Understanding Anger as a Secondary Emotion

anger as a secondary emotionOne of the basic realities of being in a situation with angry, hostile people is that it is easy to become angry and hostile in return. Besides fear and panic, the emotion of anger is experienced by many people when facing threat from others. In fact, often our deepest insecurities in a volatile situation emerge, not as anxiety, but as anger.

However, some human relations experts suggest that anger is virtually always a secondary emotion in response to and/or masking a more primary emotion. This primary emotion, the experts tell us, is most often fear.

While anger is usually understood as destructive, it can also be understood and expressed in constructive ways .For example, anger can be a guide, pointing to things that may be wrong in our lives and relationships. Anger can also energize us and others to change habitual, negative patterns of relating – whether these
are with our family members, or co-workers, or with members of the local community in which we operate. Anger points to something that is important to us and sends the message – “Take Action!”

We experience anger in our bodies as well as in our minds. That is, anger is as much a physiological response as it is a mental one. It is important to recognize anger’s physical component because an awareness of this dimension allows us to recognize our signs of anger earlier than we might otherwise recognize them in our minds. When we are aware of our bodily reactions as they are first beginning, we are more able to make critical, responsible choices about our actions and behavior.

Think about the last time you felt angry. If you have difficulty identifying such a time, try to remember the last time you felt quite annoyed or irritated with someone.

Questions for Reflection:
• How did you know you were angry?
• What were you feeling in your body? What are the specific physiological indicators of your anger? (e.g accelerated heart rate…what else?)
• At what other times do you experience many of theses same physiological indicators? What other events in your life stimulate these same physical reactions in you?

Behavioral social scientists have observed that we experience many of the same physiological symptoms we associate with the emotion of anger when we are experiencing emotions and experiences as diverse as intense joy, intense amusement, intense cardiovascular exercise, intense fear or anxiety, and sexual arousal. This suggests that, in many ways, there is a fine line between these vastly differing experiences and that this line is created by context and human interpretation. In other words, it is the angry person who feels the physical reactions beginning in him/herself and then, based on what s/he observes occurring around him, interprets those physical indicators as anger – although this interpretation happens very quickly and often subconsciously, the fact remains that your body begins reacting before your mind has fully decided what you are feeling.

This finding, in turn, is significant because it suggests that we have more control over our own reactions to anger than many people believe or admit (e.g. “ I can’t help it, I just lose control when I get mad!” or “I’ve just got a bit of a temper, okay?!”). If we pay attention to our bodies, the above lines are no longer valid. If we have the power to interpret that we are becoming angry, we also have the power to make responsible choices about how we will respond to our anger. The key then is to accept that we do and sometimes should get angry, to become better at acknowledging when we are angry before we have either escalated or denied it, and then to make good choices about what to do with that anger.

Angry mom and daughter photo available from Shutterstock

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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