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Unravelling the Complexities of Anger (Part One)

As a trauma therapist, I have the privilege of working closely with individuals navigating the intricate landscape of their emotions. One emotion that frequently arises in therapy sessions is anger, a powerful and multifaceted emotional experience. Anger often gets a bad reputation. Many may view this emotion as “bad” or even destructive. However, anger is a necessary core emotion which typically occurs in response to perceived threats, injustices or frustrations. In order to better understand the nuances of anger, we will first consider an overview of the role of the nervous system, while exploring the distinction between primary and secondary emotion, and adaptive and maladaptive expressions of anger. Finally, we will consider the context of sociocultural factors and power dynamics that may influence both the experience and the expression of anger.


Peter Levine, a renowned psychologist, views anger as a natural response to perceived threat or danger. When we feel threatened, our nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response, preparing us to defend ourselves or protect another. Anger is often associated with the mobilization of our sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, or the “fight” in the fight or flight response. Physiologically, when the fight response is activated, several changes occur to prepare the body to defend including increased heart rate, release of stress hormones, dilation of pupils, sweating, muscle tension and  increased breathing rate. This is a helpful and automated response that works to keep us safe. However, if there is a history of trauma or chronic anger, we may feel stuck in this stress response or conversely, unable to access it. Ideally, we are able to fluidly move through our survival responses and emotions in an adaptive way, while within the context of our environments. 


In popular culture, anger is often referenced as a secondary emotion. While this is partially true, anger can actually manifest as both a primary and secondary emotion. Understanding the difference between these two expressions is crucial in unravelling the underlying emotional experience and promoting healing


Primary Anger:

A primary emotion is our first response and can be thought of as our “gut instinct”.  Primary anger refers to the initial, instinctive response to a perceived threat or injustice. It emerges as a protective mechanism, signalling that something is amiss and prompting us to take action. Primary anger serves as a vital survival tool, mobilizing energy and motivating individuals to address situations that infringe upon their well-being. Acknowledging and processing primary anger can be empowering, helping individuals assert their boundaries and assertively communicate their needs when it is expressed in an adaptive way. 


Secondary Anger:

A secondary emotion is a reaction to a primary emotion. Secondary anger often masks other vulnerable emotions lurking beneath the surface. As you can see on the diagram, this is represented by what I am calling “hot anger” exploding out of the top volcano. On the surface it may appear as aggression, rage, blame or even physical violence. It arises as a defense mechanism to shield oneself from primary feelings of hurt, sadness, fear, or shame. In this context, anger acts as a smokescreen, guarding individuals against the rawness of their underlying emotions. Recognizing and unravelling secondary anger within the therapeutic process can lead to profound emotional breakthroughs, revealing the true core of one's pain.





Emotions can be complicated and there is not always a linear process from a primary emotion to an adaptive expression of that emotion. Sometimes a primary emotion is thwarted, or obstructed, for many different reasons and instead a secondary emotion is felt and/or expressed. In the diagram, this is represented by what I am calling “cold anger”. In this example, the primary emotion of anger is thwarted and instead, on the surface we see something different perhaps sadness and crying, feeling shut down or even a fawn response in which there is smiling and politeness. 


It is important to discern between the emotion, the internal felt sense, and the expression or outward behaviour of that emotion. One can feel the emotion of anger internally and express this outwardly in ways that may be healthy and adaptive or unhealthy and maladaptive. This distinction lies at the heart of promoting emotional well-being and healthy relationships.


Adaptive Anger:

Adaptive anger involves expressing and channeling anger in constructive ways that honor one's needs without causing harm to oneself or others. It entails open communication, assertiveness, and setting appropriate boundaries. Adaptive anger can be a catalyst for personal growth and transformation when utilized as a driving force for change, advocacy, and the pursuit of justice. Peter Levine refers to this as “healthy aggression”. Oftentimes, for this to occur, there needs to be a certain amount of internal safety or nervous system capacity and a certain amount of external, or environmental safety. 


