Anger Is A Misunderstood Emotion: New Ways to Think About

by Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT, LCDC-Intern

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Anger has been misunderstood. Seen as something to avoid or scary.

Anger has gotten a bad rap. Many of my clients describe it as something to avoid, as scary, or destructive. I get where this comes from. All we have to do is think of an example in our lives where someone lost it when they got angry and we felt scared. Maybe you were a child and had an angry parent. You were vulnerable and if the angry outbursts weren’t unpredictable this just increases the fear. Or maybe your parents didn’t get angry and you learned this is something you hold in and don’t talk about. In either case, you weren’t given tools or shown through role modeling on how to handle this emotion which can be strong. It’s an emotion that many describe with a lot of force. It can cause harm like anything when we express it without being able to regulate ourselves. It’s how anger is expressed that makes the difference.

Anger can help us, but it can also be harmful.

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These examples of anger coming out in harmful ways are usually the result of anger that has been repressed. Think of it like a volcano or pressure cooker that slowly builds up over time. When we deny that we are angry to keep the peace, because it’s scary, or we don’t feel we have a right to be upset then it will slowly accumulate over time. Each time we are hurt or our boundaries are violated then we naturally will be upset and this can cause us to feel frustrated, upset, or angry. If we don’t do anything to speak up or stand up for ourselves then we will feel powerless to effect change and resentment will build up.

Holding in our anger can lead to resentment and depression.

Sometimes feeling this resentment is preferred to feeling the anger, but at some point it will build to the point that it are comes out. When it does we not only bring up the certain hurt, but the past hurts as well. It is often very hard on our relationships. If this happen frequently, it can cause damage that we may not be able to recover from. Repressed anger can also cause us to become depressed when we feel we are powerless to make a change.

There is another way! It doesn’t have to be like this. We can learn to have a different relationship with our anger. First, a little background on emotions and why we even have them in the first place.

messenger

Emotions are like messengers. They help give us information and alert us.

Anger has many things to tell us and alert us to. Naturalist Charles Darwin believed that emotions are adaptations that allow both humans and animals to survive and reproduce. When we are angry, we are likely to confront the source of our irritation. When we experience fear, we are more likely to flee the threat. When we feel love, we might seek out a mate and reproduce.

Emotions serve an adaptive role in our lives by motivating us to act quickly and take actions that will maximize our chances of survival and success. Before modern civilization, we as humans used to have to worry about the tiger that could attack our village at night. Our brains are geared first and foremost for survival. Most of us no longer have to worry about the actual tiger, but we do have certain threats, often emotional, that we do deal with on a regular basis.

nervous system

Anger can help to protect us. It also helps us to know when our boundaries have been violated. It gives us the energy to stand up for ourselves and set limits. It gets our adrenaline pumping. It energizes us. It helps us to spring into action to protect ourselves from a physical or emotional attack. Why do we do feel anger? Anger has a lot do with thinking. We are thinking of a rule or a deal in a situation. We think that a certain rule has been violated or a promise not held.

Let’s say you went to get you get your oil change in your car and the technician didn’t actually change the oil. You found because your car began to develop some issues. You get angry. Did you know that the reaction of our body to anger and fear are very similar? The released neurotransmitters are almost the same in both feelings. If you decide to panic and run away or get aggressive and want to fight, this reaction has to do with your thoughts.

However, scientists also state that there are some characteristic physiological differences, too. For example, anger raises our body temperature, whereas fear leads to its reduction.

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We are now starting to understand how anger can help us and how we came to have this particular emotion. But what helps us to manage our anger? Why don’t we all lash out when we experience it?

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The answer is our prefrontal cortex!  The prefrontal cortex is the region in your brain which enables you to control your emotions. It gives you the ability of judgement and problem solving. The amygdala is the survival part of our brain that gets triggered and can send us into fight, flight, or freeze. The prefrontal cortex has the ability to calm the amygdala down and help us manage the fight, flight, or freeze. But sometimes we are overloaded and overwhelmed and our prefrontal cortex isn’t able to help us. Here’s a video that breaks down how our this part of our brain works in simple, easy to understand language.

In part 2 of this blog post, How to Manage Our Anger, I will discuss ways to help us manage our anger so we can get at the root of this feeling.

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Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT, LCDC-Intern is a Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor-Intern at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene works with individuals, couples, and families. She can help you gain more understanding and tools to manage your anger and develop a new relationship with it. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.