How Anger Works

Some watch hockey just for the angry fights.  See more emotion pictures.
Some watch hockey just for the angry fights.  See more emotion pictures.
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he 1­976 film "Network" is famous for the line "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" The fictional news anchor who utters the line becomes a celebrity, with the movie tracking how his angry diatribes result in high ratings. We still love to watch people get angry, from John McEnroe slamming down his tennis racket during a match to political candidates who utter expletives when they don't know the microphone is still on.

­We can tune into anger on every channel, from trash-talking wrestlers to venting stand-up comedians. We check out the chair throwing on "The Jerry Springer Show," and when we can't get enough from television, we'll turn to YouTube to see clips of celebrities acting out against the paparazzi.


While we may help these displays of anger to garner ratings and sell tabloids, we're much more hesitant to look at anger in our own lives. Anger is an emotion that encompasses everything from mild irritation to intense rage. We may think of anger as a negative emotion, one that gets us all worked up and causes us to say things we don't mean. Sure, we're annoyed, but hasn't everyone been told, "Don't get bent out of shape?" This seems to imply that anger is an unnatural distortion of who you are.

That's not true, though. Anger is a natural emotion that alerts us when something has violated the natural order of how we think things should go. This natural order may be societal; for example, when a shopper has 20 items in a 10-items-or-fewer line, this may make us angry because it's a violation of a clearly defined rule. But it can also show us that things are not happening the way that we as individuals expect them to go.

­The bodily effects of anger are meant to motivate us to take charge and restore the balance of right and wrong. But for this to occur, you have to get angry for the right reason and express your anger appropriately. As the images on our TV screens and monitors show us, this is a fine line to walk.

So how do we decide what triggers are justified? And then what happens -- does your blood really boil? What's the best way to let someone know you're angry that doesn't result in a bill for physical damage? On the next page, we'll take a look at what makes us angry.

What Pushes Your Buttons? Anger Triggers

Feeling ignored, or feeling that we're not getting the same as everyone else, can lead to anger.
Feeling ignored, or feeling that we're not getting the same as everyone else, can lead to anger.
Digital Vision/Getty Images

You can probably think of lots of things that make you angry. A sports referee who doesn't call fouls on the opposing team. A friend who forgot your lunch date. A child's bedroom that is never cleaned. The driver who cut you off this morning. The price of gas. Telemarketers, politicians, cell phones.

The list could go on and on, but what all these things boil down to is two things: violation of expectation and blockage of goals [source: Carpenter]. We expect to be treated fairly and get angry when we're yelled at for no reason. If your goal is to get a refreshing drink but the soda machine is empty, that could cause some anger. If others don't adhere to your social or personal norms, you'll get angry. To take a silly example of this, let's say that you don't think people should wear socks with sandals. When this aberration walks through your door, it violates your expectations of taste.


Anger triggers differ for everyone. They vary by age, gender, even culture. One study evaluated anger in babies of different ethnicities. Chinese babies were generally found to be calm in any position they were placed. In one experiment in which a cloth was briefly pressed against the baby's face, American babies tended to get fussy and push the cloth away, while Chinese babies usually put up with the cloth, not letting it anger them [source: Tavris].

While this study is interesting, it doesn't mean that anger is hardwired into a particular culture. It doesn't even mean that a baby will grow up angry; studies have shown that even a 1-year-old with a penchant for throwing temper tantrums can be a perfectly mild-mannered 5-year-old [source: Tavris]. Each of these babies, though, will learn the triggers that are acceptable for that culture, and the way that the culture deals with them.

Anger in women is more likely triggered by their close relationships; they feel let down by family members and friends, or they feel that these people expect too much of them without anything in return [source: Thomas]. A man is more likely to be angered by strangers, objects that aren't working correctly and larger societal issues that prompt concerns about right and wrong [source: Thomas]. Men's anger is a little more abstract, while women's anger appears to be intermingled with the hurt they feel with those closest to them. Children's anger tends to be about goal blockages and objects; if you've ever seen a child separated from toys, this likely makes sense [source: Carpenter].

But these triggers by themselves aren't enough to get us angry. There's a mental component in which we evaluate whether anger is a justifiable response against this person or object. In a split second, we take in who's to blame, how harmful the trigger is, whether the action was avoidable and whether anger will even be useful in this situation [source: Linden et al.].

We also evaluate the intent of the person behind the trigger, based on the information we have. In rush hour, we may get angry at the driver who cuts us off because it violates the rules of the road. But what if you knew that the driver was trying to make it to the hospital for the birth of his first child? Would your response be different? These are the assessments we're weighing. In less than a second, our brains determine if this trigger justifies our anger.

So our brains are getting busy evaluating these triggers. What else is happening in the body?

On the next page, we'll look at the physical effects of anger.

It Makes My Blood Boil! Physical Effects of Anger

Anger is usually detectable in the face.
Anger is usually detectable in the face.
Cal Crary/Photodisc/Getty Images

When a cartoon character gets angry, steams comes out the ears, red creeps over the body from head to toe and there may even be an explosion or two. It's not as entertaining to watch in real life, but the state of anger causes physical effects in us as well. The response varies from person to person, but some symptoms include teeth grinding, fists clenching, flushing, paling, prickly sensations, numbness, sweating, muscle tensions and temperature changes [source: Tavris].

