Anger Is An Addiction
Which isn’t surprising, since it feels so good — and so dark
We all struggle with at least one demon of the following three: anger, shame, or fear/anxiety… and my fave flavor is fury.
I am an angry person.
Anger is a normal emotion, of course. We all get angry — at ourselves, at situations, at others, at the universe.
But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s “good.” And the problem is that anger is a toxin; a poison — to ourselves even more than others.
Of course, “when used constructively, anger can fuel positive and pro-social action, such as women securing the right to vote,” says social psychologist Carol Tavris, PhD, author of Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion
The problem is that it often isn’t.
As Jean Kim M.D. wrote,
“Anger… contaminates everything.”
Given how ugly anger is, why do we get caught up in it?
Anger doesn’t always look like anger
It comes in many forms. From these “emotion charts,” we know anger can also look like things like sarcasm, criticism, withdrawal, irritation, annoyance, impatience, resentment, jealousy… just to name a few…
In addition, as Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston wrote in The Cow in the Parking Lot, “chronic depression can also be a manifestation of anger that is persistently turned inward or expressed against the self.”
Anger is a poison
In Eastern philosophy, anger (i.e., hatred, hostility, aversion) is considered one of three root poisons that cause suffering (the other two being attachment/greed/desire and ignorance/delusion/confusion.)
Buddhism describes anger as a “golden crest and a poisoned root.” It may seem tempting — it may even feel good in the moment — but it brings more harm than power, to ourselves even more than others.
Anger feels really good
Human neurobiology rewards anger
As Susan Peabody writes,
“Anger releases tension… anger makes you high.”
Jean Kim M.D. agrees,
“In the moment anger feels good, feels like the thing to do. It overrides all other moral and rational brakes in the brain because it originates from our primordial, original limbic system: the brain center of our most automatic emotions like fear and desire… [and] fight-or-flight response.”
Brian Duffy, a Mental Health Counselor, wrote,
“Another potential benefit of being aggressive is that it can feel good. The adrenaline rush may release tension (momentarily).”
In other words: an adrenaline rush. And as Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW writes,
“The neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing a blast of kinetic energy that can last a few minutes. In a counterintuitive way, feeling bad sometimes feels good. Like any addiction, anger can induce discharge of dopamine epinephrine and norepinephrine.”
Dr. Kurt Smith agrees,
“When we experience anger our bodies instinctively go into fight or flight mode. As part of that response adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. This hormone boosts energy and dulls pain among other things.”
In other words: an adrenaline rush.
And as Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW writes,
“The adrenalin rush contributes to a sense of strength and invulnerability.
Our brains register pleasure when these chemicals are doing what comes naturally… and then get reinforced each time we engage in similar behaviors.”
“Anger creates a sense of aliveness.” — Edie Weinstein
Anger boosts ego fragility
“The rush behind anger can be triggered by underlying feelings of weakness or insecurity, a way to feel powerful in the moment... It also helps people feel briefly in control of things they typically have no control over. Unfortunately, the aftermath reinforces… the cycle of insecurity.” — Jean Kim M.D.
As Susan Peabody writes,
“Anger gives you a sense of power… a sense of superiority over others.”
Anger feels comfortable as a method of emotional avoidance
As Susan Peabody writes,
“Anger makes you feel protected from being hurt. It makes you feel safe… Anger keeps people at a distance because you fear emotional intimacy.”
Jean Kim M.D. agrees,
“Unfortunately… anger might become perversely comfortable, might help distract from or escape underlying uncomfortable feelings of emptiness or fear. The rush of drama and conflict feels familiar and produces a destructive intimacy that some might prefer than to confront other darker emotions.”
As Brian Duffy, a Mental Health Counselor, wrote,
“Anger usually emerges when we are facing uncomfortable feelings such as fear, shame, hurt, sadness, embarrassment, etc. It is often chronic and borne out of the fear that we’re not being understood, appreciated, loved or respected. For many, aggression is a mask that hides those uncomfortable feelings.
And as Dr. Kurt Smith wrote,
“Since anger can protect us from getting hurt, or from feeling feelings that we don’t like, it can become a tool to… avoid interactions with other people. This is especially common in intimate relationships and is one of the reasons why it’s most frequently with the people we love where our anger gets out of control.”
He adds that some people “deal with conflict by getting angry and attacking first, rather than waiting to respond to an attack.” They fear vulnerability.
“Anger can protect us from uncomfortable feelings, such as pain, as it covers over other feelings, distracts us from them, and provides a chemical balm to soothe them… we use it as a coping mechanism.” — Dr. Kurt Smith
But — anger is an addiction
Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author, wrote,
“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response… addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission.”
Addictions fall into two categories: “substance” (e.g., drugs) and “process” — e.g., gambling, hoarding, spending, eating disorders, workaholism, co-dependence and, yes, anger.
Jean Kim M.D. wrote,
Anger creates similar “‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.”
As Dr. Kurt Smith wrote,
“People can become addicted to this chemical high, even when it results from anger as opposed to a thrill-seeking sport like skydiving.”
Anger is dangerous
As Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW writes,
“The amygdala is a structure in the brain with the important task of noticing the presence of a physical or emotional threat and then sounding the alarm. The brain is… hijacked, with the possibility of crashing into a mountainside.
Jean Kim M.D. agrees,
“Like other addictions, the final consequences are dangerous and real, and people follow impulses in the moment without regard to the big picture.”
