What is Anger and What Does it Serve?

anger emotions life transition positive action Sep 20, 2021
What is anger?

We've all experienced it. The frustration that bubbles up when something doesn't go according to plan. The irritation that occurs because of the tenth bloody idiot that's cut you off in traffic today. And, equally, we can all recall the argument that goes around in circles, becoming heated by the second.

We've all know the emotion of anger in its varying forms. We might be aware we have our own 'hot buttons,' and we often suspect everyone else knows how to push them.

But how much do we know about anger and what purpose it serves?


What is Anger?

Anger is the disruption or interference of personal expectations. It is a core human emotion, which varies from person to person in strength and frequency. Anger can occur in many forms, from simple annoyance or irritation to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness. Finally, right at the end of the spectrum, there is rage.


What Purpose Does Anger Serve?

According to evolutionary psychologists, anger is an emotion formed as an individual response to interpersonal conflicts of interest and as a method to bargain and satisfy such interests.

However, anger is far more than a caveman's negotiation tactic. Experiencing anger allows us to identify when our needs or expectations are unfulfilled or personal boundaries breached. It also evokes purpose or action to overcome the deficit in what we want for ourselves.

Like any of our core emotions, anger is impossible to eradicate from our emotional repertoire; therefore, it should be acknowledged, respected, and managed in a way that allows us to evolve personally and improve the quality of our relationships.


How Do We Become Angry?

How we become angry depends on several elements. These elements include an event or circumstance that triggers an emotional response (triggers), who we are as a person, or our disposition (emotional characteristics) and how we perceive the situation (cognitive appraisal) and the evidence we adopt to validate our thinking and our method of reasoning.

A trigger may be an interference with our ability to move forward with an intended task or action. It may include rejection or criticism from someone we love, experiencing inefficiency or bureaucracy, encountering opposite beliefs, being belittled or humiliated by an employer or authority figure, or, worse, a wrongful accusation of something we have not done.

Our disposition includes the dominant qualities or temperament of our mental and emotional self. For example, are we sunny and cheerful by nature, or are we more cynical or irritable? Our emotional outlook or attitude can create the foundation on which we respond in a given situation.

Cognitive appraisal is our interpretation of a situation. When a trigger occurs, we instantly evaluate whether the situation or event is considered a disruption or interference of our expectations.

In this process, we reference beliefs, values, expectations, hopes, and needs. Essentially, we incorporate a whole range of evaluative constructions that allow us to create our inference or perception of a given situation.

What Happens to Us When We Get Angry?

Without going into great depth into the various physiological, neurological, and psychological responses, the simple explanation of what we experience when angry is an 'amygdala override.'

The amygdala is the neurological center for coordinating behavioral, autonomic, and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli, especially emotional content. Thus, the amygdala responds to various emotional triggers, but primarily those related to fear and anxiety.

When a threat is perceived, the amygdala bypasses the sections of the brain (the cortex) that typically provides logic, reasoning, and judgment and switches on a mass dump of hormones. This dump subsequently activates the secretion of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the body.

Essentially, the 'amygdala override' starts our flight or fight sequence that we're all too familiar with, and we find we're flying off into a fit of rage once again.

How Can We Manage Our Anger?

It's essential to acknowledge that it's okay to get angry. What's not okay is if anger leads to aggression or violence. When anger strikes, it is our responsibility to express anger healthily and constructively.

We are individually accountable for finding constructive ways to avoid losing control that could lead to aggressive, destructive, or other maladaptive behaviors that may harm ourselves and others.

1 - Take Notice of Your Ability to Calm Down: How long does it take? Twenty minutes, 40 minutes, or a good couple of hours? The various hormones that flood the body take time to secrete out of our bloodstream, so the timeframe we need to regulate ourselves can vary from person to person.

2 - Take Time Out: Yes, like our kids, the same strategy applies well to angry adults. It's essential to consider that anger may impact your mental and physical tolerance after an experience of activation, so do not re-enter a heated conversation if you're still calming down. Remove yourself from the environment if you suspect you might be 're-activated.

3 - Adopt a Method of Self-Soothing: Ask yourself, do you release your anger out, or do you stuff it away in those dark recesses? Explore ways to be able to find to calm and regulate. 

4 – Know Your Triggers: How does your temperament influence your anger? Are there different ways of assessing particular experiences? What resources can you utilize to shape your response positively?

5 – Find Other Practical Tools: there are many tools and options to help ease the internal dialogue that swells up in the heat of the moment. Here's an example of effective mantras developed by the Anger Management Center of Toronto, to say to yourself when the anger starts to heighten:

  • I do not need to prove myself in this situation; I can stay calm.
  • As long as I keep my cool, I am in control of myself.
  • What other people might say is their own opinion. Opinions are not facts. I am the only person who can make myself angry or keep myself calm.
  • I will allow myself to take time-out to de-escalate if I feel that I am getting worked up or recognize my anger cues or signals.
  • In difficult or stressful situations, I do not need to feel threatened or fearful. I can relax and stay calm. Being calm will allow me to make better choices.
  • I do not have to be solid and competent all the time. It is okay to feel unsure or confused at times. Uncertainty will not make me less of a man.
  • It is impossible to control other persons and all situations. I can only positively do this if they are open to the process.

Anger is a complex creature. As humans, the emotion of anger is an integral part of our makeup. Our perception of anger can vary. Some individuals avoid anger at all costs, while others express it explicitly. As each of our emotions, anger serves the distinct purpose of highlighting a specific cognitive, emotional, or relational need.

The psychological and physiological effects of anger are complicated; however, if we are aware of the dynamics that create anger, we can navigate this powerful emotion without resorting to ineffective actions that compromise our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others.

If you struggle to regulate your anger and it’s having an adverse impact on your ability to connect with others and pursue the things that matter to you the most - then consider seeking support - contact me to schedule a free 30 minute phone consultation. There’s always help in your corner.



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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry. 
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.


Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015) http://www.angermanagementcentre.ca/programs-and-services/our-programs/anger-management-coaching

Center for Evolutionary Psychology (2016). http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/topics/anger.htm

Ekman, P., & Ekman, E. (2016) The Ekman Atlas of Emotions. https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/#actions:anger

Martin, R. (2011). Why we get angry. Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-the-rage/201110/why-we-get-mad

Swenson, R.S. (2006) The limbic system. Review of Clinical and Functional Neuroscience, Dartmouth Medical School. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html