Maladaptive Anger:

On the other hand, Maladaptive anger refers to the uncontrolled, disproportionate, or destructive expressions of anger that harm oneself or others. It can manifest as aggression, hostility, or even self-directed violence. Maladaptive anger often stems from unresolved emotional wounds and can perpetuate cycles of harm, hindering personal growth and straining relationships. This kind of anger typically is a form of a survival strategy or defense mechanism, whether it developed in relation to a harsh environment, including oppression, or was handed down generationally. In some situations, maladaptive anger may not be maladaptive at all, especially if there is imminent danger. Recognizing maladaptive anger and exploring its underlying emotional roots are crucial steps towards healing and cultivating healthier coping mechanisms. Maladaptive anger can be “hot anger” which results as a reactive secondary emotion in response to underlying primary feelings that are unaddressed in some way or it can be a primary maladaptive anger which is shut down and expressed as another secondary emotion like the “cold anger” example. 


The way that anger is felt or thwarted, expressed or suppressed is not only determined by our own internal capacity but also within a sociocultural context that includes power dynamics. Within power dynamics, individuals who hold positions of authority or privilege often face fewer consequences for expressing anger assertively or aggressively (in the diagram this is represented by the wolf who may be “one up” in terms of power dynamics). Their anger may be more readily validated, normalized or perceived as justified, reinforcing their position of power. On the other hand, marginalized individuals, who are disproportionately affected by systemic inequities, may face repercussions or further marginalization when expressing their anger, even if it is technically adaptive (represented as the rabbit who may be “one down” in terms of power dynamics. In certain scenarios where the “rabbit” is under potential threat with a “wolf”, it may actually be more adaptive for the rabbit to thwart their primary anger (i.e. a fight response in the nervous system) and instead resort  to survival strategies such as freeze or feign death. Our autonomic nervous system is designed to quickly and automatically choose a response under threat that will offer the best chances of survival while under threat. When there is a power dynamic at play, as represented here by the predator/wolf and prey/rabbit, the person in the “one down” or prey position will automatically move into a freeze, fawn or feign death response. You can observe this behaviour across mammals and may recognize this as “playing dead” so that a predator may lose interest. This dynamic reflects the intricate interplay between the nervous systems stress response and sociocultural factors, highlighting the complex ways in which power dynamics shape emotional experiences. 


The idea that emotions like anger are influenced by both internal factors and external factors like sociocultural context is supported by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s recent research findings. Barrett's theory suggests that emotions are not discrete and pre-programmed responses, but rather constructed by the brain based on a combination of sensory inputs, past experiences, and cultural influences. This perspective challenges the notion of anger as a universal, innate response and emphasizes the variability and context-dependence of emotional experiences.


Unraveling the complexities of anger unveils a dynamic and multifaceted emotion influenced by the interplay of internal processes and external influences. The expression and experience of anger can vary greatly, influenced by factors such as individual nervous system capacity, emotional regulation, trauma history, power dynamics, and sociocultural context, including systems of oppression. Understanding the intricate role of the nervous system, discerning between primary and secondary expressions of anger, and recognizing both adaptive and maladaptive responses can act as springboards from which we can harness anger's potential for profound healing and transformation. As we navigate the complexities of human emotion, may we foster greater understanding and compassion, paving the way for individual and collective healing and growth.





References


Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books.


Greenberg, L. (2023, May 11). Working with Shame and Anger in Psychotherapy [Webinar]. Centre for Psychology and Emotional Health.


Levine, P. A. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books.


Menakem, R. (2021). My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press.


Real, T. (2018). Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build More of a Loving Relationship. St. Martin's Press.


*Also, a special thank you is owed to my “triad”, Adina and Pete, for their listening ears, open hearts and sharp minds, all of which helped this article come to fruition.



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1 Comment


Dave A
Dave A
Mar 27

Such great insight and I love the diagram!!

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