Think back to the last time you felt angry. Not annoyed, irritated, or frustrated -- although those are all levels of anger -- but full-on angry. When was the last time you felt rage, the extreme of anger? Depending on the situation you’re thinking of, you might get angry all over again just thinking about it.
Anger is an emotion that’s not widely understood. A fair number of people can tell you that dopamine is the pleasure chemical and oxytocin is our love chemical, but not many could say what hormone is involved in anger. As it turns out, adrenaline, the usual fight-or-flight chemical, and testosterone (for aggression) also serve as the angry chemicals.
At first it may seem odd that fear and anger should share a hormone, but it also happens that anger is the natural response to a threat, a belief (conscious or unconscious, true or false) that something is not right and needs immediate fixing. This is why your heart rate increases, your hands shake, your face gets red, and you might verbally or physically harm the thing or person making you angry.
Let’s say someone hurls an insult at you as you’re walking down the street and minding your own business. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe you would be angry, but why? Why would the opinion, although negative, of an unknown source so immediately upset you? Because it was an attack on your self-esteem and reputation; someone meant to harm you, and very naturally you come to your own defense.
The same thing might happen when you stub your toe or are physically threatened, in which case anger can help you overcome fear and be aggressive. The triggers for anger are not the same for everyone because not everyone feels threatened by the same things or responds to threats in the same way. How you experience anger, or really emotion in general, is one of your more individual aspects, influenced by everything from personality to experience to circumstance to choice.
One thing that’s bound to enrage everyone is injustice. As in our example, the fact that you were attacked while you were minding your own business and not harming anyone makes it unfair that you were attacked at all, and unfairness is part of what contributes to your anger. Injustice is a deviation from right and wrong, an attack on morality and order that protects society at large.
Anger is contagious. Seeing angry faces and hearing angry voices can be enough to make you angry yourself, as in an argument. The thing in debate may not by itself make you angry, but if the other person becomes angry you may also find yourself there just because they are. After this point, you’re both attacking and defending yourselves from each other, and nothing is resolved except that you’re both angry.
Although fight-or-flight is meant to be a positive response, it becomes harmful when it also becomes chronic. Sustained anger can lead to tooth grinding, migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, depression and more. It’s a natural and normally good response carried to harmful extremes that can strain not only our health but our careers and relationships. Over time, you may become so used to feeling or repressing anger that you don’t even know it’s there.
Luckily, dealing with anger is not so poorly misunderstood as the emotion itself. For those in-the-moment flare-ups, taking time for deep breathing and maybe walking away are recommended. It also helps to determine exactly why you’re angry and to express that in a positive way to the person (a set-down conversation) or toward the object (a change in environment, solving the problem). And, as always, finding a way to laugh about it goes a long way, especially if it’s beyond your control.
Whatever you do, don’t repress or indulge it. Anger left unchecked can lead to terrible consequences for yourself and others, and everyone has a breaking point. It may be painful or awkward to deal with it now, but it’ll be even worse later. Emotions are not wisps of cloud that are spent and gone; they can stay with you if you let them.
For more on anger, see Psychology Today, “The Effects of Anger on the Brain and Body” by Hendricks et al., and “10 Facts About How Our Brain Gets Angry.”