Of the six basic universal emotions that affect humankind (happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger), it is perhaps anger that exerts the most powerful force on human behaviour. Anger has the dubious reputation of being ‘the first emotion human beings experience and the last we learn to manage’ (Colleen Kelley).
Anger is firmly rooted in our so-called reptilian brain, which we share with all living creatures. Thousands of years ago, this primitive emotion, associated with the fight-or-flight response, was used as a survival method in battle or hunting. Anger occurs naturally as a reaction to a perceived threat and can be useful in providing us with a boost of energy thus allowing us to deal with a challenging situation. In this way it is a constructive and positive component to survival.
The problem arises when anger becomes an inappropriate response to daily life stresses and can no longer be controlled. Seldom creative and often destructive, anger is harmful to the body and can weaken the immune system, in addition to causing aggression and disrupting relationships. Rage, the ultimate manifestation of anger, typically inhibits individuals from their capacity to reason, resulting in aggressive or violent behaviours; and producing physiological symptoms such as tunnel vision, muffled hearing, faster heartbeat and hyperventilation.
So what causes some to experience and exhibit rage in its extreme forms of anger and hate, and others not? It has been suggested that, in addition to the fight-or-flight response, another factor generating feelings of intense and long lasting rage is low self-esteem. In this case, rage is understood as being internally focused as a sort of self-inflicted anger or narcissistic response to past injuries. Dr Mark Goulston (Psychology Today, February 8, 2012) suggests that ‘narcissistic rage occurs when narcissists believe the next insult/assault to their grandiose based stability would shatter them’. Equally, rage in this scenario is a self-defence reaction linked to survival in response to a perceived threat.
According to Buddhist thought, anger is ‘one of the most common and destructive delusions, and it afflicts our mind almost every day’ (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - How to Solve our Human Problems: The Four Noble Truths, 2004). In Buddha’s words: ‘Holding on to anger is like grasping at a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, you are the one who gets burned.’
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be helpful in tackling anger issues by exploring its root causes, developing awareness of the triggers that bring anger to the forefront, and providing useful techniques to help control this seemingly untameable beast. Anger, like other emotions, is comprised of three components: subjective (our experience of the emotion), physiological (our physical reactions to the emotion) and expressive (our behaviour in response to the emotion). So, it is not anger that is destructive, but how we allow it to affect our judgment. In other words, anger exists only in our minds.
In addition to counselling, meditation might be helpful in reducing the emotionally debilitating symptoms of anger. Recent neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who practice daily meditation are less prone to anxiety and rage.
The positive effects of meditation result in a state of tranquility called the ‘relaxation effect’, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight survival response. It is hopeful to note that, according to a Harvard Medical School study (Harvard Science Gazette, November 13, 2012), the relaxation effect lasts long after the meditating state and induces a reversal of the negative stress on the body. If indeed most of our emotional problems stem from a failure to accept things as they are, nurturing our capacity for patient acceptance rather than attempting to change external events over which we have no control seems to be a logical solution.
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