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Reflecting on why we get angry

Anger is present everywhere around us. If we would like to sum the occasions of us getting angry throughout the day, we may need someone else to lend us their fingers as well to support counting. The situations that spark anger can range from being very trivial to an emotionally significant level, mostly being trivial though. This feeling turns off our reasoning capacity and relies on the judgment of the fire that we feel inside ourselves and does not care about any consequences, at least not at the very moment of its peak heat. Moreover, the fury, if not cooled down, can be ongoing for some time. So, what is the problem? Isn’t anger a normal thing? If not, then why do we feel it?

These are the questions I ask myself after every occasion of reacting to an event based on anger. The resentment is either towards myself or to others. Although it does not matter who the object of this outrage is, it has quite great implications. As soon as we receive the impulse towards anger, we want to have the object of this anger to repay for what was done falsely, at least according to our “reason”.

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

Marcus Aurelius

Anger is oft defined as a response to a threat to oneself or another. This reactive aggression seems to be exhibited by all mammals and is triggered by a threatening event and usually includes an unplanned and heated attack on the source or representative reflection of the threat itself. When the degree of threat is low, we usually freeze in shock, or when it is a mid-high level frustration, we tend to escape the immediate environment. Does it remind us anything?! Maybe the problems we are postponing forever, because it is frustrating?! Anyways, moving on, the higher level of danger combined with impossibility of escape initiates reactive aggression. This is an expected behavior from animals, and, as we have evolved from them, attributable to us as human species as well. However, this reactive aggression is not equal to anger, since it is not stretched through time, as well we are mentally more advanced than all animals, thereby controlling this feeling is more feasible for us.

Another function of anger is a response to frustration. Frustration happens when the reward for an action we do does not match with our expectation about it. The reward not being delivered can be due to many reasons including the changes in reinforcement contingencies, but we are not aware of them naturally. In such situations we are having a backward-looking “payback wish” which creates the anger arousal. This is also a reason why we are doing a non-sense criticism of ourselves without involving some reasoning before the emotions kick-in.

“Surely every man will want to restrain any impulse towards anger when he realizes that it begins by inflicting harm, firstly, on himself! In the case of those who give full rein to anger and consider it a proof of strength, who think the opportunity for revenge belongs among the great blessings of great fortune, do you not, then, want me to point out to them that a man who is the prisoner of his own anger, so far from being powerful, cannot even be called free? In order that each man may be the more watchful and keep a careful eye on himself, do you not want me to point out that, though other vile passions affect only the worst sort of men, anger creeps up even on enlightened men who are otherwise sane? This is so much the case that some men call anger a proof of frankness, and it is popularly believed that the most obliging people are particularly liable to it.”

Seneca

From neuroscience perspective, the “feeling” encompasses a broad range of neural processes, many of which relate to homeostatic survival regulation. The cerebral cortex, being the thinking brain, takes the role of logic and judgment. Unlike the cortex, limbic system, a primitive brain of ours, is where feelings are controlled, or rather generated. The anger is mediated by amygdala-hypothalamus-periaqueductal gray trio in our brain. When seeing a threat or a frustration, in our limbic system, our amygdala, which is a fight-or-flight response system, gets hijacked and a flood of hormones are released that creates emotional and physical alarm. From here we can conclude as well that the factors that increase the responsiveness of these neural systems should be associated with the inducement of the anger.

As interesting the neuroscience of anger is, it does not really provide us an understandable identification on what is wrong about anger. Philosophers, though, provided interesting food for thought pieces on anger. For example, the Stoic Philosopher, Seneca, has written an essay dedicated to anger. He suggests that the anger is a temporary madness that should not be acted upon because it affects our sanity. He suggests that the best plan is to reject the first incentives to anger and resist the feeling at the very beginning of its symptoms. Once it starts to overwhelm us, it is difficult to get back into a healthy mindset, because the reason gets replaced by passion by the authority given to free will to act on itself without getting any permission.

No one says to himself, ‘I myself have done or could have done the thing that is making me angry now’; no one considers the intention of the person who performs the action, but just the action itself: and yet it is to this person that we should turn our attention, and to the question whether he acted intentionally or by accident, under compulsion or mistakenly, prompted by hatred or by a reward, to please himself or to oblige another. The offender’s age is of some account, as is his status, so that it becomes either kindness or expediency to endure his behavior with patience. Let us put ourselves in the position of the man who is making us angry: in point of fact it is an unjustified estimate of our own worth that causes our anger, and an unwillingness to put up with treatment we would happily inflict on others.

Seneca

To train our emotional response to events, we need to understand one principle: there are some things that are under our control, and some things are not. How hard can it be to understand and adopt this simple principle?! The things under our control are our opinions, desires and aspirations. Outside our control are things like our body, people’s thought about is, what type of parents we have, having a disease, losing our job because of pandemic, and so on. I guess anything that does not fit to the list of what we have under our control above can be thrown into the latter one. When things are not under our control, they usually are very volatile and not rising to meet our expectations very oft.

It’s not the things themselves that hurt us, but rather how we think about them, see them or feel towards them, like anger. It’s our attitudes and responses that give us trouble, which ends up in breeding the reactive aggression and anger. If we stop demanding the events to happen as we wish them to, and accept them as they actually happen, we can be in peace with ourselves and others as well. Forgetting what the others think about us, or whatever constraints we have due to uncontrollable reasons, we should focus on our purpose and live a life where our moral progress is going up consistently.

Moral progress is not the natural province of the highborn, nor is it achieved by accident or luck, but by working on yourself—daily.

Epictetus

If you’d like to read more on a practical guide to control your anger, check “Controlling Anger” by American Psychological Association.


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