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Anger: Conscious versus Unconscious

by | Mar 6, 2022

What is the difference between conscious anger and unconscious anger? What is really meant by the term ‘anger management’? Is there such a thing as a healthy level of anger? What can we do to maintain a healthy balance?

 

Is society becoming increasingly angry? Many individuals recognise that they have an ‘anger management problem’. It is highly likely that all of us know someone who becomes very easily irritated, frustrated or annoyed, and often loses their temper. It is then also very probable that others around them feel on edge because they know they are likely to snap at any moment over the slightest thing. This creates an atmosphere of unpleasant unpredictability and insecurity. When individuals become aware that these occurrences are happening regularly, they, and those around them, know instinctively that something is wrong. They are said to have an ‘anger management problem’ but is it really the anger that is the problem? How well do we really understand the root cause? How well do we really understand the healthiest way to manage this powerful emotion?

Before we focus specifically on ‘anger’, let us first consider the role of feelings and emotions through the lens of evolution. All emotions are chemical messengers in the body designed to get our attention. The subconscious part of the brain is always monitoring our internal and external environment and is constantly trying to keep the whole organism in balance, otherwise known as ‘homeostasis’. The subconscious has access to all the current data relating to our internal bodily systems and all information coming in through our senses from the external environment. The subconscious is aware of any threat or imbalance long before we become consciously aware. If the subconscious decides that we need to take action to avoid a threat, deal with a potential hazard or seek out ways to get our innate needs met, it will release the appropriate chemicals to send us a feeling. The stronger the feeling or emotion, the more our attention system is forced to focus on the issue at hand. This has the effect of narrowing our attention and stopping us from being able to focus on other, less urgent, issues.

Our available conscious intelligence, therefore, is increasingly restricted the stronger the feeling gets. If we imagine how our life would have been a hundred thousand years ago, before we had the complexities of modern society, we would have been able to pay attention to each feeling and take the action needed to keep ourselves, as far as possible, in a state of homeostasis. As society has inevitably become busier and more complex, we have many more competing priorities. It is not difficult to see how our attention can be constantly pulled from one thing to the next as we try to juggle all the things, people, places and tasks that require our focus each day. Learning to maintain our focus and hold our attention on whatever we choose is a vital life skill that we start to learn from a very young age. One problem is that most of us do not recognise the need to keep improving this skill throughout our life.

If we now look specifically at the feeling of anger, we may be able to recognise that it sits on a continuum, from minor annoyances and little frustrations all the way to full-blown uncontrollable rage. We should also hopefully be able to see that it is our perception of the situation that dictates the strength of the feeling, not the situation itself. As mentioned above, we probably all know somebody (maybe even ourselves) who reacts in a way that others would consider disproportionate and excessive to the situation. This awareness is an important starting point for anyone wishing to improve their own anger management.

Let us return to considering anger by thinking about evolution. Why would we have evolved the internal chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline usually being the most referred to) to produce such powerful feelings that can sometimes lead to highly destructive behaviours? It may be clear that a feeling of anger is required to focus our attention on a threat in the environment. Whether it was to defend ourselves or our loved ones against a predator or defend our territory from an invading tribe, there are times in life when we must take decisive action to survive and maintain our integrity. It may also then become apparent that anger is always preceded by fear. Ultimately, the fear of ourselves or our loved ones being hurt or killed, or the fear of losing our place of safety, our territory; anger always stems from the fear of losing something important.

Let us now consider proportionality. Throughout history, societies have become increasingly complex and human beings have become increasingly civilised. We have evolved from living by the laws of nature to the laws of society. This has brought increased security and control to our lives, affording us the opportunity to relax and enjoy the pleasures that life can bring. The laws of society are based on rights, fairness, and justice whereas the laws of nature do not entertain such complications. Living in a fair and just society where there are written rules and consequences for breaking them, means that we can have higher expectations. We can expect a measure of security, control, and freedom in our lives. The reason that I point this out is to demonstrate the huge change in our perception of life from how we lived pre modern society to now.

With higher expectations, it follows that there is more that can go wrong to leave us disappointed. Whereas anger used to be a useful emotion for emergencies, in times of defence against an immediate threat, it now can be employed for the smallest of daily matters when things do not go as expected. Therefore, the hormones of stress enter the bloodstream far more frequently and stay for longer than they were originally designed for. Throughout hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, the powerful hormones of stress – powerful enough to make a person fight or run without thinking – would have only originally been in the system for the appropriate period of time whilst the threat imminent or present. Nowadays, a person can stay in a state of fear and anger for hours, days, months or even years until it becomes the normal state of being. If the body is being exposed to the same chemicals on a regular basis (consider nicotine, alcohol, heroin etc) it will come to expect those chemicals to be there. People therefore end up becoming habituated and actually addicted to their own stress hormones. Whilst they may instinctively know they are out of balance, it may have become so accepted, that it is a huge leap to imagine living without their daily fix!

