"Anger doesn't happen in a vacuum," says Dr. Ryan Martin, anger researcher at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
Anger arrives with other emotions. Anger is how we are feeling in that moment plus whatever is provoking our anger. This equation has everything to do with the level of anger we express.
The results from a provocation like being stuck in traffic, combined with a pre-anger state like anxiety are dependent upon our appraisal of the situation. Is this good or bad? Is this fair or unfair? How unfair is this?
Our ability to cope or emotionally regulate what is provoking our pre-anger state is what determines the intensity of our anger. And it looks like this: Can we cope? Yes. Then expressed anger is less explosive. Can we cope? No. Then the anger is a full on dumpster fire.
Dr. Ryan Martin would say, anger is good. Anger alerts us to injustices. More importantly anger causes a physiological response that energizes us to confront injustices. Anger is a super effective messenger used to create great sweeping changes that require us to get mad first, then channel that anger into productivity. Our ability to emotionally regulate our anger is what enables us to get shit done. Use the anger as a cue. I am angry. What is unjust about this situation? Let's fix it. Listen. Then channel toward change. Awesome.
But what does anger look like neurologically?
"Anger actually looks a lot like fear in the brain," says, Dr, Jason Cowell, cognitive neuroscientist at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. In his research Dr. Cowell asks, is anger a unique emotion? Not really. Physiologically it looks a lot like fear. Both result in an almost immediate reaction - fight or flight - an immediate response to a threat in the environment. It is such a primitive survival response that a fight or flight response will still occur even if you remove the forebrain - which is everything up top - think grey matter.
Anger causes an automatic reaction in the body. It sparks a physiological arousal - sweat, raised heart rate, red face, blood constricting in certain areas, digestion slowing down. etc. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second imaginable. What is so fascinating is that we don’t know the cause of this physiological reaction in neurological terms. The response to anger is a circuit. A threat causes the spark and the response goes through the circuit. The choices are run or to fight. Mostly we respond with fight. That's anger. Fear is run. And why the body sees them as being so similar. Imagine emotion is a highway and anger is one exit and fear is the very next exit. Like so close that it gets confusing. The threat response is anger and fear. And this starts in the brainstem and subcortical areas and hypothalamus. Then to midbrain. it's a circuit that the body runs through. Unique to humans are other sets of anger responsive pathways that go into the cortex and amygdala.
So here’s the cool part. For animals, threat comes and goes. Literally see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Animals cannot experience a fight or flight response without an immediate threat present. Their stress comes during the threat and then it disappears. Here’s what stinks. Unique to humans, we can continue to perceive a threat even after it is not present. Humans can recreate it and experience the full physiological response. Enter trauma. Early and often stressful and negative experiences in infants and children yield a different anger and stress response. The nature of their hippocampus (memory and reflection - should I feel angry or stressed) the neurons that would tell the rest of the body are killed off by the excess stress and the body cannot regulate the stress. Trauma creates more susceptibility to trauma. In a normative population anger is a complex response immediately coupled with your ability to understand the context. This is what we call emotional regulation.
So where does emotional regulation start? Let’s take it back to infancy for a second.
Anger is one of the first big emotions we feel. Imagine being an infant. Infancy is some seriously brave shit. There's a reason why we do not explicitly remember it, although interestingly enough our experiences there impact everything going forward. Infancy is hard. Like really hard. We are suddenly born into a world we don't know. Separate as a being for the first time. Pushed or pulled out of our warm resting place of oneness with a mother in what is normally a very long and arduous process. Even the fastest most drama free births are enormously stressful for the infant. Suddenly, whatever we knew comes to an end. We are faced with a person, people whom we have no choice but to trust in order to feed us and keep us alive. Our survival instinct is in high gear. We might recognize voices, make connections between what we heard inside and what exists now, but on the inside all of our needs were automatically met. Mom and infant are one. Mom never disappoints. But now mom and infant are separate. The opportunity for miscommunication and disappointment are endless. And it feels awful and is a totally unfair test of the caregiver. But, here we are.
This mending and figuring out that the infant is faced with is the beginning of what psychoanalysts call Object Relations. How we internalize the objects - the people and things that we first come into contact with. So much to say on this theory. More on this later, but if you are curious now, check out Melanie Klein.
As infants we engage in what psychoanalysts refer to as healthy protest. We cry, kick, scream, rage, because it is all we've got. When we are faced with a threat, there is no flight. Let that gem sink in for a minute. There is nowhere for us to go, so we need to fight to stay alive. We need to communicate what we want and get it right. We soon find out that erupting in anger is a good way to let everyone know something's not quite right. That an injustice abounds, even if it is a wet diaper or hunger.
The interesting thing about the caregiver response is that it doesn't need to be perfect to effectively help the infant internalize positive object relations. Winnicott famously coined the good enough mother, but when these needs and the fight response anger are not met in a good enough way, our experience is internalized in a myriad of unhelpful ways. This is what Dr. Cowell refers to as a weakening of the neurons that respond to stress. And this comes out in all sorts of behaviors as adults. So, if neuroscientists relate anger and rage as being quite similar in the brain, what's the actual difference?
In my mind, it's stress. According to psychoanalysis, we all exist on a continuum. One end is the psychotic, or more stressed, and the other the neurotic or less stressed. The terms here are completely outdated, but hear me out. Rage is very much what we see in infants who cannot flee. They must fight, their survival depends upon it. The same is true for an adult experiencing rage. Stress and their accompanying emotion is intense and they are being pushed more toward their psychotic end of the spectrum. We all fall prey to this sometimes. Rage actually looks a lot like what we see in psychosis. An inability to regulate emotion, a strong attachment to concrete thought, confusion and a very real loss of control. In this state we cannot regulate well enough to clearly communicate who we are feeling to others. The anger feels life threatening and the only way we can communicate our fear, anger, and anxiety is to show people. Rage is scary because it needs to be. The person experiencing it is terrified. And they need us to know that.
For more on RAGE listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 4 with Sharon Zimmerman