is anger an addiction? The American Society of Addiction Medicine, defines an addiction as, “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

Addictions fall into two categories: substance and process; the former through the abuse of alcohol and drugs, the latter, behaviors such as gambling, hoarding, spending, eating disorders, workaholism, co-dependence and surprisingly, inappropriate use of the normal human emotion of anger.

When used constructively, anger can fuel positive and pro-social action, such as women securing the right to vote. “Imagine what the women’s suffrage movement would have been like if women had said, ‘Guys, it’s really so unfair, we’re nice people and we’re human beings too. Won’t you listen to us and give us the vote?” says social psychologist Carol Tavris, PhD, author of Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion

The organization, known as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was born out of anger and grief over the needless death of 13-year-old Carli Lightner in 1980. It was founded by her mother, Candy Lightner, who discovered that the man who killed her daughter got behind the wheel while intoxicated had a previous arrest record for driving under the influence.

Most people experience anger when they feel that circumstances are beyond their control or they believe they have been wronged in some way. When considering the positive uses for anger, call to mind Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus of Nazareth who were able to channel their anger toward injustice.

When Anger Becomes (D)angerous

My experience with anger in childhood was minimal. Rare were voices raised in ire. My parents generally resolved conflict quietly. My sister and I would be verbal combatants at most and when my father felt we needed some physical release, he — having been a Golden Gloves boxer in the Navy and taught boys in our community to engage in the pugilistic art — would lace up gloves that dwarfed our hands and provide us with mouth guards and head gear and have us go at it. We took playful swings at each other and ended up laughing, which was his intention as a way of defusing our anger. Not sure either of us ever landed a punch or experienced a sisterly TKO.

Later in my life, I avoided conflict nearly at all costs. I had the “don’t rock the boat” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Often I would allow comments to slide off as if on the no-stick surface of a Teflon pan. I somehow internalized the belief that anger was hazardous, so I didn’t want to invoke it in anyone.

In my early years as a budding therapist, I sometimes found myself intimidated by angry clients. I knew I was in no physical danger, simply unprepared to ride the waves with them.

It was when I was employed as a social worker on an inpatient psychiatric unit that I witnessed first-hand, anger run amok. Fighting between themselves, sometimes assaultive behavior with staff. Blessedly, the closest I came to that state was when an angry patient threw an orange at my door that I was able to close in time before it splattered on me. Before another patient took a swing at me, I was able to close my hand around her fist and stop it, telling her, “You really don’t want to hurt me.”

Violent words were cast at me when in my office, an irate client was cursing a blue streak. In frustration myself, since at that point, I was only willing to maintain a professional veneer while setting firm boundaries, I replied, “I don’t get paid well enough to get cursed out by you. Knock it off.”

His return volley? “Well, then get a different job.”

I took a deep breath and answered, “I’m the one who helps you get discharged from the hospital. Be nice to me. I’ve been speaking to you respectfully and expect the same from you.”

He grumbled a bit and then left my office. He returned the next day and apologized for his outburst. From then on, there was mutually respectful dialogue between us.

A Place That Anger Called Home

My marital home was a place where anger dwelled as well; an unwelcome presence not easily evicted. My husband was raised by a father who was an alcoholic/rageaholic and a mother who tolerated it and as is often the case, it becomes a multi-generational disease.

This co-dependent erroneously believed she could quell the “anger dragon” that lurked beneath the surface of an otherwise loving, affectionate, intelligent and charismatic man. Not always able to do so and not accepting that it was never my role in the first place, I permitted behaviors that I would never have allowed for had I been the boundary setting, assertive woman that I am now.

In retrospect; 18 years after my husband’s death from Hepatitis C, I recognize that some of the roots grew in a soil that was fertilized with frustration that he had no skills to tend. Even as a therapist, I remained helpless, since I was not able to disentangle my two roles; devoted wife and outspoken advocate for others facing abuse. Had I been able to view his dysfunctional expression of anger as an addiction, I would have addressed it differently.

How Does Anger Become Addictive?

  • In the same way that substances trigger brain chemical rushes, so too does the expression and expulsion of anger. The amygdala is a structure in the brain with the important task of noticing the presence of a physical or emotional threat and then sounding the alarm. The brain is then hijacked, with the possibility of crashing into a mountainside. Emotional air traffic control is needed to land the plane safely.  
  • The neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing a blast of kinetic energy that can last a few minutes. In a counterintuitive way, feeling bad sometimes feels good. Like any addiction, anger can induce discharge of dopamine epinephrine and norepinephrine — also referred to as adrenaline and noradrenaline.
  • The adrenalin rush contributes to a sense of strength and invulnerability.
  • Our brains register pleasure when these chemicals are doing what comes naturally to them, and then get reinforced each time we engage in similar behaviors.
  • For some, feeling anger creates a sense of aliveness that may enhance an otherwise constricted or neutral emotional state.
  • As is so in any addictive condition, there are consequences such as loss of job, family, friends, health and money.  
  • Anger addiction carries with it the same guilt and shame game that is present in substance or other process addictions.
  • People with PTSD are prone to addictive anger, since often they are not aware of the degree and depth of reaction until they are totally in it. Triggers such as family events at which there is sincere drama can occur.

Anger Management Rules

Ways of addressing anger include:

  • Take a cleansing few breaths. When we become excessively angry, the tendency is to hold our breath which makes it more challenging to think clearly.
  • Take a time out. Much like a petulant two year requires some down time to decompress, so too does an angry adult. Returning after pushing the reset button, can provide a fresh perspective.
  • Write down items and issues that trigger an angry reaction. Generally, the reasons are surface level and are not always directly correlated to the stimulus.
  • Have a conversation with a symbolic representation of your anger. It could be an animal, like a lion, tiger or bear (oh my) and ask what it wants you to know, so it doesn’t attack.
  • Attend Rageaholics Anonymous meetings with others who are also feeling like they are at the mercy of their addiction.

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