Why do we get angry?
Anger arises when we have an unmet demand.
Sometimes these demands are important and reasonable (like love.) Sometimes they are only reasonable, but unimportant (even if it feels important in the moment, like getting the table you want at a restaurant.) Sometimes they are flat-out irrational (a great example being road rage, or anger at traffic.) And sometimes they are impossible (like wanting to change other people’s behavior.)
In the case of important and reasonable demands, the solution is to articulate our needs (“Don’t be one of those angry people who go around expecting loved ones to read their minds and then get furious when their spoken demand is not divined and met,” writes Scheff and Edminston.)
But the solution isn’t to get all of our demands met — life is not here to do our bidding. Rather, the solution is to understand that sometimes our demands will go unmet and, more specifically, find better ways to meet them.
But, as a Buddhist master would ask,
Why do you choose to suffer?
What should we do with anger? How do we get over it?
Step 1: Admit that you have a problem
“Nothing can change until you acknowledge that you have a problem… you are powerless.” — Susan Peabody
Step 2: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY!
In the Buddhist view, “we are responsible for our buttons.”
Nobody “makes” us angry. We make ourselves angry.
We choose — or “allow” ourselves to — become angry.
As Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston wrote in The Cow in the Parking Lot,
“No one causes us to be angry. Anger is not inevitable. Anger begins and ends with ourselves.”
“The mental scenarios most of us create are a mixture of our view of the world, our view of ourselves, our early conditioning, and habitual ways of responding. They often have little to do with the reality of the present situation. So when our conditioning calls for us to react with outrage to something offensive, we do so, even if our reaction is totally counterproductive. We follow our own script… and we are conditioned to believe that anger is a useful tool in getting what we want.”
We choose anger. Or not.
Step 3: Understand and accept that:
- While anger feels good in the moment, it is in fact deeply illogical and destructive; it “overrides all other moral and rational brakes in the brain… our fight-or-flight response system.” — Jean Kim M.D.
- Anger is similar to other addictions, and the “rush” it delivers is real — but not healthy.
- Anger is a superficial ego boost, “ triggered by underlying feelings of weakness or insecurity, a way to feel powerful in the moment and overcome those feelings” and “helps people feel briefly in control of things they typically have no control over.” — Jean Kim M.D.
- Anger is an emotional cover. “The uncertainty and volatility of anger might become perversely comfortable, might help distract from or escape underlying uncomfortable feelings of emptiness or fear.” — Jean Kim M.D.
- Anger hurts others.
- Anger hurts us first.
- Managing anger is a process, and will take time
Step 4: Mindset
- Accept what you cannot change (and, bonus points: realize how irrational it is to be angry at something you can’t change)
- Develop mindfulness. Build awareness of your emotions as they rise.
- Let it go — and move on. By letting it go, you free yourself.
Step 5: General Actions
- Adopt positive stress coping strategies — humor, exercise, yoga, meditation, vacation, etc.
- Treat other conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD
- Learn alternative behaviors like how to problem-solve constructively
This may not work for everyone, but if it works for you, consider involving and talking with others:
- Discuss tendencies honestly with family and friends
- Attend Rageaholics Anonymous meetings. Talk at closed meetings. Talk with your sponsor.
- Attend therapy for anger management
I also found a number of other tips that I don’t agree with, such as:
- “Write down items and issues that trigger an angry reaction.” I don’t like this tip for two reasons: a.) it asks us to focus and dwell on our triggers and anger, and b.) as the author herself pointed out: “generally, the reasons are surface level and are not always directly correlated to the stimulus.” The problem is never the thing — it’s us.
- “Have a conversation with a symbolic representation of your anger. It could be an animal, like a lion, tiger or bear (oh my) and ask what it wants you to know, so it doesn’t attack.” I mean… I guess.
What to do in the moment of anger:
- Take a breath.
- Acknowledge that you are angry — without fueling or denying it.
- Accept that you are angry — without fueling or denying it.
- Then? Gently set it down and let it go, like dropping a leaf into a stream
- If necessary, take a time out. Step away. If you are in a disagreement with someone, gently tell them that you are doing so. “Much like a petulant two year requires some down time to decompress, so too does an angry adult.” — Brian Duffy, Mental Health Counselor
- Listen to understand
- Seek to understand before being understood and validate their side
- Find common ground
- If necessary, agree to disagree
Avoid: name calling, voice raising, sarcasm, manipulation, threats, etc.
A few questions to remind yourself of:
- In the greater scheme of things, how important is this issue?
- What might this other person be thinking?
- Why do I feel this way? What’s the fear behind this?
- Is my thinking misguided? Misguided thinking often includes words such as “should,” “never,” “always” and “must.”
How do you help someone else who’s angry?
- Recognize that you’re not the problem, and you can’t fix it. This is theirs alone to fix. (Our anger is always ours — see above.)
- Realize that denial, justification, and blame are the biggest obstacles that must be overcome.
- Pick neutral times to talk
- Articulate the way their behavior impacts others
Lifted in part from Scheff and Edmiston:
- Anger feels good — really freaking good. But that doesn’t mean anger is healthy, logical, or right.
- Anger is a destructive emotion
- The first person damaged by your anger is you
- When you act out of anger, you will act irrationally
- You can, if you choose, reduce the amount of anger in your life
- As you reduce anger in your life, you will be happier and more effective
Bonus recommended reading: The Cow In The Parking Lot