In our society, anger is considered a negative emotion. As children we are taught that we should not get angry. But the truth is that anger is a feeling of defense, is present in conflictual situations and is activated when we think of being treated unfairly, when we feel hurt or when something doesn’t go as we would like.
In fact, anger is a powerful emotion that has a strong dynamic effect. That is, it gives us the motivation and the necessary strength to fight against what we consider unjust or threatening, in order to protect ourselves.
Therefore, the anger itself is not bad, if we don’t grasp it, because in this case it can be very dangerous, even for ourselves. However, what is really dangerous is aggression.
What differentiates anger from aggressivity?
To understand the difference between anger and aggressivity we have to keep in mind that anger, like all emotions, provides three types of reactions.
1. Physical. Our body is activated for the defense or the attack: the heart rate increases, our breathing speeds up, muscles are stretched and blood flow is activated. It is a state of excitement that predisposes us to act impulsively, because the amygdala takes control of the situation and can produce an “emotional hijacking”, meaning it “turns off” the control of the frontal lobes. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Chicago revealed that people who have anger problems show an overactive amygdala, which leads them to respond impulsively, without thinking.
2. Cognitive/emotional. This is our interpretation of the situation, the emotional value and the meaning we give it. Thus, emotions are a function of our thoughts, so that when a situation is interpreted as an obstacle, an injustice, abuse or disrespect, we get angry. Thoughts like “it’s intolerable” or “how dare you treat me this way?” feed anger and increase the chances that we lose control and react aggressively.
3. Conductual. When we experience anger our instinctive reaction is to defend ourselves. Therefore, an internal energy is created that drives us to destroy the obstacle that is generated. Aggressivity is one of the several ways to express anger, and also one of the most destructive. But there are other behaviors that solve the problem without using aggressivity.
Why do we lose control?
If you get angry and often lose control reacting aggressively, it is likely that the problem is in the interpretation of the situation. The key may lie in the way your brain processes situations.
A study by neuroscientists at the University of Chicago found that white matter in a brain region called the arcuate fasciculus has a lower density and volume in people who suffer from intermittent explosive disorder compared to “normal” individuals.
This region is responsible for connecting the frontal lobe, responsible of decision making, emotional control and the consequences of actions, with the parietal lobe, where are processed language and the sensory information. In practice, it is the highway which is linking these parts of the brain.
In addition, the white matter is important because promotes the connection and transmission of information in the brain. Therefore, what these researchers have found is that the brains of people who are prone to anger is “wired” differently.
This could be the reason why people who have anger problems tend to misunderstand the intentions of others in social interactions. They think that others are hostile, and draw the wrong conclusions about their intentions. This misinterpretation further increases their anger.
It is also shown that these people are not able to process all the details of social interactions, such as non-verbal language, or a few words. In practice, they only perceive the signals that reinforce their belief that the other person is challenging them. So they respond aggressively in situations that others would consider neutral.
The problem in the connection between these lobes of the brain affect the processing of social situations, leading these people to misunderstand the little clues sent by people in social interactions.
How to learn to manage anger
Getting angry is not negative. In fact, we must pay attention to this emotion and reflect on its origin. The key is learning to manage our emotional reactions, cognitive and behavioral.
So if you often get angry and lose control, the first step is to ask yourself if you’re misinterpreting the signals sent by the others. If we think that the world is conspiring against us, we will probably see only the negative signals, ignoring the positive ones.
In fact, it has been noticed that people who are often angry tend to have great emotional outbursts, but the truth is that during the day they usually remain constantly in a state of irritability and frustration, which turns them into real time bombs ready to explode at the slightest provocation.
Lee, R. et. Al. (2016) White Matter Integrity Reductions in Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology.
Coccaro, E. F. et. Al. (2007) Amygdala and orbitofrontal reactivity to social threat in individuals with impulsive aggression. Biological Psychiatry; 62(2): 168-178.