There are four reasons we get angry:
• 1 Seeking revenge. We feel hurt, so we use anger to get even and make things fair.
• 2 Preventing disaster. We feel worried, so we use anger to attack other to get control.
• 3 Pushing others away. We feel sad, so we use anger to push people away to withdraw.
• 4 Getting attention. We feel disrespected, so we use anger to get recognition and prove our importance.
Anger is a survival response and causes the human body to trigger the “fight or flight” response. This is a hardwired and fast reaction, in which the body gets literally ready to attack or flee.
The fight or flight process takes 20 minutes to pass. So when someone is angry, they will need at least a 20 minute respite to completely calm down physiologically. If the stressful situation persists, our heart rate will remain elevated, our body will pump out adrenaline and our thinking will be clouded. We will be physiologically reactive, even if we “know” a different response is called for. Yet, most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.
The cranial takeover which occurs during the fight or flight response arises because our logical prefrontal cortex is simply out-matched by the competition from our emotional amygdala. This race is not even close because emotion-laden pathways in the brain are faster the logical signals.
Our amygdala’s emotional impulses zoom down our neurological express routes. However, the same information is also being processed logically, but our rational thoughts are transported via the local roads, stopping at other regions of our brain along the way. But because the emotional pathways in our brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving our logic, our judgment simply can’t intervene in time. It takes time to think, plan, analyze, and act.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of time. If they were confronted with a threat, they had to act immediately or they would die. They could not take a moment to weigh the pros and cons, analyze and act, “Well there is a bear in front of me. Do I look for honey? Shall I catch a salmon? Shape some wood into a spear? Grab a rock? Run away?” No, it was fight (attack) or flight (run away). It was not logical problem solving that helped them in that moment. It was their emotional reactions, which allowed them to survive.
When we suffer an intense feeling, the body releases hormones into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. These hormones turn our experience of the emotional event into powerful memories. These memories are strong to ensure we do not forget such an episode and promote our survival.
This makes sense for our hunter gatherer ancestors who had to remember the constant threats to their survival. These hormones tell our body something potentially painful just occurred, so don’t forget it or let it happen again. So the hormones give a heightened significance to these emotional memories. As we grow, these emotional memories play a disproportionate role in shaping our personality, and makes us think, act and feel in certain ways.
However when we feel an emotion in the present, it triggers our emotional memories for the past experiences when that feeling occurred. The problem is that we have lost sight of the original provoking event that stimulated the secretion of these hormones in the first place. In counseling, our task is to restore the connection between the past and the present so that the anger will be relieved properly, and the “pumping” can stop.