Anger is primal, and it’s one of the first emotions small children learn to express. It’s common to see small children throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want, and everyone has seen tiny kids break into physical expressions of anger when they feel particularly affronted. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, children younger than three are able to communicate anger, and they’re beginning to learn to describe why they feel angry. In short, humans are hardwired to feel anger when they experience a personal affront or they’re dealing with an injustice, and this anger can be incredibly useful. By expressing anger, people expose an issue that is bothering them. After the issue is exposed, it can be solved, and the anger can dissipate.

For some people, however, anger tends to linger long after the original affront has taken place. Insults that happened months or even years ago still have the ability to rankle, and new issues bring about rapid, intense, overwhelming responses. Others seem to view everything that happens to them as an insult, and they respond to all issues with an overwhelming sense of anger.

People like this may have an anger disorder, and they could place themselves and those they love in danger if they don’t get help.

The Purpose of Anger

The human brain is binary, and it likes to quickly tag a situation as either good or bad.

If a situation is good, the brain can flood the body with feel-good chemicals and prepare the body to be receptive to the wonderful things that are about to occur. If a situation is bad, the brain can increase the fight-or-flight response and prepare the body for something terrible that is about to take place. The emotion of anger allows the body to make this calculation quite quickly. When a person is insulted, in danger, disregarded or otherwise abused, anger flows and the body knows something bad has happened or is about to happen. The pupils dilate, allowing the person to take in more light in order to see during a fight. The pulse races, the reflexes quicken, and the body moves blood from the gut to the extremities, so the person can run or engage in combat. Anger just makes this process quicker.

People tend to get angry when they are:

  • Threatened
  • Prohibited from reaching a goal
  • Embarrassed in front of others
  • Treated unfairly
  • Disappointed

These situations might also give rise to shame, but according to an article published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, most causes of anger have some sort of aspect of blame to them. If a situation comes about that is totally our own fault, we feel shame. If a situation comes about because of the actions of someone else, we feel anger. If a child doesn’t tie his shoes and trips on his laces, he feels shame. If that child is tripped by a classmate, he feels anger.

People who are angry might shout or wave their arms about or say brash things. They might get angry right in the moment, or they might get angry later when they think back on what has happened. In either case, if they express their anger, they tend to calm back down. They might talk directly to the person who has upset them, or they might tell other supportive people about the problem and express their emotions away from the event in a safe place. Experts agree that most expressions of anger are positive. By expressing anger, people direct that anger outward. People who do not express their anger still feel angry, but they may turn that anger inward and become angry with themselves.

According to a study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, people who have depression or another form of mental illness tend to bottle up their emotions, feeding their mental illnesses instead of dealing with the issue, and they suffer as a result. It’s not always bad to express anger. In fact, it can be dangerous not to do so.

Anger Disorders

People with anger disorders tend to express their anger inappropriately. They may become extremely angry at a moment’s notice, and they may express an intense amount of anger over a small infraction. People with this disorder, known as intermittent explosive disorder, may scream and throw things when they are faced with a small infraction. Someone cuts in line, and someone with an intermittent explosive disorder may throw things or get into fistfights and cause severe injuries.

Other people with anger disorders may feel intense anger all of the time, even when they are not faced with a particular anger-provoking situation. They may constantly feel as though they are under attack, even when nothing is happening at that moment. They may seem irritable and angry, ready to burst with aggression at any time. Or, they may seem placid and calm on the outside while they stew on the inside with the memories of things that happened long ago.

People with anger disorders are flooded with fight-or-flight hormones most or all of the time, and they may feel serious health consequences as a result. They might experience:

  • High blood pressure
  • Lowered immune system responses, allowing them to experience frequent infections
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Ulcers and other gastrointestinal diseases

According to an article published in Psychology Today, anger disorders don’t simply appear on their own. Usually, they’re caused by a person’s inability to express anger. Perhaps the person learned to bottle things up when he or she was a child, or perhaps the person is rewarded for staying cool in a crisis, and learns to keep quiet to get that reward. Since the anger is not expressed, it grows and seethes, until it takes on a life of its own. In other words, some anger disorders are simply learned behaviors that have become entrenched habits. Since the person doesn’t know how to express anger in the right way, anger behaviors are always inappropriate.

Anger and Other Illnesses

Some forms of mental illnesses can cause anger.

Bipolar disorder, for example, can cause the person to feel intense amounts of anger. The anger the person feels during a bipolar attack might be intense and frightening, but it is usually short-lived and it’s followed by a moment of intense happiness. The seesaw effect is the hallmark of bipolar disease, and it is what differentiates bipolar anger from other forms of anger. People who have depression may also express their depression as anger, through violence and sudden angry outbursts. Researchers studied the incidence of anger in people who had bipolar disease and depression for the Journal of Affective Disorders and found that people who had bipolar disease were 62 percent likely to have an anger attack, compared to 26 percent of people who had depression. In other words, anger attacks seem to be quite common among people with bipolar disorder while they are slightly less common, but not unheard of, in people with depression. It would follow that people who got treatment for their underlying conditions would see improvements in their anger management skills. This is yet another reason to take anger seriously, and help those with anger disorders get help.

Living With Anger

Living with someone who is prone to angry outbursts can be incredibly difficult. The person might be tempted to lash out at any moment over any small infraction, and family members and friends may respond by walking on eggshells around the person. Over time, the family may begin to exclude the anger-prone person from activities, in the hopes that this can prevent an outburst. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the best way to deal with an anger disorder. After all, the person needs to learn how to express his or her anger, and shielding the person from those lessons does not help the person learn.

Including the person in all activities and providing informal guidance can also be risky. The person might be prone to engaging in violent behavior, which could put the health and safety of the family in jeopardy. In addition, the angry person could engage in a conflict with someone else who also has violent tendencies.

Encouraging a person with an anger disorder to let it out and yell at the man at the front of the line isn’t a great idea when that man is large and has an anger problem of his own. Someone could end up in the hospital, and the other person could end up in jail.

The best way to help someone with an anger disorder is to enroll that person in an anger management course. Here, the person will learn how to express anger appropriately, and the person will have the opportunity to practice those skills in a safe and supportive environment. Often, however, the person won’t believe that therapies will help, or he or she may not believe that therapies are appropriate or necessary.

By holding an intervention, and explaining how the anger disorder is influencing the whole family, loved ones can make the issue clear and help the person get the help needed to leave anger behind.