The process of anger
Anger is one letter short of danger.
Anger is a primeval survival strategy. With fear, it is part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. Anger energises us and gives us the will to act against a perceived wrong. It is a natural reaction to real or imagined
- Physical (or emotional) threat to ourselves or our group (familial or working)
- Threat to our self-esteem or place within a group
- Defeat (actual or imminent) in competition for resources
- Violation of a principle or belief system.
Values are violated when a code of behaviour is breached (or the psychological contract is broken). This often underlies anger about organisational change.
We all have different triggers, but whatever the content, most are some form of being
- Assaulted or insulted,
- Treated unfairly, uncaringly, unkindly or with disdain
and consequently feeling
- Ignored or belittled
- Let down or lied to
- Having our authority, feelings or property disregarded.
Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way... that is not easy.
Since the dawn of time, survival has meant keeping alert for danger and threats. ‘Is that shadow under a bush actually a sabre-toothed tiger?’ So we constantly make meaning of everything going on around us: safe/not safe?
In fight-or-flight events, spotting a threat prompts a negative thought which sparks the physical/chemical preparation for fight (raised blood pressure, adrenalin levels and so on), so we can take action. We’re hard-wired to decide in an instant to attack or run.
Anger management in the moment is about making the most of that instant – remembering at that flash point that you do still have a choice. It’s about lengthening that instant to give yourself enough time to think rationally and see the wider picture. In terms of this article, it’s about taking time to realise that you absolutely must not fight and that you are not being paid to take flight, either! So you need to find out why the other person is angry and respond appropriately.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
How do you react to being cut-up on the road? Maybe:
‘That driver cutting-in was dangerous. They’re out to get me. I must get them back’.
We’ve all been there. You’ve been provoked, so you retaliate. Maybe you up the ante just a little, because deep-down, you want to punish the transgressor. Should you be surprised if they do the same back?
Retaliation is no doubt very satisfying in the moment, but it tends to rebound. In a business context, exploding is front of key clients won’t help secure their business. Take the road-rage example. You give chase and, before you know it, you’re in a fight or accident, and under arrest. In a work example, you retaliated to some back-stabbing; you’ve come to blows and been sacked for gross misconduct.
The option of nursing your resentment is less likely to get you arrested or sacked, but your negative feelings may simmer away until you reach boiling point and explode anyway. That way, you’ve got to feel bad for a long time and then you suffer the consequences of the previous option anyway.
Even if you never actually reach boiling point, your suppressed anger will gnaw away at your vitals, sucking out the joy in life and eroding your wellbeing. Anger is literally indigestible, being associated with physical ailments, such as gastro-intestinal problems, colds, flu, high blood pressure, strokes and cancer, and mental issues, such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. There is some evidence that people who are chronically angry die younger and are six times more likely than others to die of a heart attack.
Yet anger need mean neither retaliation nor passivity. Anger can be a powerhouse of energy with which you may achieve remarkable results. The related activity provides a healthy outlet for the emotion and for the associated physical and chemical effects that may otherwise cause you long-term harm.
So feeling angry from time to time is an inevitable and necessary part of life, but it has significant risks. More importantly, you can learn simple techniques to manage and channel it to positive ends. (For more, see Managing your own anger.)