Why is everyone so angry, and how can we change that?
Posted July 20
The shooting of a U.S. congressman this summer by a man described as “always angry” reminded Americans that while anger is a biological necessity, it can rapidly morph from a life-preserving force to a deadly one.
Unrestrained anger causes some to murder people they profess to love, such as the Draper man who shot Memorez Rackley and her son. It compels people to set police cars on fire, to chase drivers who accidentally cut them off in traffic, and to pelt store clerks with avocados. It causes politicians to body slam reporters, as happened in Montana in May.
And it's anger, not religion or politics, that is the root cause of terrorism across the globe, says one neuroscientist who has studied why anger causes people to become violent.
"It's a huge problem, and it's a growing problem," said R. Douglas Fields of Bethesda, Maryland, author of "Why We Snap, Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain."
In a survey conducted by Esquire and NBC News last year, roughly half of Americans said they're angrier than they used to be, and nearly 7 out of 10 said they’re angered by something in the news at least once a day. The National Institutes of Health says more than 16 million Americans have a condition called intermittent explosive disorder, in which people get angry out of proportion with the circumstance.
And Americans now have a president who seems perpetually mad. As a candidate, Donald Trump said he was happy to wear a "mantle of anger," which he recently wore when he said he will be “very angry” if Congress doesn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In the short term, anger can provide energy and clarity of purpose. Cloaking oneself in anger, however, is a bad idea for anyone seeking to live long and prosper.
In a fraction of a second, a flash of anger causes physiological changes that negatively affect blood pressure, heart rate and digestion, and chronic anger is associated with heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, according to research published in the medical journal Circulation.
Persistent anger can destroy marriages and friendships, threaten employment and erode our capacity to engage in the reasoned, thoughtful arguments on which our democracy depends. It's a three-pronged problem with spiritual, mental and physical components.
So what are practical and lasting solutions to our national case of intermittent explosive disorder? Like anger itself, they begin in the brain.
Why we get angry
Anger begins with a threat, real or imagined, that is detected by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Only about a half-inch long, the amygdala is on high alert even when we’re busy or distracted, and it’s so sensitive that even a picture of person who is frowning can set off a chain of reactions designed to protect us and our families from harm.
Adrenalin, cortisol and testosterone flood the body, giving us energy and focus, and fueling aggression. Blood races through the body, our breathing grows shallow and fast, and our heart pounds, preparing us for a fight. Even our facial expressions — narrowed eyes and a scowl — warn other people to back off.
The rapid-fire impulse to react to serious threats is what enabled human beings to survive in ancient times, said Fields, the neuroscientist in Maryland.
He became interested in the topic and wrote "Why We Snap," after a personal experience with anger and aggression. While traveling with his then-17-year-old daughter in Barcelona, Spain, Fields impulsively jumped a man who had just stolen his wallet, putting the pickpocket in a choke hold and setting off a chain of events that led to a gang of thugs chasing the father and daughter for two hours.
The anger that the incident provoked was a reasonable response to a threat against Fields, his possessions and, most significantly, his daughter. Few of us experience those kinds of threats in our everyday lives, but that doesn't stop our brains from constantly scanning the horizon looking for them. What they most often find, however, isn't quite what the creator of our brains had in mind when he designed the circuitry.
For example, when a car cuts us off on the interstate, our brain processes the action as if a stranger just walked into our back yard, even though Interstate 15 isn't our personal property.
Our unconscious brains regard strangers with suspicion because thousands of years ago, it was unusual to encounter people outside your community or tribe, and there was a very real threat that a stranger intended to kill you and take your possessions or your mate. That's unlikely to be the intent of the stranger who jostled you on the train, but your unconscious brain doesn't know that.
Anger and sudden aggression in response to a threat originates in the unconscious parts of the brain, “because, in response to a threat, conscious deliberation would be too slow,” Fields said.
“The modern world is creating more of this behavior, more violence and more anger, and it’s because of two things: Our brain is operating in an environment it was never designed to operate in, and we have developed these very crowded living arrangements. We’re constantly pushing on these triggers,” he said.
Among those modern pressures stoking angry impulses is social media through outrages of the day spread via Facebook and Twitter. A recent example was conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter, who after not getting a seat she had reserved on a Delta Airlines flight, lashed out on Twitter for hours, not just savaging the airline, but ridiculing another passenger on the flight.
In addition to reacting to perceived threats to our physical safety, the amygdala also reacts to perceived threats of social status, self-respect and autonomy, said professor Michael Potegal, a behavioral neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at the University of Minnesota.
"Anger is also characteristic of people with borderline personality disorder who become angry when they feel socially unsupported. Most notably, people with narcissistic personality disorder become enraged at any public criticism because it undercuts their core belief that everyone else thinks they are great," Potegal said.
The business of anger
A few years ago, Shawn Baker and her husband were leaving a bar in Texas when they noticed a group of young men taking things out of a pickup truck and gleefully beating the objects with baseball bats.
The memory stayed with her, and when Baker lost her job in the oil industry a few years later and was thinking about a business she could start, she wondered if people would pay to take a bat or crowbar to old printers, televisions and other objects in a safe setting.