The feeling of anger may differ from person to person; women, for example, are more likely to describe anger slowly building through the body rate, while men describe it as a fire or a flood raging within them [source: Thomas]. Of course, it varies by what's acceptable in the culture as well: Some Asian cultures may experience anger in a milder way and for a shorter time than Caucasian Americans [source: Diong]. Either way, it's much like the fight-or-flight response; your body is gearing up for a fight to survive a wrong that's been perpetrated against you. Chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the body.


In the brain, the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotion, is going crazy. It wants to do something, and the time between a trigger event and a response from the amygdala can be a quarter of a second [source: Ellison]. But at the same time, blood flow is increasing to the frontal lobe, specifically the part of the brain that's over the left eye. This area controls reasoning and is likely what's keeping you from hurling a vase across the room. These areas generally balance each other out quickly; according to some research, the neurological response to anger lasts less than two seconds [source: McCarthy]. This is why you get a lot of advice about counting to 10 when angry.

Many cite the example of Phineas Gage to explain the importance of the frontal lobe in controlling our rage. In 1848, Gage, a nice, dependable railroad worker suffered an accident in which a rod went through his skull, right above the left eye. From then on, Gage was angry, irritable and unstable, and not just because he'd had a rod driven through his skull. Rather, the rod had destroyed the part of his brain that could inhibit an angry response.

If you're constantly being activated by triggers, however, then this state of response can start to cause damage. Chronically angry people may not have the mechanism to turn off these effects. They may not produce acetylcholine, a hormone which tempers the more severe effects of adrenaline. Their nervous system is constantly working and can eventually become overexerted, leading to a weakened heart and stiffer arteries [source: Angier]. There's potential for liver and kidney damage, as well as high cholesterol. Anger may bring along some accompanying issues, such as depression or anxiety .

Anger's physical side effects explain why you frequently see studies about the damage that this emotion can do to our bodies. In one study of almost 13,000 subjects, individuals with the highest levels of anger had twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack, as compared to the subjects with the lowest levels of anger [source: Kam]. Some scientists think that chronic anger may be more dangerous than smoking and obesity as a factor that will contribute to early death [source: Angier].

For some of these effects, the key is tempering the triggers that set you off, so that you're not mad at every little thing. But for some of these diseases, the key is how you're expressing your anger. On the next page, we'll look at whether letting it all hang out is a good idea.

I Need to Vent! Anger Expression

This anger-out method isn't the best way to express emotion.
This anger-out method isn't the best way to express emotion.
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/ Getty Images

You've probably heard the phrase, "getting angry won't solve anything." This is true. Just being angry won't fix the issue that's making you angry. But the physical cues of anger alert you that something needs to be done, and the way that you express your anger could lead to solving the problem.

Goals of anger expression include:


  • Correcting wrongdoing, or showing the offender that the behavior was inappropriate.
  • Maintaining the relationship, or addressing the interpersonal problems that caused you to get angry.
  • Demonstrating power, which may be a way to ensure that this trigger doesn't happen again.

[source: Weber]

These goals may vary in importance depending on who you're dealing with; for example, you'd probably treat a friend much differently than you'd treat a stranger.

But how do you do this? Anger expression typically takes one of three forms: anger-in, anger-out and anger control. Anger-in is turning anger inwards. This method of keeping anger inside has been described as depression [source: Tavris]. This method is overwhelmingly observed in women, who feel that society frowns upon angry women. Anger held in can leak out in unproductive, passive-aggressive ways, such as sulking or backhanded sarcasm. Anger-out is expressing anger outwardly in ways that include physical assault on people or objects and hostile verbal assault.

Sometimes you hear that you shouldn't keep anger bottled up inside you, but lashing out at everyone who makes you angry doesn't always make you feel better. Indeed, people describe feeling out of control and powerless when they practice both anger-in and anger-out methods of expressing anger [source: Thomas et al.]. Practicing anger control, or dealing with anger in an appropriate manner, is the ideal.

In studies, respondents have identified talking things over with the offender as the most appropriate way to deal with anger [source: Weber]. It's not just venting or yelling at the person; it's telling them why you're angry in a way that moves toward a solution. This method of expression is why anger can sometimes be good for us. We're moved to address a negative in our life and make it a positive. It can force us to fix problems in relationships that we want to maintain. In some cases, it might be a simple fix; the person may not have known that what they were doing was angering you.

But just because we know this is the most productive way to control our anger, that doesn't mean we do it all the time, or even that we can. It may be impossible, let's say, to track down every reckless driver for a calm conversation. When you can't do this, you have to find healthy ways to get your body to exit its angry state. These are things like exercise, meditation, watching your favorite sitcom and so on. The way you cope is going to be unique to what works for you.

