Are we getting angrier as a nation?
We’ve all been there. You’re feeling tense after a stressful day when a discussion about something small like doing the dishes escalates into a major argument. A wave of anger peaks inside you and before you know it, you’re shouting, saying things you’ll regret in a few minutes.
A recent Global Emotions Report, surveying 160,000 people in 116 countries during 2020 and early 2021 revealed that people felt more angry, stressed, sad and worried in 2020 than at any point before. While the worldwide pandemic is a major contributor, feeling happy has been on a downward trend for over a decade.
Cities and emotional wellbeing are intimately linked, and although city dwellers are typically wealthier, living in an urban sprawl is associated with greater stress and a significantly increased risk of mental health disorders (by 20-40%).
Even the commute appears to bring the worst out of the most rational Londoners, whether it’s others not “moving down” the carriage or failing to have our payment card ready. Is stress making us angrier than ever?
Stress and the city
A groundbreaking study published in Nature investigated the effects of city living on the way that the brain processes stress. City life was associated with increased activity in a brain structure called the amygdala. This area is also critically implicated in anger and aggression, and with stress and anger sharing neural circuitry, it helps explain why individuals in stressful and threatening environments display higher levels of anger and irritability. But the story doesn’t end there. Growing up in a city affected the area in the brain involved in regulating stress and emotions. Stress and the city appear to affect the brain structures involved in expressing anger and controlling it. That’s what we call a double whammy.
Linked in the body
Anger and stress can be viewed as physical reactions to something. They both trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, flooding the body with hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) that produce distinct physiological changes. You know the script: your heart pounds, blood pressure shoots up, breathing quickens, perspiration increases and body temperature rises.
Stress is a reaction to demands that we find overwhelming (you’re under pressure at work when your boss gives you another task. Now you feel like you have more than you can handle).
Anger is a response to the way that we interpret a situation and is often related to feeling attacked, hurt, mistreated and frustrated (you ask your boss for a slightly later deadline since you’ll struggle to get it finished, but they refuse. What’s worse, they later take credit for this piece of work you had to stay late to complete!)
The underlying cause of anger
The root of anger is said to be fear, but is this really the case? Psychologists sometimes refer to anger as a secondary emotion, and with a little digging, you might discover that another feeling is giving rise to anger. At the heart of your anger you may feel afraid that your partner doesn’t care enough about you, disappointed that your friend didn’t stand up for you, hurt that you’re being treated unfairly, or frustrated that you’re powerless to change a situation.
From a psychological perspective, we experience anger when a rule that we hold about the world is violated. Anger is the equivalent of the flashing warning light on your car dashboard alerting you to the fact that something is amiss. Our personal rules about the way that the world should be are influenced by our unique experiences, including our upbringing and past relationships. That’s why the causes of anger vary from person to person.
To vent or not to vent?
When we’re stressed and angry, we often take it out on others. Anger is the most seductive human emotion. We feel powerful, energised and justified. Getting it off our chest is the best thing to do, right? Sadly not. Venting your anger can intensify your feelings, adding fuel to the fire blazing inside you. Plus, if you’re used to flying into fits of rage, the latest research suggests every time you have an angry outburst you’re over four times more likely to have a heart attack in the following two hours.
Should we bury our anger instead? You might be tempted to put it in a box, push it deep down inside and forget it ever existed. Anger? What anger? Repressing, denying, ignoring and pushing it away can result in it bubbling to the surface more often.
So what’s the best way to deal with it in the moment? Anger is a natural, human experience. However, it can be destructive when we act in unhelpful ways. The key to a balanced and healthy life therefore lies in how we relate to our anger.
Bringing down general stress levels is an important long-term way to reduce outbursts. What’s your antidote to stress? Running, yoga, kick-boxing, meditation, writing or chatting with a friend? Looking after yourself in this way will enrich your life. It could even save it.
Is anger affecting your work, relationships or overall quality of life? It takes courage to recognise when anger is problematic, so if you think you need help dealing with your anger, please contact your GP. Below are some other useful resources:
Try out this evidence-based three-step strategy to channel your rage for a positive outcome.
The ABC Of Anger
1. Acknowledge your anger
Notice the signals you’re about to turn into the Hulk, including physical sensations (feeling hot), thoughts (‘this isn’t fair’) and behaviours (raising your voice). Once you recognise your emotion, call it by its name and put into words how you feel. ‘Hello anger. I’m feeling frustrated right now.’ This may seem weird at first and you might not want to say this out loud, but neuroscience has confirmed this strategy is an effective way to manage anger. Remember the amygdala that’s implicated in stress and emotions? Simply labelling an emotion dampens the activity in response to negative circumstances.
2. Breathe slowly and deeply
Breathe out for longer than you breathe in (for example, in for four seconds, out for eight). Research shows this activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming your body by reducing your heart rate. Rather than becoming consumed by anger, you’re giving yourself something else to focus on.
3. Choose your actions
Anger can be constructive, motivating us to change. In the midst of anger, the part of our brain responsible for making sensible long-term decisions goes offline, making us more likely to act ineffectively and do something that will worsen the situation. Remind yourself you don’t have to act immediately. You can still address the situation and right any wrongs after the fury train has ground to a halt. Once you can think clearly, explore why you’re angry and take the most effective course of action.
Dr. Aria is a behaviour change psychologist and mindfulness expert.
Read more: How to deal with anger