All about Anger

It should be a matter of great concern to all of us that there is so much anger in the world today. If we turn on the TV, we can witness lot of anger-mongering, if I could use such a term. We can see journalists snapping questions at politicians and politicians responding with anger. If we turn to social media, we will notice people seething and roiling in rage. It has come to a stage when people seem to be very comfortable in using aggressive and offensive language to deride people who do not subscribe to their point of view. It is becoming apparent that the traditionally admired trait of ‘quiet reflection’ is a thing of the past.

It is now common for people to get outraged by just about everything under the sun. Outrage is the new drug of choice, a drug that numbs, at least temporarily, the discomfort associated with some or other problematic aspects of our lives.

Let us examine what this anger really is. Anger is our brain’s way of signalling to us that something is not quite right. Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. We could be angry at a specific person such as a co-worker or a supervisor. We could also be angry due to an event like a traffic jam or a cancelled flight. Our anger could also be caused by worrying or brooding over our personal problems. Memories of the traumatic experiences and enraging events of the past can also trigger angry feelings in us.

It is often said that love and anger go together. How many times have we felt angry at someone we love? I suspect the answer would be “quite often”. This might seem paradoxical but it is not. When we are attached to another person, we do care deeply about them. We want them to do well and act well. If they do, we will feel the positive emotions of respect, admiration and love. Conversely, we don’t want them to step out of line and do wrong. If they do, we are bound to feel the negative emotions of anger, resentment and indignation.

We almost always feel that our anger is justified. However, other people may see it differently.  Unfortunately for us, the social judgment of our anger can create real consequences for us. If our superiors feel that our anger towards a customer is not justified, our job may be at stake. If our spouse feels that our anger is not justified, we could face domestic disharmony. We witness many cases in our daily lives where an angry person feels justified in committing an aggressive action, but the judge or jury of peers do not see it that way resulting in painful consequences to the angry person.

Understandably, Buddhist philosophy looks at anger as an enemy of reason that interferes with our rational self-control. This characterization that anger takes over our minds and clouds our reason, is made explicit in The Dhammapada’, one of the most famous Buddhist texts which goes on to say 

‘Whoever controls his anger, Is like a true charioteer.
In command of the rolling chariot And not just holding the reins’

Thiruvalluvar, the noble sage of Tamil Nadu, offers the same advise on Anger in his ‘Thirukkural’

“To protect yourself, curb your anger. Otherwise, anger will destroy you”. 

(thannaith thaan kaakkil chinam kaakka kaavaakkaal thannaiye kollum chinam)

 [Kural 305]

In Hinduism, akrodha is considered a virtue and a desirable ethical value recommended to be practised. When there is cause for getting angry but even then there is absence of anger, such a state of mind is called akrodha or non-anger. Akrodha also requires one to remain calm even when provoked or insulted or rebuked.

Atharva Veda has this advice on putting up with angry people. “All cruel words from angry person should be endured. No anger should be directed in turn towards one who is angry. Only soft words should be spoken, even when violently pulled by another”.

Research has established that Vedic mantra chants are energy-based sounds and vibrations and these can be leveraged to enter a deep state of meditation. Such chants are also believed to awaken the body’s natural healing mechanisms and thus help treat physical and mental illnesses. A research study published in ‘The International Journal of Indian Psychology’, reveals that the situational anger and anxiety of participants in the study reduced significantly after they listened with concentration to the Vedic chanting for an hour. The study concludes that the practice of merely listening to the Vedic chanting attentively can calm down the mind and keep the listener’s levels of anxiety and anger under check.

The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum also advises us to get beyond anger both in private and public life. She points out that a desire for payback is unfortunately a core issue of anger. Anger is a combination of a sense of being wronged and a strong desire to retaliate. She goes to the extent of saying “If you don’t feel the wish to get your own back, what you are experiencing probably isn’t anger”.

Nussbaum argues that although getting angry is a deeply human trait, it is “fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world and is a stupid way to run one’s life”. She uses the example of Nelson Mandela, who, despite his almost three decades of imprisonment, managed to avoid the anger trap once he was released. He focused instead on truth and reconciliation with emphasis on forgiveness rather than revenge.

Anger, clearly is not necessary as a form of motivation. We can all think of examples of individuals, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who achieved social change through peaceful means, without giving way to any feelings of anger. Anything anger can do, love and reason can arguably do better. 

We need to be wary of people taking advantage of debilitating effects of anger in others. That is how Mohammed Ali tried to provoke George Foreman by taunting him in the boxing ring. Ali realized that anger was Foreman’s greatest weakness. When Foreman became angry, he became reckless, threw too many punches, tired himself out and let his guard down. He made himself vulnerable as a result. 

There is another body of evidence, which indicates that not all anger is bad. Indeed, psychologists argue that in moderate doses, anger is useful as it can motivate us or can make us more creative or can deepen our relationships or can even help us fight against social ills.

A great example is that of Martin Luther who does not talk of falling prey to anger, but rather being inspired by it. He goes on to say I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart’.

Black poet and activist Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address in June 1981 at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association. Her speech was later published as the essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”. Lorde explains that racism gives rise to significant levels of anger, whether such racism is experienced at a personal level or after witnessing how others are grievously affected by it. She argues that such anger, if harnessed as a tool, can effectively address racial injustice. 

The philosopher Myisha Cherry uses Lorde’s arguments as inspiration for her book, “The Case for Rage: Why Anger is essential to Anti-Racist Struggle”.  Among the various types of anger that a person can have upon experiencing or witnessing injustice, she identifies what she calls as “Lordean rage” as both virtuous and productive.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that feeling angry increases optimism, creativity, and effective performance. It even suggests that expressing anger appropriately can lead to more successful negotiations both in life or on the job.