As society has become increasingly civilised, individuals have come to expect more. As we expect more, there is more that can go wrong. If we feel our expectations are not being met, we are going to have a feeling of disappointment. If we feel disappointed, we feel frustrated that things are not going as they should. We are then living ‘without’ something – in a state of ‘loss’ or ‘lack’. Throughout evolution, a feeling of loss would have stemmed from a potentially serious incident, for example, a loved one being injured or killed, food or territory being stolen by a competitor. So, living in a state of lack is a stressful state to be in. The problem, these days, is that the state of disappointment, frustration and loss that people regularly find themselves in, is completely out of proportion to the emergency, life-or-death, situation that evolution designed the stress hormones to deal with.

Usually, when people describe themselves or others as having an ‘anger management problem’ they usually mean that they get too angry, too quickly, often over minor issues, and often resulting in aggressive and violent behaviour that they later regret. One problem with this is the terminology itself. They do have an anger management problem, but not in the way it has come to be understood. They have an anger management problem in the sense that they have not learned how to express anger consciously. They are expressing anger unconsciously which can mean they quickly lose control and can easily fly into a rage. Through extreme anxiety and fear of loss, their defence systems have become habituated to being hijacked as if they are facing a life-or-death situation. The anger management problem that they have is not that they get angry too much, it is that they have not learned the skills of staying conscious with their anger. So, what should anger look like?

Every time we find ourselves in a new situation, the conscious part of the brain is activated. At the same time, the unconscious part of the brain is scanning and searching its vast database of experiences, patterns and templates to find similarities with what it already knows so it can make sense of the situation. Every time we learn something new, the conscious and the unconscious are at work. The conscious brain creating new neuronal connections whilst the unconscious is finding links between existing patterns of knowledge and the new incoming information. If we never use that new information again, that neuronal connection will get pruned. If we keep going over, repeating, reusing that new information, the neuronal pathway gets stronger. Once we have fully learned something, that we don’t really have to think about it, that unique combination of neuronal connections, that light up when we are using that information, can be turned on automatically. Once a neuronal network is turning on automatically, the conscious brain no longer needs to activate, it is delegated to the unconscious brain.

The reason this system of conscious and unconscious brains operates in this way is to do with energy. Taking in new information, staying conscious whilst the unconscious is operating in the background, requires large amounts of energy. Once something is understood, fully learned, with its own established neuronal network, it saves energy for the unconscious to run it independently. This then leaves the conscious brain free to take on new learning. It is a fundamental, non-negotiable, human need that we stay on a path of learning, development, growth and achievement throughout our lives. There are many forms of nourishment that human beings require. As well as our physical bodies, made up of cells, we also have a sense that we are a unique consciousness. That sense of our self also requires nourishment if we are to thrive. When we are not learning, developing, growing or achieving, we start to get a sense that our life is losing its meaning and purpose.

The unconscious, that is constantly monitoring all information coming from outside and inside our bodies, knows if a need is not being met in balance. It will then release some chemicals in the body. Those chemicals produce a feeling in us to make us pay attention. If we pay attention correctly, we can become aware that the unconscious is sending us a message that there is a need that is not being met. If we are good at interpreting and translating the message, we can quickly work out which need is not being met and take action to correct the imbalance. Human beings are so complex – the human brain being the most complex piece of machinery in the known universe – that it is a difficult task keeping ourselves in balance. We have the most complex set of needs of any known living organism, so we have far more that can go wrong. We therefore need the best understanding we can get so that we know the importance of trying to stay in balance, the healthiest ways to keep ourselves in balance, and what to do when we know we are out of balance.

The way that we learn to deal with emotions will depend largely on the culture in which we grow up. By the term ‘culture’, I am referring both to the immediate culture of our home and family and then the wider culture of our neighbourhoods, areas and country. It is highly unlikely that we will have received formal teaching on managing our emotions. It is then most likely that we will have formed our own opinions and beliefs about the role and purpose of emotions, the extent to which they are controllable or not and the strategies we need when we are struggling. It then follows that there is a very good chance that much of our understanding is flawed and ill-conceived. It is therefore very probable that, regardless of the level of our academic intelligence, we have low emotional intelligence. Having low emotional intelligence leaves us more vulnerable to emotional problems. It is becoming increasingly clear that many people are seeking help with the problems from which they are suffering. The problems are varied and range in intensity and duration but are always debilitating in some way for the sufferer. To begin to solve the problem, we have to teach some understanding.