The emotion (or “feeling”) of anger is a complex combination of physical sensations, cognitions (or thoughts), and behaviours.
The physical sensations associated with anger are well known. A racing heart, feeling short of breath, a dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, trembling limbs, feeling hot and flushed etc. These may sound familiar – they are very similar to the physical sensations that occur in anxiety. This is unsurprising – it is the same physiological mechanism that underlies both emotions. Anger is the “Fight” component of the “Fight or Flight” response to perceived danger.
The physical sensations of both anger and anxiety are driven by hormones released by the adrenal glands (small pockets of tissue situated above the kidneys). These adrenal glands secrete adrenalin into the blood which rapidly disperses around the body. It is adrenalin that acts on the body to prepare it to either fight or run away by increasing the heart (“racing heart”) and breathing rate (“short of breath and dry mouth”), raising the blood pressure (“feeling hot and flushed”), tensing the muscles (“trembling limbs”) etc CBT Web Scraper.
Common thoughts associated with anger include “He can’t say/do that to me!” or “It’s not fair!”
Behavioural manifestations of anger include clenching the fists, grinding the jaw and invading another’s personal space.
It is very important to realise that all these 3 components interact and feed-back to one another, causing either an increase or decrease in the feeling of anger. For instance, if you’re angry and you let yourself behave angrily – shouting and screaming for instance – you’re body will secrete more adrenalin, thus increasing further the sensations of anger.
Anger per se isn’t a problem – it is an emotion that has benefits in certain situations. The “anger” seen in animals when they’re threatened or fighting over territory or mating rights is clearly a survival strategy. A passive, mild-mannered tiger isn’t likely to live very long!
Fortunately for most human beings we no longer have to physically fight to survive, eat or find a partner. This makes a lot of our anger redundant. However, the “Fight or Flight” response has developed in us (and most animals) over millions of years so we will continue to get angry for the foreseeable future. This can cause us and others around us problems.
I’m not suggesting that we try and eliminate anger from our lives, but if we think it’s causing us or others problems, we can try to moderate it and make it less damaging. Ideally we can make it work for us rather than against us.
CBT approaches anger by focusing on the thought processes associated with anger. The theory is that since our thoughts are a fundamental component of anger (along with physical sensations and behaviours), if we can moderate these angry thoughts we can moderate the other two components as well via the feedback mechanism.
Often it is our thoughts – our interpretations of events – that trigger the anger response in the first place. If we can develop a more balanced and rational interpretation of the world around us, we can nip the anger response in the bud. A good example of this is our response to criticism. If we interpret all criticism as a spiteful attack on us as a person, then we will get angry. If we are able to adopt a more balanced, rational view of criticism, we may feel disappointed but we will avoid getting “hot under the collar”. We may even be able to see that sometimes our critic is right!
Another technique to moderate our anger is too think more flexibly. We’ve all seen toddlers and young children throw tantrums – they can be apoplectic with rage! Often this seems to be a result of immature, inflexible thinking – young children like to have (and make up) rules that must never, absolutely never, be broken, either by themselves or (especially) by others. Oh, the scenes of horror witnessed at children’s parties when a child has “broken” the rules of a game!