Risk Factors for Anger
Anger is a puzzling emotion for most people. Some describe it as a pleasant, empowering sensation that makes them feel good and in control, while others find it upsetting and overwhelming.
Anger is a normal emotion we experience at times. It becomes a problem when it is a prevalent presence in someone’s life. Some of the signs that anger is a problem include being in a bad mood and irritated frequently, snapping at others easily, having blow-ups, or making sarcastic comments, having judgmental thoughts, and blaming others for our own problems. This is the time when one needs to take active steps in learning how to manage anger properly.
At this point, the obvious question we may ask ourselves is what makes some people more susceptible to anger, while others are able to remain calm and composed in similar situations?
Most people tend to answer this question by using willpower. Willpower refers to our belief that if we are strong enough, we can overcome anything. We hear this in statements such as, ‘ Don’t let people get to you so much. They should not have as much power over you and your feelings as you let them have.’ Or, ‘I don’t understand why you get angry over little things.’
These statements are neither helpful nor true. Anger is not a conscious choice we make. We do not let people or situations intentionally get to us. Instead, they affect us when we are already overwhelmed, tired, under a lot of pressure, and unable to manage all the life demands we face. In short, stress nullifies our willpower. Statements implying we should use willpower as a way to control anger are discouraging and misleading. When ‘willpower’ inevitably fails us, most people internalize these failures to mean something is wrong with them. Their self-esteem plummets, and they feel flawed and inadequate.
Anger is part of the fight-flight mechanism (as we discussed in previous sections). It is an automatic response generated by our limbic system when a situation or person is perceived as a threat or unsafe. This process happens outside of our conscious awareness, and cannot be controlled with logic and reasoning - which are conscious dependent. All the sensorial information the brain receives through its five senses are constantly analyzed by our limbic system through an automatic process. We are not consciously aware of this. The result of this sensorial analysis results in two outcomes: 1). we feel safe, or 2). we feel under threat. If something is perceived as a threat than we feel our body becoming tense (clenched jaw or fists, muscles tightening or twitching), our breathing and heart rate increases, and our vision and all other senses becoming heightened or sharper (sounds appear louder, the smell is perceived more intense, and light and color seem stronger). This is the time when the frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for talking, reasoning, and logical thinking) goes off-line. This means that we lose the ability to think clearly, to be rational and logical, to understand the difference between right and wrong, and to identify these changes in our body as they are happening. In the absence of the executive function of the frontal cortex, our behavior is directed by the limbic system therefore we react instinctually and impulsively. This means we will do anything to protect or defend through behaviors encoded in our psychological make-up. Usually these behaviors are not typical or characteristics of our personality or character.
Since anger is not related to our willpower or character, I have compiled a list of factors that increase a person’s risk to have or develop anger problems.
1. History of Childhood Abuse
Children that grow up in abusive households are more prone to having anger issues during adulthood. There are several reasons why this happens. All forms of abuse prevent children from developing a necessary sense of safety, and they constantly live in the fight/flight mode. They survive their childhood but they do not get the chance to live it. Abused children grow up with a deficit of proper emotional coping mechanisms. They also have a hyper-reactivity to physical or emotional threats. As adults, these children tend to feel threated by otherwise benign or manageable situations. Often, their first assumption is that other people are out to hurt them. They see the world as a scary, unsafe place. It is common to hear them say ‘If I could not trust my parents, how can I trust a stranger?’
Abusive homes prevent children from having a healthy, normal childhood. These children mature too early. They develop codependent traits by learning to focus on others and not themselves. They feel more comfortable meeting the needs of others but are unable to recognize their own needs. Abuse also changes our perception of emotional pain. In the absence of security, we don’t experience love and we don’t know how to express it, or receive it. We learn to bury the pain in order to survive daily life, and anger is a common form of hiding this pain.
2. Early Trauma
Trauma takes two forms: chronic and acute. Chronic trauma is an ongoing and prolonged exposure to stressful situations such as domestic violence, sexual/emotional/physical abuse, or poverty. Acute trauma represents those single big events that shatter our view of the world, other people, and our sense of safety. Some examples include: witnessing someone die, losing a parent or sibling, divorce, tragic accident, or natural disasters.
Think of trauma as a hyper-level of stress. During episodes of intense stress, the brain is exposed to an increased amount of hormones (particularly adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine). A young brain is not equipped to manage these hormones and can permanently change its structure. These changes lead to a pattern of reactivity in which the body and the mind do not relax (therefore living in an ongoing fight/flight mode). An ongoing flight/fight mode that never gets turned off permanently damages our ability to self-regulate.