It's been shown that just talking to a third party can help, as long as it's not done in a gossipy, malicious way. Calmly discussing the incident so as to gain perspective on it has been shown to lower blood pressure and lead the way to all-around better health [source: Thomas]. But as you might expect, people who are frequently angry often lack that sort of support, primarily because no one wants to be around them. So what are they supposed to do? Find out about one option on the next page.

Out of Control: Anger Management

They just asked if he wanted onions on his sandwich.
They just asked if he wanted onions on his sandwich.
LWA/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

We all know someone who always seems to be upset with something, to the point that their entire worldview is angry. These people likely use the words "always" and "never" in describing their anger, as in, "You're always late," and "I never get promoted," which suggests that there's no solution, and thus no reason to healthily express the anger [source: APA]. Chronically angry people may have built up years of expecting to be disappointed and frustrated by events around them. These people react more angrily to even small stressful events, but in doing so, they create even more reasons to be angry. Individuals with higher anger describe higher levels of family conflict and lower levels of social support because of the effect their anger has on those around them [source: Diong].

You've also likely observed that some people are more prone to get aggressive and violent. Several things may be behind that shorter fuse, including genetics, traumatic experiences and environmental stress. It may also be societal; if your society holds that anger is bad, then you may not learn how to express anger productively. That's where anger management might help.


Anger management therapy is often court-ordered for people who show violent tendencies, such as young bullies, criminals and aggressive drivers. The work can be conducted individually or in a group and include training on identifying anger triggers, expressing anger without losing control and relaxation methods. These courses may be somewhat limited because anger is not defined by the DSM-IV, the diagnostic bible for mental health professionals, and as such, there's not a specific way to diagnose or treat someone with chronic anger. Some studies indicate that the classes have little to no effect [source: Carey]. One reason may be that many people don't realize they have a problem with anger and may not be receptive to the classes.

If you decide to pursue anger management therapy, it's important to have the right attitude and expectations. These classes do not cure you of anger, so that you're never angry again. Instead, you learn how to defuse triggers and express anger in a healthy way. Be prepared to pay: One anger management facilitator puts his usual fees at $250 per hour for one-on-one training, and about $500 per person for 10 one-hour classes with multiple participants [source: Andrews]. To find an anger management professional, you could start with the American Association of Anger Management Providers.

On the next page, we'll look at how anger through the lens of religion and politics.

Rage Against the Machine: Religious Anger and Political Anger

The story of Jesus in the temple, a famous story of biblical anger, appears in all four Gospels.
The story of Jesus in the temple, a famous story of biblical anger, appears in all four Gospels.
After Gustave Dore/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

Discussing religion and politics may provide many anger triggers for an opinionated person. But in addition to providing the potential for heated discussion, anger, religion and politics often intersect in interesting ways.

Public anger is anger that is collectively directed toward the institutions in power. We express this kind of anger when we vote, based on what we think is wrong with the country and what needs to be done about it. Without public anger exploding over the course of U.S. history, we might still have slaves, and white men would be the only ones allowed to vote. Perhaps we wouldn't even be talking about the United States -- we'd still be colonies. Anger can be a powerful force for changing things that madden us about society.


But what of God's anger with society? In 2006, Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, garnered attention for saying that Hurricane Katrina occurred because "God is mad at America" and black communities [source: Martel]. That's but one example from history of people grappling with earthly events as signs of God's wrath; from the Black Death to the attacks of Sept. 11, many have been concerned about whether God is expressing anger.

People of all religious faiths have also struggled with scriptural evidence of whether God or other religious deities want us to express anger. Anger is roundly criticized in Buddhist texts, and the Dalai Lama once said that even in reacting to disturbing news in Tibet, he rarely feels anger, which can "poison the mind and embitter the heart" [source: Vernezze]. Sometimes the evidence can be more conflicting, with Christians trying to reconcile Jesus' anger in the temple with his command to turn the other cheek.

Some see the former as a "righteous anger," which can become troublesome when we adopt the excuse for ourselves. Much violence has been committed in God's name, and suicide bombings and wars are tragic examples of two viewpoints, both justified to believers, clashing. In 2007, a study of almost 500 college students examined the effect of violence in Scripture. Half of the students were from Brigham Young University, a religious university associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The other half were from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Of the Dutch students, 50 percent said they believed in God, and 27 percent believed in the Bible, while 99 percent of the Brigham Young students believed in God and the Bible [source: Bushman et al.].

The groups were asked to read an obscure biblical passage that told of a woman's brutal killing and her husband's revenge, which involved killing everyone in several cities. Half the participants were told that the story was biblical, while the other half was told that the story was found on an ancient scroll. Half of both groups were provided an additional sentence that indicated that God commanded the husband's violence.

The groups were then tested for aggression, using a common laboratory exercise for measuring the behavior. The study found that religious students acted more aggressively when told that the violence was in the Bible. But both religious and nonreligious students were more aggressive when told that the violence was sanctioned by God, although nonreligious students were less affected than religious ones [source: Bushman et al.].

This study indicates that scriptural violence has an effect on believers, but the study's authors note that this was one violent episode taken out of context. If religious extremists were to focus on such passages, they might be angrier, but within the context of an entire scriptural work, believers find many examples of how to deal with anger more peacefully.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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