Angry people can seem strong, frightening, dominant. So it isn’t obvious that behind that tough, aggressive mask could be hiding an anxious, vulnerable person.
Everyone these days has heard of fight or flight syndrome, the legacy of evolution which begins when certain sections of the brain light up in response to a perceived threat, triggering the release of the hormone adrenalin (or epinephrine) into the blood. This puts the body into turbo mode, ready to rumble or run.
But these days most of us aren’t fighting marauding mammoths. The threats we perceive are more likely to involve economic insecurity, relationship challenges and the constant struggle to hold our own in a confusing and fast-changing world.
Therefore the old biological response is no longer appropriate. We have to control those physical impulses or risk getting locked up. So millions of us are walking round bottling up huge amounts of stress and anxiety, and it isn’t surprising if this leaks out in the form of angry outbursts.
The angry face can even become a coping mechanism, warning others to back off and not challenge the anxious person within.
Anger can also comfort the sensitive “inner child” from life’s knocks, as another hormone, norepinephrine, acts as a painkiller. And focusing on an external object or “cause” of your anger – whether it’s the government, your partner, your boss or that other driver – can distract you away from that inner hurt you were feeling.
So almost always, anger is a secondary emotion. It’s triggered by fear or hurt, although it can happen so fast that often we don’t realize this. And it can become an ingrained pattern, our habitual way of dealing with the world.
Okay, so what can we do about it? Well, awareness is the first step to change, so try to become aware of what’s going on in your life and gradually learn not to buy into it too much.
Take care of your psychological needs, lifestyle and body. Learn to be assertive, not submissive, in asking for your legitimate needs to be met. This will help prevent anger building up inside, ready for an explosion.
Calm your thinking through meditation or mindfulness – classes are now widely available. Check out positive thinking techniques or cognitive therapy to change old mental habits, and consider working with a counsellor or therapist.
Look after your body through healthy diet, exercise and relaxation, and be sure to build regular time-out into your schedule.