Baker wasn't the only person with the idea. By the time she launched her Houston business, Tantrums LLC, similar businesses had launched across the U.S. Known as "rage rooms" or "anger rooms," they've even spread to Russia, where one entrepreneur said he offers people "a safe place to be a bad guy without the risks of being arrested."
Although many people go to Tantrums for fun, not to work out their rage, it was the perfect name for the business. Our earliest expression of anger is the childhood tantrum, which Potegal describes as "a transient episode of negative emotions" that typically includes both anger and sadness.
Tantrums, Potegal said, occur in 60 to 90 percent of children, and peak between the ages of 2 and 3. Not every child who has tantrums will become an angry adult, but most adults with anger issues had frequent, excessive tantrums in childhood, he said.
For children, tantrums are more than the release of emotion; they’re a negotiating tool. Adults may be more measured in how they express the emotion, but anger is a tool for them, too.
“Basically, anger tends to push people back, to intimidate them, to get them to comply with requests and back off from demands. For example, people who exercise anger in negotiations tend to (upset) people … but they also tend to get what they want,” Potegal said.
Like a 2-year-old's tantrum, anger also involves control, although men and women generally experience it differently. “Men often feel as if they are exerting control when they express anger; women are more likely to experience anger as a lack of control, given societal constraints on women’s behavior,” Potegal said.
While anger can temporarily make people feel powerful and energized, it comes at a cost. Parents who frequently display anger within their families teach children that this is an appropriate way to communicate. “Patterns of anger in relationships are then taken and re-created in later relationships outside the family,” says the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy on its website.
Those patterns often become visible in the workplace, not just in deadly shootings such as the one that occurred in June at a factory in Orlando, Florida, but also in what’s known in human resource circles as “desk rage” — workers being rude to each other and even damaging office equipment in fits of anger.
And eventually they enter the public square, in increasingly vitriolic exchanges on talk shows and stateouse floors, and at sporting events from youth to professional levels.
What are the solutions?
Many of the things people are angry about these days are relatively minor, even though the outcomes can be horrific, such as incidents of road rage, like one that occurred recently in Pennsylvania when a man fatally shot an 18-year-old driver he clashed with while both drivers were trying to merge into traffic.
In situations like this, just being aware of the brain's processes can help defuse anger. Fields suggests making a game out of figuring out what ancient threat is involved when we start to get angry.
“People are fiercely territorial, and we need to be, because if someone invades our home, we’ll engage in violence if we have to to get the person out. But we perceive space around our car as our territory, and it isn’t. You must instantly ask yourself, ‘Why am I angry?’ If you can understand why you’re angry, and see that it’s not a real threat, but a misfire, the anger goes away.”
But there are other things you can do to prevent a flash of anger from turning into an explosion. The Veterans Administration has a website that offers a free online course in anger management, and suggests an acronym to help people prevent conditions that can provoke them to lash out. The acrony HALT, stands for hungry, annoyed, lonely or tired.
When we're any of these things, we can quickly devolve into anger, and eating enough and getting enough sleep are triggers easily fixed.
"But never being hungry, annoyed, tired or in a stressful/difficult situation ever again is totally unrealistic, so people also need tools to help calm down so that they don’t do or say something they'll regret," the VA says.
One strategy is to simply do nothing; to acknowledge the feeling of anger, but to choose to delay your response. The sensation of anger may retreat on its own, particularly if you recite the wisdom of the Bible ("Be angry but sin not" — Ephesians 4:26) or of philosophers ("Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it" — Seneca).
If you're in an argument with another person and one or both of you are angry, take periodic breaks to calm down. But as the old adage says, don't go to sleep angry. Researchers have found that sleep acts to cement negative emotions and even preserves the memory of the threat that led to your anger.
"Venting" anger — by yelling at a person you're angry with, or punching a wall — does little to diffuse anger and can cause it to increase, some studies have found. Psychology Today suggests doing the opposite of what an angry body naturally does.
When you're enraged, your heart races and your breath is shallow and fast. Slow both down by sitting still and counting to three while exhaling and inhaling. Breathe from the diaphragm, not the chest. From your feet to your head, consciously relax every part of you. In other words, "find an incompatible response," Sherrie Bourg Carter wrote.
Vigorous exercise has been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and anger, but it comes with a caveat for people who are exceedingly enraged. A study published in 2016 in the journal Circulation found that people who were angry or upset while doing strenuous exercise had three times the risk of suffering a heart attack.
And if you're struggling with anger issues of your own, stay away from other angry people, particularly on the internet. One 2013 study found that people who read online rants for five minutes became angrier themselves.
For anger that has another underlying cause, such as depression, a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (such as Prozac) can help, as does cognitive behavioral therapy, Potegal said.
If all fails, try an anger room, which is safe, and if nothing else, entertaining. At Tantrums in Houston, Baker will custom-design a room with images of things, or even people, who make you mad. In November, she prepared one room with mannequins that looked like candidates Hillary Clinton and Trump. Everything was smashed by the time the customer left the room.
"People leave smiling," Baker said.