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Chapter 7. Pathways Through Anger > The Nature of Anger

The Nature of Anger

Physiologically, anger is arousal. When you are angry, the fight-or-flight response has been activated. Something has stressed you, and your body has prepared you to either fight or flee. Clearly, anger helps you if you need to fight. The problem is that when we are stressed we tend to look around to see what is making us angry. That is, we tend to externalize the sources of our anger or stress. We assume that something out there is causing our arousal. This is true not just with humans, but with our animal cousins as well. For example, imagine a lab rat in a box whose floor is covered with an electric grid. If that rat is alone and we shock it, the rat will jump, look for an escape route, and manifest clear signs of arousal. If we put another lab rat in the box with our first rat, and then shock them both, the rats will attack each other. It's as if the rats are blaming each other for the shock.

Frequently when under stress we behave just like our friends the rats. We look around for who is to blame for our uncomfortable feelings and sensations without being consciously aware of what we are doing. Yet even more problematic, paradoxically, those with whom we feel most comfortable are the most likely targets of our direct aggression. The old saying, “You always hurt the ones you love,” is really true. Don't get us wrong. You may also get angry with people with whom you are not close or comfortable, but you are more likely to express your anger toward them indirectly. This is particularly true if they are in a position of authority over you. So instead of telling your boss how angry he or she makes you, you might just complain to your cronies at the water fountain or over lunch. Then when you go home at the end of the day and your spouse or significant other does something even mildly annoying, you are ready to literally bite his or her head off.


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