You might know that anger is a biochemical response to a perceived threat. When you are faced with a potentially threatening situation, your brain and autonomic nervous system immediately require an increase in adrenalin. This produces a cardiovascular surge preparing you for a “fight or flight” response. You can feel various sensations in your body including increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, sweating, shortness of breath, tightness in extremities and perhaps nausea. The “fight or flight” response is a survival mechanism. Thus anger serves a protective function.
During the last two months, have you personally faced a life-threatening situation or the possibility of physical harm? If so, you certainly experienced anger. However, most of you did not have a physically threatening encounter. Yet I suspect that you did experience anger from certain social interactions. Anger can be aroused when you perceive a potential threat whether that distressing stimulus is physically or socially induced. Beneath your overt angry expressions, there are deeper emotional roots that cause anger arousal.
One metaphor for understanding the social-emotional roots of anger is a tree. You can observe the trunk, leaves and fruit of trees above ground. But you cannot see the roots underground which feed the tree. Likewise, you can observe the angry behaviors of a person, but not know the deeper emotional roots. The roots of anger are emotionally painful, related to previous learning experiences. We typically manifest outward anger, concealing the deeper emotional pain. One key component of healthy anger management is the ability to identify the deeper emotional roots of pain. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul writes, “…be angry but do not sin.” Often our angry expressions are sinful actions of maligning or hurting another person. If we recognize the deeper root of our anger, we can learn to express it constructively.
Based on psychological research and clinical anecdotal observations, I suggest that there are four roots of anger. They include hurt, helplessness, anxiety of losing something important, and guilt. When a person experiences one or more of these deeper emotional discomforts, anger is aroused and usually expressed overtly. In the next few blogs, I will explore and discuss in more detail each of the deeper roots of anger and how to express them constructively.