3. Being in an Abusive Relationship
Abusive relationships are defined by intense conflict and extreme reactivity. Both partners tend to engage in a dynamic that festers tension and high conflict. They live in an ongoing state of being hurt and inflicting pain on each other. Anger is how most people cope with the emotional pain in this/these situation(s). If the tension does not find a healthy resolution, anger becomes a constant state of being.
4. Emotional, Mental, and Physical Exhaustion
Life can be fairly demanding for most of us. From managing busy lives to dealing with financial difficulties, most of us are pulled in multiple directions at once. This translates into being faced with an overwhelming level of responsibility that is compacted into a small frame of time. This stress is draining which depletes our energy each day. It taxes our motivation and reduces our hope for the future. Most of us end up feeling trapped in our daily routine, losing the motivation to get up and be productive. This leads to a pervasive sense of exhaustion. Most people who experience this fatigue, either physical or existential, discover that getting angry gives them a boost of energy and motivation. This energy is linked to the physiological changes that happen in our body once the adrenal glands release adrenaline in our system.
5. Unresolved Emotional Pain
Throughout life we all experience emotional pain. Whether this is caused by other people, our personal inability to adapt to new changes and life transitions, or by losing important relationships, dreams, hopes, and/or abilities (whether physical, emotional, cognitive). We all cope with pain in different ways. Emotional pain becomes a problem when the individual is unable to address it either because they repress it (unaware of the pain) or suppress it (denying that they have emotional pain). A common belief is that if ignored, it will go away. In reality left unaddressed emotional pain gets worse with time as our tolerance to it decreases. It tends to come out in our dreams through nightmares or insomnia, or when under a lot of stress or pressure. This is where most of us describe it as a permanent weight on our shoulders. By keeping it bottled up we create even more pain, overall negative emotions, inability to experience happiness, and emotional burnout. The result is often short temper that we recognize through a low tolerance to pain and frustration, lack of emotional availability, and increased reactivity to stress, tension, or conflict.
6. History or Predisposition Towards Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are two similar emotions that differ on a single characteristic. Fear is what we experience when we face a real threat, and anxiety is fear experienced when the threat is perceive or imagined. An example of a ‘real threat’ is when an aggressive dog is about to attack you. Imagined threat is any worry thought or ‘what if” thought (what if I lose my job, I cannot pay rent, or I will get sick). If we think we are in a dangerous situation, our body immediately goes in the fight/flight mode. If someone is prone to, or has a history of anxiety, they have very stressed lives, and constantly live in the fight/flight mode.
7. Guilt and Shame
Guilt and shame are two emotions that negatively impact our mental health. They affect our energy level and alter our self-image. Guilt refers to feeling bad about something we have done (a behavior), while shame is feeling bad about who we are (our self). Guilt can be a normal, grounding emotion that allows us to know and respect limits. It helps us recognize what is a healthy and unhealthy behavior. It tells us when we need to reconsider our actions and behavior, but also to pay attention to how we impact others.
However, too much guilt can be debilitating and tends to be linked with shame. Shame is a heavier emotion, usually with destructive consequences. Since it affects our self-worth (feeling inadequate, unworthy, as a bad, unlovable person), we keep it concealed. We don’t talk about it. This will eventually lead to social and emotional isolation from others, depressed feelings, and anger.
We experience two types of stress: eustress (also known as healthy, positive stress) and distress (bad stress). While eustress is what gets us out of the bed every morning and motivates us to be proactive and meet personal/life goals, distress is the overwhelming tension, worry, and anguish that can be debilitating and paralyzing. The later form of stress affects our health, shortens our life span, and makes us live in an ongoing state of tension. It kills our productivity, creativity, and curiosity. As a result of too much stress, people tend to have a short temper, get easily irritated, and have limited tolerance for others.
Fatigue can manifest itself either through being physically tired and unable to find motivation to be active, and/or feeling mentally overwhelmed and unable to manage multiple life demands. This is a fairly common symptom in clients that experience depression. In the absence of mental or physical energy, this draining feeling makes it difficult to function, attend to daily responsibilities, or deal with challenges (personal and/or work related). This can predispose someone to getting frustrated and irritated. Frustration and irritation are two major anger precursors. When irritated, we activate the sympathetic system by releasing adrenaline in our body. Adrenaline increases our body’s energy level and tolerance to pain. This is a temporary fix for generating an immediate surge of energy. However, over long term, this solution leads to more anger.
Summary of Risk Factors for Anger
Please know that each of these risk factors does not cause anger on its own. The presence of these factors increases the risk of having anger problems at some point in our life. The more risk factors we have the more likely we are to respond with anger to daily challenges.
These nine risk factors can be used as a practical self-inventory tool for anyone who is struggling with anger, or have been told by others that they have a ‘hot temper.’ It can be used daily to increase emotional self-awareness. The more self-awareness we possess, the more capable we become of managing our anger and coping with stress.