• AscendPsychology

Understanding Anger

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

When was the last time you felt angry? Was it today? Was it last week? Do you remember how you felt? I’ll tell you how I felt when I got angry recently. I was to step out and was looking for my mask which seemed to have conveniently disappeared, although I knew I had seen it just an hour before. I was getting more and more annoyed as I had a long list of chores and it was all held up because of my missing mask. I was walking towards my closet to check it for the hundredth time, when suddenly, BAM! I stubbed my smallest toe against the foot of the bed. What followed almost instantaneously was excruciating pain coupled with a burst of anger, and a couple of my choicest swear words. If looks could kill, that bed would’ve disintegrated in a pile of ashes in seconds. It took a few minutes for the pain to subside. And yes, my poor toe was fine after that. The anger too subsided in a few minutes, especially after the mask surfaced from under a pile of clothes. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

So that was my most recent experience of this primary emotion. All of us may experience it a few times a week, under normal circumstances. Anger is characterized by tension and hostility arising from frustration, real or imagined injury by another, or perceived injustice, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA).

An individual may get angry because of various factors - emotional or psychological dissatisfaction, displeasure or irritation. An individual’s inability to achieve certain goals, social criticisms, threat, frustration are all contributing factors. It is also believed that anger may be a secondary response to feeling sad, lonely and even frightened.

Anger is different from, but still a significant activator of aggression, which is behavior intended to harm someone or something. Aggression may or may not be experienced along with anger.

As is the case with other emotions, anger is accompanied by physiological and biological changes. Thus, when you are angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and there is an increase in levels of the energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.

Before you’re even aware you’re angry, the emotion activates the amygdala, which then activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the pituitary gland by releasing corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). The pituitary gland then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) thus activating the adrenal gland. On activation, the adrenal releases stress hormone like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Over time, frequent release of the stress hormone cortisol will cause a decrease in the release of serotonin. Serotonin is what is responsible for keeping us happy. Therefore, a dip in serotonin levels will make us more susceptible to anger and pain. It might make us more aggressive and could consequently lead to depression.

A popular explanation for anger, as described by Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides (2009), is The Recalibration Theory of Anger, which speculates that anger helps the individual to bargain effectively.

According to the theory, stronger men and more attractive women are more prone to anger outbursts, feel more entitled to better treatment, and are more successful in conflicts of interest. They are also more likely to use force to resolve conflicts. Display of anger increases the likelihood that a situation will go in favor of the angry individual. The unfortunate, targeted individual in turn will recalibrate or reevaluate the amount of value they assign to the angry individual’s argument. This may be because they fear the consequences in the event that they are attacked or shunned by the angry individual.

If I were to give you an example, imagine you are seated at the cafeteria and suddenly a well-dressed woman marches upto you and angrily demands that you vacate the table and sit elsewhere. Now, you might have gotten there first and are taken aback by their demand, but you might hastily decide to do as demanded by the woman so as to avoid any potential escalation of the situation. On the other hand, if the same woman had approached you and politely requested that you vacate the table, you may have been more likely to decline. You would not have felt as pressured or obligated to accommodate their request.

Studies show that repressed anger can be harmful to our body and to our mind. Not everyone knows how to manage their anger or how to express it. Repressing anger can lead to mental illnesses including depression and can affect physiological health too. An emotion such as anger will not go away if ignored. Studies indicate that angry and aggressive behaviour that goes unchecked can eventually cause changes to the brain that will decrease the production of serotonin and increase the chances of angry and aggressive behaviour

But anger isn’t always bad. If properly managed, Anger can be used in a positive way. Anger management can be learned and behaviour patterns that lead to such outbursts can be corrected. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one such therapy that has been found to be very useful in managing anger and other behaviors that may be affecting us negatively.


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  2. Shahsavarani, A. M., & Noohi, S. (2015). Explaining the Bases and Fundamentals of Anger: A literature Review. International Journal of Medical Reviews, 1(4), 143-149.

  3. Averill, J. R. (1983). Studies on anger and aggression: implications for theories of emotion. American psychologist, 38(11), 1145.

  4. Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Madmen: An evolutionary perspective on anger and men’s violent responses to transgression. In Potegal, M. Editor (Ed.), International handbook of anger: Constituent and concomitant biological, psychological, and social processes (pp. 361-381). doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_21

  5. Williams R (2017) Anger as a Basic Emotion and Its Role in Personality Building and Pathological Growth:The Neuroscientific, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Front. Psychol. 8:1950. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01950

  6. Society For Neuroscience. (2007, November 7). Brain Chemicals Involved In Aggression Identified: May Lead To New Treatments. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 26, 2020 from https://www.sfn.org/publications/latest-news/2007/11/05/studies-identify-brain

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