What is the cause of anger problems?

Dr. Robert Fraum, Ph.D

Dr. Fraum is a licensed psychologist, marriage counselor, and couples therapist providing anger management counseling in White Plains and New York, NY. He shares clinical insights and academic perspectives on the natural and psychological causes of anger, hostility, rage, and aggression. He explains the psychological process by which angry feelings and aggressive behavior develop into a habit, an anger disorder or even an addiction.

It's hard for us as individuals to take a truly objective view of problematic anger and its causes. Anger and fear are primary, inborn emotions. We take them granted, as a fish takes water for granted. We have been swimming in these feelings all our lives.

Anger, aggression, and violence have plagued humanity throughout history. Philosophers, psychologists and legislators have struggled with the perplexing issue of anger from their various perspectives. Recent advances in neuropsychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology have enhanced our understanding of the cause of anger issues. Clinical psychology has developed new strategies and techniques for the treatment of anger problems.

I would like to help you understand the natural as well as the psychological causes of anger from the modern perspective of psychological science. Accordingly, I will discuss the natural basis of rage and aggression in terms of the fight or flight response. We will list a number of significant etiological factors which have been observed by clinical psychologists and counselors working with anger management issues. Finally, we will outline neurological, cognitive behavioral, and psychodynamic process contributing to the development of an anger disorder.

Psychology of rage and aggression

Evolutionary psychologists inform us that anger and rage are behavioral tools of human survival. The fight-or-flight reaction is hardwired into the brain to help us protect ourselves and those who matter to us. Physiological psychologists have learned that when it is triggered, it causes us to be propelled into a highly focused, energized state.

The upside of anger and rage is that they enable us to better defend ourselves or to frighten off an aggressor. This automatic, protective reaction works well in nature or in war. It is appropriate and useful when there is an actual threat and something worth fighting for.

There is a very unfortunate downside of anger, however. Anger and rage reactions can create enormous problems, especially when we fail to realize when threats are merely psychological and the stakes are not worth fighting about. Here is an example.

James spots his wife, Sarah, just as two criminals are about to knock her down and rob her. She is clearly terrified, like a deer in the headlights.

James is immediately frightened for her safety. He is not a particularly impulsive, angry, or aggressive man. He is not large or athletic. However, in the briefest instant, he becomes completely enraged. He finds himself charging at them, his face red and ugly, roaring profanities, arms flying out to grab them. He scares them off. Sarah feels relieved and grateful.

Later that day, James has just calmed down, but Sarah is still agitated. She had never seen him so angry, and she is taken aback. He does not notice that she is still distressed. She senses this and feels alone in her lingering upset. She suddenly snaps at him and accuses him of foolishly exposing them to assault.

James is stunned. He feels rejected, hurt and criticized. He is like a deer in the headlights and can't speak. Her reproach baffles and then angers him. He curtly dismisses her point of view. Now Sarah feels disregarded and unfairly attacked as well.

They quarrel in an escalating manner, talking past each other. They both feel resentful and misunderstood. James starts to feel helpless and flooded with emotion. He gets up to leave. Sarah feels like he is running away and rejecting her. She jumps up and blocks the way, refusing to let him go.

Now, James feels helpless, flooded and, trapped. Something in him snaps, and he erupts into righteous anger and rage. Sarah becomes terrified and tearful, and James instantly calms down. He is filled with remorse but blames her for his outburst.

When James was rescuing Sarah, he was in a frightening rage… and acted like a hero. An instinctive rage reaction provided the energy and courage he needed to protect his wife from an actual threat. However, a similar anger reaction, when directed at her, was clearly inappropriate and abusive.

This second incident has the potential to be as traumatizing as the earlier one. How can James have acted so aggressively towards the woman he loves?

Both of them were emotionally vulnerable: on edge and physiologically aroused. When Sarah reproached him, he felt disrespected and his sense of self worth plummeted. His emotional pain triggered the same rage response as a real life or death situation. He experienced her as a threat and reacted with anger.

In many cases like this, we mistakenly react out of a psychological hurt or a threat. Psychological triggers include fear of abandonment, rejection or humiliation. Subjective threats to our sense of self worth, pride, or emotional security can mistakenly spark the fight or flight response and cause anger, rage and harmful, aggressive actions.

Psychological history and present clinical state

Anger management psychologists identify a variety of key factors in the development of dysfunctional anger reactions.

  • Negative attitudes towards our self, or negative expectations of others, can increase our sense of vulnerability.
  • Fear of asserting oneself can cause resentment to build into passive-aggressive hostility or rage reactions.
  • Under-developed emotional regulation (ER) skills (e.g., impulsivity) make it harder to contain mounting anger.
  • A psychological history of being unloved, rejected, abandoned, or dominated can prime us for anger responses.
  • A traumatic history of witnessing abuse or being abused can produce an automatic panic or rage reaction.
  • Family or peer role models may teach us to use anger inappropriately: for control, power, payback, or status purposes.
  • The failure of loved ones and friends to provide immediate feedback and appropriate consequences enables patterns of abuse to take root.

