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Which Emotion is Anger Most Like? The answer might surprise you

By: Ron Potter-Efron, M.SW, Ph.D.

I’ve always thought that the emotion most like anger is fear. After all, they both are activated by the amygdala and both go through the sympathetic nervous system. But I now want to suggest another candidate: happiness (or joy or in general the positive emotional states). Here’s why:

  1. Anger is primarily processed in the left hemisphere of the cortex, as are the positive emotions, while fear is processed in the right hemisphere;
  2. Anger’s action tendency is to approach the object of concern. Positive emotions don’t specifically trigger approach but do encourage approach motivated behaviors such as curiosity and risk taking. Fear triggers innate avoidance behaviors.
  3. People feeling anger report in research studies that they feel optimistic, strong, and good about themselves, which is much closer to pride, a positive emotion, than fear which more frequently triggers shame. People say “I’m glad I got mad because [it worked, I felt powerful, people respected me, etc.”] Nobody says “I feel really good that I got scared and ran away.”
  4. Angry people tend to think globally, as do happy people. The so called negative emotions, on the other hand, drive people toward examining the details of a situation.

Here’s my conclusion. Anger may mistakenly be labeled as a negative emotion when it would be better to label it a mixed or even a positive emotion. Doing so could cause those of us who run anger management programs to approach the topic differently. We’d have to pay more attention to both short- and long-term payoffs for anger. We might consider treating anger more as an addiction when people can’t quit being angry on the theory they became engrossed with that emotion because the anticipation of becoming angry triggered a massive flow of dopamine and the successes and good feelings associated with getting mad triggered a flood of opiates.

I’d like to hear people’s response to this idea. Please e-mail me at info@potter-efron.net and I’ll print your comments.
 

 

Comments:

 
Hi Ron & Pat,

I have a rough draft of a post to be considered for the blog. I will send it when I get it polished up a bit.

In response to your newest post about anger being more related to joy or at least positive emotion than fear, I can see how you have come to consider this. I want to say "yes and" because the ideas you present are not exclusive to the idea that fear precedes the emotion of anger. Especially in cases where the self is threatened by experiencing fear, it can be quickly denied and dismissed in favor of a more powerful and potentially positive emotion of anger. If the initial emotion is fear and it is pre-cognitive or unconscious, anger would certainly present as a potentially positive emotion. I think many people find anger preferable, powerful, and addictive in nature in spite of the consequences. Many people do not find anger pleasurable in any way and go to great lengths to avoid it. Were they included in any study of the experience of anger? In a way, this brings us back to a discussion of power and control. When angry, does one lose control or take control.

These are just initial thoughts . . . may ponder it some more.

Linda K



Ron:

I tend to agree with you. For years, therapists have been exhorting depressed and non-assertive clients to "get in touch with their anger," and for good reason.

John H



Loved this post about anger and joy/happiness being processed in the left hemisphere of the brain Ron!

This is great information for us since we teach "What's Good About Anger". We believe anger can be transformed/directed into positive behavior and thinking resulting in positive results, i.e., achieving goals, building relationships, working through conflicts, etc.
So, maybe anger is mixed with positive emotions anticipating the idea that something 'good' could happen. If we/people would hang onto the anticipation part of the emotion -- it could drive us/them towards healthy solutions...
Lots to ponder here but, this information will help my clients not be so afraid of or frozen by the feelings of anger...

Blessings to you and Pat,

Lynette H



Ron, I like you latest entry and treating anger as a positive emotion more positively... good stuff. I am reminded of Panksepp's identification of 7 Affective Systems. He likes to connect the Seeking (Desire) system with many of the other systems including Rage...

be well,

Rich P



Before reading your entry, I was going to say I thought that Anger was closest to a Crush. Both remove one from the state of calm. Both can be defined by heightened sense of purpose. Both are associated with a bit of dissociation. People don't think clearly in either state, though they might think they do. On the other side of the high are perhaps boredom, calm, unease.

As I recall, when I have been angry, I felt a sense of tunnel vision, a period of myopia and selfishness as if under a spell. And that seems to capture the intense focus of a crush at the expense of all other matters.

Both situations become more manageable once I accepted the state of mind/heart and then sort out the situations leading to and nourishing either state.

EG: Anger: What was the undelivered communication? What expectation was not met? When did it happen? When is it occurring? Does the current state provide joy or fill another need?
Crush: What need is the crush fulfilling? What observations and thoughts about those observations are maintaining the crush? Is the crush reciprocal? Is the crush competing with another important relationship? What barriers are in the way of bringing the crush into life, the space, the communication between two people?

In both cases I think a good line of questioning is about power. Is power over, or internal power dominating? Does the crush or the anger have power over the self? is the self empowered or dis-empowered?

Ron Welsch



I would certainly agree with the description of anger not necessarily being a "negative or bad" feeling. Particularly when I worked in the narcotics field it was almost a necessary thing that the emotion of anger be a part of how an agent reacted to various situations. What I did see was people where sometimes unable to have any sort of control over the anger they felt and this resulted in negative results--office abuse, over reaction as examples.

Those I worked with that felt anger but had a sort of "control" over it were actually the best, and most successful, agents I saw. I also see some levels of anger being a motivator to try again or take a different approach to a problem as long as it doesn't result in an uncontrolled, destructive reaction.

Forest Nutter


I recently did a chemical use assessment for a guy for whom id did a CUA 2 years ago, Same reason for CUA. Bar room fight. So, I'm of the mind that anger is a positive emotion, because client said : I don't back down from nobody". with a touch of pride. Ironically, he is a big guy who not only muscular, but has a somewhat of a mean face-almost ugly.

Joseph Sherry


 

I recently did a chemical use assessment for a guy for whom id did a CUA 2 years ago, Same reason for CUA. Bar room fight. So, I'm of the mind that anger is a positive emotion, because client said : I don't back down fron nobody". with a touch of pride. Ironically, he is a big guy who not only muscular, but has a somewhat of a mean face-almost ugly.