I’ve always had a temper. I know of several holes in several walls that I could autograph, I once smashed my hand through the plastic covering of a light switch in a high school classroom, and we won’t even mention the window in another classroom just down the hall. Believe me, anger is something I’m intimately acquainted with.
Anger is, of course, an emotion. More than that, it’s considered one of the three primary emotions, the others being love and fear. They’re “primary” because all of them cause very noticeable physiological changes in an individual’s body, which in turn stimulate further activity–such as kicking a hole in the wall, kissing your girlfriend, or running screaming down the street. (Which emotion would elicit which response I leave up to you to decide, based on your own experience.)
Anger and fear are actually closely related; how we interpret what we’re feeling has as much to do with the context and our own knowledge and background as with the particular stimuli that evoked the emotion. A child, for example, might feel more anger than fear at the sight of a bear eating the ice cream off a picnic table, whereas an adult would probably experience fear.
The physiological results are the same: the adrenal glands, two little organs located on the kidneys, release adrenaline, which causes your heart rate to increase and its throughput to jump from five or six liters per minute to 30 or 40. As well, your blood pressure goes up, your respiration increases and fresh blood sweeps through the muscles, imparting maximum strength.
The pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ on the underneath of the brain, then gets into the act and orders the adrenal glands to produce more cortisone. This makes the liver shovel out more sugar and fat, to provide the cells with more energy.
Now you’re ready to act. If you act out of anger, you attack the bear to rescue the ice cream. If you act in fear, you run away. This is called the “fight or flight” syndrome for that very reason: it prepares you for either of those two actions.
In our day-to-day lives, we are rarely faced with anything as straightforward as a bear eating our ice cream–but there are plenty of other stimuli that can arouse our emotions. And since emotions color every event in our lives, anger can build up from a variety of sources and only get expressed when some final straw “breaks the camel’s back”–say, when your desk drawer sticks. You know from experience that all it takes to get it open is a gentle lifting and pulling, but since you’ve already had two run-ins with your boss that morning and someone just put a six-inch-deep pile of paper in your “IN” basket and security just phoned to say your car’s been towed away, you find yourself stabbing the drawer with your penknife while yelling obscenities at the top of your voice. You’ve chosen “fight” over “flight,” although, honestly, fighting with a desk-drawer is not something even Ernest Hemingway could have made sound macho.
A psychologist would call that kind of behavior regression: it reflects the earliest ways we learned to deal with strong emotions. As children, we tend to express our anger in one of three ways: through a temper tantrum, through bolting (running away) or through pouting.
A temper tantrum gives a child a certain amount of power, especially if she’s learned that her parents will give in. Temper tantrums give adults a certain amount of power, too: an adult who suddenly starts screaming and throwing things around the boardroom during a meeting will certainly ensure that everyone looks at him and listens to him, especially if that adult is the CEO. People will give in to him to avoid further behavior of that sort, but in the long run, they won’t want to work with him or live with him. A temper tantrum is, essentially, the “fight” side of the fight or flight syndrome, just one notch down from an actual physical attack.
As the aforementioned holy walls can testify, I have a certain amount of experience with temper tantrums. I confess I also have a certain amount of experience with bolting, running away and hiding in response to anger. In my case, it’s usually consisted of stomping out of an argument before I lose my temper completely and either (a) throw a tantrum, or (b) throw a fist. Some people “bolt” without leaving physically: they bury themselves in a book, or in a bowl of chocolate ice cream, or in sleep.
Sulkers fall somewhere in between. They don’t throw things, and they don’t run away; instead, they keep their feelings inside and just let the occasional whine or mutter seep out, like marsh gas bubbling to the top of a fetid swamp.
The supposedly “adult” way of dealing with anger is, of course, to talk it out; tell the person you’re angry with why you’re angry, or if you’re not angry at a specific person, find a friend (or possibly a psychologist) to talk to about your anger and its sources. That doesn’t do much for using up that anger-induced burst of energy, though, so physical exercise is sometimes a good choice, although personally I’d recommend staying away from golf.
It’s important to find ways to deal with anger because anger simply isn’t healthy. Increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, more fat and sugar shovelled into the bloodstream–these are not things you want happening on a regular basis (unless the increased heart rate and blood pressure are as a result of cardiovascular exercise). Recent studies have shown that people with heart disease more than double their risk of a heart attack when they get angry–and the danger lasts for more than two hours after the onset of the anger.
Everyone gets angry once in a while, of course. The important thing is to learn to deal with it in a manner that doesn’t lead to wrecked relationships, wrecked health, or, in my case, wrecked buildings.
Easier said than done. After all, when you’re already angry, nothing makes you even more angry than being told to “take it easy.” Which, I guess, is what I’ve just done.
So go kick a wall. You’ll feel better.