a sense of bonding and camaraderie. This is helpful to explore as this function of anger can strongly compete with the desire for change.
Research and my clinical observation inform me that, like many aspects of our personality, anger consists of a pattern of habits in our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Whether they are grounded in nature or nature or a combination of both, we can develop new habits regarding our reactivity and anger arousal. As with all habits, making a change requires commitment, patience, and time. And, it is a fact that makes some individuals angry, but those who have a genetic predisposition toward anger and aggression may just have to work harder to overcome their reactivity.
It's important to remember that anger is a natural emotion that can be informative if we pause to reflect on it. By doing so, we can better recognize and address the negative feelings behind it, the physical tension associated with it, the distortions of thinking that influence our expectations, and the knee-jerk appraisals we make regarding certain events.
So, while anger is influenced by your genetic history and experience in your early development, you can develop more healthy ways of managing anger for a more fulfilling life. And like Kevin, the first step toward making a commitment to change your anger habits entails having the courage to admit that they contribute to suffering – whether with regard to your relationships, work, or in your daily life.
Denson, T., Dobson-Stone, C., Von Hippel, R., et. al. (2014) A functional polymorphism of the MAOA gene is associated with neural responses to induced anger control. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 26(7), 1418-1427.
McDermott, R., Tingley, D., Cowden, J., et. al. (2009)Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Statess of America Vol 106, No.7, 2118-2123.