Anger has evolved as a defensive survival mechanism and when used appropriately it allows for a vital response.
For example, when we’re under attack, our emotional angry response serves to protect ourselves, family and friends.
In our stressful modern world, inappropriate expressions of anger are becoming more and more frequent, however. When anger flares up uncontrollably or chronically, it indicates that our lives our out of balance and is a sign that we need to address the angry behaviour.
To help control anger outbursts, it’s essential to understand what the triggers are.
Here are the most common, yet often unknown, hidden causes of anger:
1. Our emotional needs are under threat
We are all born with essential physical and emotional needs and with innate resources to help us fulfil those needs. If our needs are left wanting, our emotional health will inevitably slip out of balance and it is this imbalance that can lead to outbursts of anger.
The irrational behaviour can also be a sign that the environment we are living in is not a healthy one – otherwise known as a toxic environment.
Here’s a list of our emotional needs:
- Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
- Sense of autonomy and control — and the ability to make responsible choices
- Sense of status within social groupings
- Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
- Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
- Friendship, intimacy — being totally accepted by at least one other for who we are, “warts 'n' all”
- Feeling part of a wider community
- Sense of competence and achievement (from which comes self-esteem)
- Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.
So here’s a question for you – which need is the person trying to get met with their angry behaviour?
When you break down our needs in this way and answer the question, it can sometimes be quickly and clearly apparent what is out of balance.
2. Experiences from the past
As we grow our brains cleverly create patterns of recognition, which help us negotiate the environment around, deal with situations and interact as the social beings we are.
A simple example of this is when we see a four-legged object with a seat and back – our brain has already created the pattern which tells us ‘it’s a chair and we can sit on it’.
In situations where we experience trauma our brains keeps fragments of the experience alive and when a similar pattern arises, the same initial emotional response is triggered off. The survival brain will propel us into flight or fight and this is when uncontrollable outbursts of anger might occur.
When experiences from the past play out in our present day in a ‘maladaptive’ way like this, our suffering can range from sub-threshold trauma (*), stress, anxiety, depression and include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
(*) We use the term ‘sub-threshold trauma’, when our reactions are out of proportion to what’s going on in the present moment.
3. Un-developed resources
If our resources to appropriately deal with a situation are not developed then the resulting behaviour can also be irrational and angry.
This is especially true with young children and teenagers where communication and language skills are also not developed. It takes the human brain 20 – 25 years to fully develop the resources we need and so parents and caring adults must influence, nurture and encourage these natural skills to help equip our children to self-manage their anger.
Here’s a checklist of our innate resources:
- The ability to develop complex, long-term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn
- The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others
- Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively
- A conscious, rational mind that can check out emotions, question, analyse and plan
- The ability to 'know' — that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
- An observing self — that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
- A dreaming brain that preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance every night by metaphorically defusing expectations held in the autonomic arousal system because they were not acted out the previous day.
What can you do to overcome unhelpful anger or aggressive behaviour?
Seek support from a coach or therapist.
A qualified professional will be able to help you uncover the causes of your own anger, learn how to meet your emotional needs – and treat PTSD or sub-threshold trauma if required. They will also help you to develop your own resources and look forward, without unduly dwelling on the past.