In general, any psychological state, physiological condition, or situation which increases stress or reduces self control can indirectly contribute to angry behavior or an actual anger management problem. Examples include alcohol and substance abuse, insomnia, illness, fatigue, emotional overload, overwork, or over-stimulation (flooding), unemployment, underemployment, and burn-out. Chronic pain and anger, depression, and a feeling of self-pity or helplessness tend to go with anger.

How do anger disorders develop?

What is the developmental process by which we go from coping with occasional anger to suffering from an anger control problem or an anger disorder?

Anger management problems develop more easily when we live in a state of anxiety, tension, or depression. These emotions prime us to feel vulnerable. They get us ready to perceive a threat whether actual danger is there or not.

Anger produces a self defeating cycle of harm. For example, it most often starts when our pride is wounded, or we feel emotionally threatened or hurt by people who matter to us. We may react (or retaliate) with anger and inflict harm upon them in turn. This typically results in a negative reaction from others and an inner sense of guilt or shame.

Sometimes we try to justify ourselves by blaming others or circumstances for our behavior. This leads to further harm to our relationships and our self esteem. We feel worse and become angrier. This negative feedback process continues and escalates. From this point forward, hostility, rage, or violence can destroy relationships, marriages, families, and careers.

Why would anyone persist in such painful, self-defeating behavior? The psychology of developing an anger disorder seems convoluted and counter-intuitive. Isn't it a rule of human behavior that we seek pleasure and avoid pain? True, but behavior that is driven by survival instincts appear to be the major exception to the rule.

Anger distorts perception, thinking, and memory

I doubt that many species ever died off through being too careful, anxious, or aggressive. In the interest of survival, nature has biased us prey species towards fearfulness and caution. That is, when we are triggered, we tend to look too keenly for harm, and we tend to over react to signs of danger.

In discussing the psychology of rage reactions, we have seen how a false, subjective or psychological threat can trigger the fight response. So we can misread the significance of a possible threat, react impulsively and without considered judgment, and not recognize it at the time. Adrenaline is flowing and we are primed to run or do something aggressive, if only to scream. This is what can happen when we have a horrible fight with a spouse. Fear and/or anger hijack the brain, impairing our judgment, and skewing perception and memory.

We tend to have an impaired recall of what really happened because our cerebral cortex was briefly offline at the time. In the case of a rage reaction, we may not be able to recall details unrelated to our fear or anger. That makes it easy to deny or rationalize inappropriate and harmful things we may have said or done. Afterward, our anxiety, shame, pride or resentment may make it difficult for us to hear another person's version of the event. So, we under-estimate and fail to appreciate the negative impact of our angry or aggressive behavior on others.

Anger and aggressive behavior tend to relieve stress

When we are upset, in emotional or physical pain, or feel frustrated or threatened, we are in a state of acute stress. When we are stressed like this, anger can temporarily make us feel somewhat better.

When we express anger, it lets us shift from feeling helpless, afraid, depressed, tired, or hurt, if only for a little while. We may immediately experience a sense of energy, relief, focus, or empowerment. This relatively good feeling reinforces the habit of anger.

Addiction to rage, anger, blaming, and self-pity takes root

Each additional instance of angry or aggressive behavior reinforces a mindless fight response. With each repetition of rage, anger reduces the likelihood that we will respond more thoughtfully next time. Self-pity, a form of self-nurturance gone wrong, gradually replaces self-reflection and self-worth. Thus, we make things worse for ourselves and get more and more dependent upon anger for coping with upset feelings.

At times, we may feel low, down on ourselves, or helpless. We may get bored, lazy, or passive. Some people need to get angry in order to get things done. For some individuals, anger can act like a stimulant drug that gets us energized, distracted or jazzed.

Anger can become a habit, but can we properly speak of an anger addition? From a functional point of view, definitely. Like a chemical addiction, addiction to anger:

  • is accompanied by emotional release or relief
  • is compulsive and hard to resist
  • makes one feel better for a little while but worse latter
  • weakens coping skills and self-esteem
  • harms health, relationships, family, and career
  • perpetuates itself through self-pity and denial
  • is hard to give up

Drug dependency and addiction to anger both produce chemical and neurological changes in the brain and get people stuck.

Denial of an anger management issue keeps people stuck

Denial of an anger problem is evident when we refuse to acknowledge what is obvious to people who know us and even to unbiased observers.

We can't solve a problem if we refuse to recognize it. Why do we tend to resist the demand for necessary change? The prospect makes us feel uncomfortable or helpless. For example, we may feel unequipped for the change, or we may be afraid to give up something and try something new.

We may resist facing reality due to a misplaced sense of pride. That is, we don't want to admit that we are "wrong" or have failed ourselves or others in some way. Some people half-way admit to having problems with controlling angry feelings or aggressive behaviors. However, they may try to justify their actions and lay the blame elsewhere. Blaming puts the solution to a problem beyond our power to solve or heal.

We actually may resent legitimate demands that we change, even when it is in our interest to do so. Misguided self justification keeps our sense of injury in focus. Unfortunately, this self-defeating cycle eventually leads to rejection by others. This can lead to self-pity and a victim mentality which further fuels our anger.

Anger management counseling can provide the concepts and tools to replace denial, blame, and victimization with real solutions.

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