understanding anger

Every single one of us experiences anger at one point or another. Though it is a completely natural emotion, many of us do not accept it and go to great lengths – often to our own detriment – to avoid it. Some of us suppress our anger until it develops into sadness.

Anger is often considered impolite, and explicit displays of it in public are met with judgment and avoidance of the individual expressing anger.

The truth is that anger is a highly misunderstood emotion. Just like happiness, sadness, joy, and fear, anger is one component of the complex array of normal emotions that we humans experience. In order to maintain our psychological health, all of our emotions must be respected and allowed healthy outlets. Perhaps much of the misunderstanding stems from the misbelief that anger equates to aggression. While aggression is destructive, anger alone is not.

Why do we feel angry?

According to the American Psychological Association, anger originated as a tool for survival.[1] In response to threat, in addition to freezing, we have two primary responses – fight and flight. While flight is governed by our fear, fight involves our anger response. If we believe that a threat is manageable (i.e., we can fight it and win), our anger response kicks in to help us.

Humans also use anger as a bargaining tool through a  concept known as WTR, or Welfare Trade-off Ratio. This is defined in The Evolutionary Psychology of Anger as “the level of consideration one human gives to another.”[2] A ratio of 1:1 means that you will help someone who asks for you to meet their needs as long their welfare has more benefit to you than the cost of your help. A ratio of 0:1 means that the welfare of the other person is irrelevant to you and not worth your cost.

Anger is therefore considered to play a role in increasing other people’s perceived weight of the importance of your needs.

“Anger functions to win current and future conflicts of interest by recalibrating the mind of the target in ways that lead the target to put greater weight on the angry person’s welfare when making decisions. In short, anger bargains for better treatment,”[3] explains Aaron Sell.

What happens in the body when we get angry?

Elizabeth Dougherty of Harvard Medicine writes that our emotional responses, particularly fear, anger and anxiety, originate in the amygdala[4], which sends signals to the body faster than our conscious mind can process them. This means that before we can judge or rationalize an emotion, our amygdala has already been activated in response to the stimulus.

The signals sent from the amygdala result in a flood of chemical messengers that tell our body to get ready for action by increasing blood flow to our muscles and preparing them for potential fight or flight. Our heart rate increases along with our blood pressure, and rate of respiration.

Maladaptive Anger

When we become angry, our brain has sent us a message that we need to deal with a threat, such as a rival we must contend with or a need that isn’t being met. It is a common misconception that we must vent our anger in order to cope with the perceived threat. However, these strong emotions negatively impact our ability to think rationally, which is what we need in order to appropriately and effectively deal with threat.

In order to live our lives healthily and successfully, we need to employ adaptive behaviors, which help us move through new or changing circumstances and figure out results-driven solutions, according to Ann Pietrangelo, author of a medically reviewed article about maladaptive behaviors on Healthline.[5] Anger can be an adaptive emotion as long as it motivates us to find constructive ways of dealing with the problem at hand.

However, aggressive displays of anger, such as a child throwing a tantrum, are often maladaptive emotions. The child may kick, scream, and cry relentlessly as a result of not having a perceived need met by their caregiver. Over time, the child typically learns that tantrums do not yield positive results and finds better ways of getting their needs met.

At work, a boss may get angry at an employee for failing to meet their duties. If the boss exhibits a maladaptive display of anger, such as aggressively and publicly shouting at the employee, the employee is likely to feel embarrassed and incapable, which impedes completion of the tasks. However, if the boss can use anger adaptively, perhaps by calmly sharing how they feel and explaining the consequences of the employee’s actions, the employee will feel respected and motivated to improve at work.

Anger is Normal and Acceptable

We hope you take away from this blog the notion that anger is an acceptable, normal part of being human that should not be met with disapproval and shame. It is not problematic in itself, yet it can become problematic in terms of our well-being and our interpersonal relationships when it is maladaptive, does not serve any beneficial purpose, and perpetuates itself to cause harm.


[1] https://www.apa.org. 2005. Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You. [online] Available at: <https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control> [Accessed 9 July 2020].
[2] Sell A. (2019) The Evolutionary Psychology of Anger. In: Kappelhoff H., Bakels JH., Lehmann H., Schmitt C. (eds) Emotionen. J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart.
[3] ibid.
[4] Dougherty, E., n.d. Anger Management. [online] Hms.harvard.edu. Available at: <https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/science-emotion/anger-management#:~:text=When%20an%20angry%20feeling%20coincides,fear%2C%20anxiety%2C%20and%20anger.&text=For%20these%20patients%2C%20angry%20outbursts%20usually%20stop%20when%20the%20depression%20ends.> [Accessed 9 July 2020].
[5] Pietrangelo, A., 2020. Maladaptive Behavior: Causes, Connection To Anxiety, And Treatment. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/maladaptive-behavior#maladaptive-traits> [Accessed 9 July 2020].

This article was originally submitted on: https://www.heatherhayes.com/understanding-anger/