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  • Writer's pictureThomas DiBlasi

What is Anger?

Most people can identify anger when they feel it. It’s the feeling that makes you just want to yell at your partner or for some, curl up into a ball and shut down. But few recognize the many components of anger.

Anger is a negative, psychobiological state that is associated with hitting, cursing, yelling, and an increased likelihood for revenge. It typically manifests when someone feels threatened. Historically, this threat was typically life or death, but now we can feel threatened by the potential of losing a relationship, our social status, or a job. And, like all emotions, anger has several components to it: triggers, thoughts, physiological arousal, urges, behaviors, and outcomes.

Triggers. Anything could be a trigger for someone. The color of your seat cushion could be a trigger. A trigger is simply what initiates the anger episode. Typically it is what someone else says or does, but it could also be a computer malfunctioning (“Why doesn’t this damn thing work when I want it to?”) or Siri not understanding you. In fact, the most common anger trigger is someone we like or love. This means that we are most likely to experience anger with the person with whom we are closest

Thoughts. Although a trigger initiates the anger episode, it is not what causes the anger episode. Our thoughts are responsible for our anger. Only we are responsible for our behavior and emotions. Epictetus, a famous Stoic philosopher, once said “Men are not influenced by things, but their thoughts about things.” This beautifully explains the distinction between triggers and thoughts. What some may view as a curse, others might view as a blessing. And even those who originally saw something as a curse may later view it as a blessing. I know several people who were arrested for drunk driving or drug use who originally saw it as a curse, but later said it saved their lives.

The most common thought patterns associated with anger are: demandingness, low frustration tolerance, awfulizing, globalization, blaming, and revenge. I go over each of these thoughts in more detail in another post, but it is important to note that the most common one of these thought patterns is demandingness. Demandingness is believing that someone else should, must, need, or have to do what you want. Take, a person who cuts you off on the road. You might be saying to yourself, whether explicitly or implicitly: “They should not have cut me off. They should have used their blinker.” But in fact, it's not that they must use their blinker, but that we would like for them to use their blinker. Sure, they may encounter consequences for not using their blinker, but people break rules all the time. It doesn’t mean that we are endorsing it, but rather recognizing that just because we think someone must use their blinker doesn’t make it true. I may like for someone to bring me a nice steak lunch every single day (I wait for it everyday, but it never comes), but that doesn’t mean that someone else should do it. When we use should, must, need, or have, we are attempting to control how someone else lives their life and not accepting reality - which is that people do what they want, not what we think they should do.

Physiological arousal. Physiological arousal is your body’s reaction to anger. It is typically associated with increased heart rate, muscle tension, and sweating. Most people do not realize their physiological arousal when they are angry, and thus find it difficult to recognize that their body is telling them that they are angry.

Urges. When we are angry we often have action urges. Typically it involves a desire to hit, yell, curse, or drive aggressively. Sometimes we give into these impulses without thinking. The most common anger urges we have are often negative, and thus, it is important to be aware of our urges so that we don’t give into them.

Behaviors. Anger often manifests in one of three ways: anger-in, anger-out, and anger-control. Anger-in is exactly what it sounds like. It is bottling up your anger to the point that you explode. Anger-out would be releasing your anger, whether by yelling, cursing, or hitting someone or something. Lastly, anger-control would be moderating your anger. Maybe you feel enraged, an 80 out of 100 (100 being the angriest you could feel), but instead are operating as if you are agitated (50 out of 100) because that is most in line with your values and goals. You are trying to not let your anger get the best of you.

Outcomes. Outcomes can be both positive or negative and short-term or long-term. The most common outcome associated with anger is positive short-term and negative long-term. We typically get what we want when we are angry. It might feel good to flip off the driver who just cut you off or try to prove that you are right. The problem is that among other things, it hurts our relationships along the way, thus leading to negative long-term outcomes.

An important step in anger management is noticing the different components of anger. We can’t begin to change these components if we don’t notice them. As such, there are effective interventions for each component. A professional and you can discuss which treatments will work best for you.

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