Interestingly, altruism is often born from anger. When it comes to mobilizing other people and creating support for a cause, no other emotion works stronger than anger. We need to appreciate that positivity alone is insufficient to the task of helping us to navigate social interactions and relationships.  A healthy society is not necessarily an anger-free society.

It appears that anger, which can be destructive, has also a vital energy to it that motivates us to action. This helps us to improve communication in both personal and professional relationships and promotes optimism within us.

Interestingly, while anger does trigger us to take action, it is not necessarily to harm the person causing the anger. Let us take a few everyday examples of anger. Sita gets angry with her father for constantly interrupting her while she is speaking. Tina is angry with her husband for driving the car too fast and not being sufficiently careful. Seth is angry with his childhood friend Ruby for staying with her abusive boyfriend. We naturally apply the term anger to these cases, but they do not involve any desire to harm, punish or exact revenge. This does not mean that there is no desire to take action. It is just that the desire is not one to harm or to take revenge. Sita does not desire to hurt or punish her father, she just wants him to shut up and allow her talk without interruption. Tina does not want to harm her husband, in fact, her anger stems from a desire for his safety. Seth does not want revenge. He is angry with Julie for refusing to remove herself from harm. 

As a more serious case, think of a woman who feels angry that nobody really believes her story about being sexually assaulted. She may be angry with those who refuse to believe her about what happened, but she has no desire to harm them. Her fervent hope is that people believe in what she is saying and accept and understand what she is going through. 

From an evolutionary perspective, all emotions are appropriate in certain circumstances when experienced at an optimal degree. For example, certain levels of stress and anxiety push us to perform at higher levels.  Sadness can be cathartic, filling us with appreciation for what we have lost while signalling to others that we need support to recover and heal. Mild to moderate anger can often help us to move forward positively. But extreme or chronic anger can be highly detrimental to our well-being.

Indignation also referred to as ‘righteous indignation’, is anger that manifests as a concern for moral rights, fairness or justice. We are angry because we are disgusted at something that we perceive to be morally incorrect. This anger is not rooted in selfish concerns but is targeted on the wellbeing of others. We can justifiably be angry witnessing the harm and suffering of others who are not necessarily related to us. A common example is when we get angry when we see or hear news headline of a young rape victim. 

Consider Mother Teresa’s own report about feelings of anger and frustration. She clarifies “Am I ever angry or frustrated? I only feel angry sometimes when I see waste, when things that we waste are what people need, things that would save them from dying. Frustrated? No, never.”

Her anger is rooted not in selfish concerns but is to do with her overwhelming care for the wellbeing of others. This is the reason such anger not only fails to detract from her moral character, but reflects well on it. 

Let us examine how anger affects our body and brain. The first spark of anger activates our amygdala even before we are aware of it. The amygdala activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in turn sends signals to pituitary gland by discharging Corticotropin-Releasing-Hormone (CRH). Then pituitary activates the adrenal glands by releasing Adreno-Cortico-Tropic Hormone (ACTH). The adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These actions affect cardiovascular system by elevating heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose level etc. The digestive system is also affected by decrease of blood flow and decrease of metabolism.

It is well established that inability to control anger has serious long term negative consequences. Inappropriate and uncontrolled anger is harmful for both the targeted persons as well as the angry person. Such anger destroys relationships, makes it difficult to hold on to a job, and takes a heavy toll on the physical and emotional health. A lack of anger control was found to impact mental health and leads to poor and maladaptive decision making. There is also this theory that anger could be an underlying factor that promotes suicidal tendencies. This theory is buttressed by the fact that anger and suicide were found to be more common in younger population than in older adults. Anger is considered the likely culprit in violent behaviour, and it should therefore come as no surprise that many individuals arrested for domestic violence often undergo anger management training.

Anger specialists describe the difference between what is known as state and trait anger. Trait anger refers to a chronic, long-standing personality characteristic that shows up as an almost constant tendency to become angry at the slightest provocation. State anger on the other hand refers to temporary, short-lasting outbursts of anger. Individuals associated with trait anger, experience angry feelings more frequently, with more intensity and for longer durations. People with high trait anger tend to perceive situations as hostile and are less capable of controlling their hostile thoughts and feelings.

People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing our angry feelings in an assertive but not aggressive manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, we need clarity on our needs and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding. It simply means being respectful of yourself and others.

The second alternative is for us to suppress our anger and convert or redirect the feelings. This happens when we reign in our anger, stop thinking about it, and refocus on something else which is positive. The aim is to inhibit our anger and convert it into more constructive behaviour. We need to guard against the danger of our anger turning inwards leading to health issues like hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.

Unexpressed anger can also lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behaviour like getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on. It could also make us perpetually cynical and hostile. 

Most of the research surrounding anger management therapy has focused on Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has been the dominant form of therapy in this area.

CBT emphasizes important links between how we feel, the thoughts and beliefs we have, and the behaviours that we carry out.  CBT anger management interventions have been effective at helping a variety of populations, such as people with high blood pressure, angry drivers, people in prison, college students, police officers, and parents.

According to Ayurveda, when aggravated pitta accumulates in the channel of the mind, it tends to cause accumulating heat. This can lead to anger, irritability, and other fiery emotions like envy, criticism, and excessive ambition. Therefore, using diet, lifestyle, and supportive herbs to increase our exposure to cool, slow, and stabilizing influences will generally serve to relieve anger and irritability. These qualities help balance excess heat while softening, grounding, and containing pitta’s intensity.