In this article we will gain a better understanding how stress can cause anger. One of the most common triggers for our anger is stress, our physical and mental response to the various pressures
we experience in our lives. Our bodies have an automatic physical reaction to stressful events. When we encounter strong pressure, challenge or danger, we need to respond quickly, so our bodies produce extra supplies of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which form part of the so-called “fight or flight” response.
A pioneer in stress research, Walter Cannon, first noticed this fight or flight reaction. In 1932 he established the fact that when a living organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it immediately releases these hormones which are to help it to survive. His original experiment was on dogs, but he realised that in humans, as in other animals, the extra supplies of hormones help us to run faster or fight harder. They increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to our muscles. We start to sweat, which helps to prevent these muscles from overheating so that they work as well as possible. Blood is drawn away from the tiny capillary vessels near the surface of our skin and concentrated in our deeper arteries and veins, which will minimise the loss of blood if we are injured. (And our hands and feet will feel cold – a common experience when we are frightened.) As well as bringing about these physical changes these hormones focus our attention on the threat to the exclusion of everything else. Our eyes focus acutely on the perceived source of the threat. We start to breathe more quickly to increase our intake of oxygen. Our hearts beat faster to distribute the extra oxygen and nutrients around our bodies. Our immune system is put on alert so that it can protect us from infection if we are injured. One thing that is reduced in all this emergency action is our ability to feel pain – our bodies are producing analgesic hormones, which will enable us to keep fighting or running even if we are hurt.
All these physiological changes mean that we are experiencing the world around us as hostile and threatening and we are absolutely ready to fight or run. No matter which course of action we take, fleeing or fighting, we will be using up enormous amounts of energy, and this helps to control the increase in the stress we are feeling.
Of course we developed these physical reactions to threats as primitive creatures, and they were essential when our world was a very different place, when bears, wolves and other wild animals were a real danger to us and disagreements with neighbours might be resolved by trials of physical strength. Nowadays our world presents us with different hazards, just as stressful but less physically challenging – work, unemployment, relationship difficulties, moving house. . . However, our bodies still produce the same physiological responses, which probably don’t add up to the best tool kit for dealing with the particular problems we now encounter.
The more often we are exposed to these modern stressors, the more active our fight or flight response becomes. We can find ourselves operating at a constant level of high alert, ready for battle, perceiving potential threats everywhere. What we are not doing is using up lots of physical energy, thereby reducing our stress responses. Our bodies’ ancient and efficient reaction to a perceived danger is itself increasing the level of stress we experience. When we are in this highly stressed state we not only experience all the physiological effects such as high blood pressure, rapid heart beat and quick shallow breathing, we can also become highly sensitive or aggressive because of our increased ability to focus. Our bodies are full of extra supplies of hormones we don’t need, which unbalance our physical and mental states. Few of us take enough strenuous physical exercise to use up the effects of our responses to stress – we are left with stress continuing to building up. We can learn to control our obvious reactions but this will not counteract our bodies’ reactions to the stressor. One obvious consequence of all the overtime our bodies are working is that we start to feel exhausted. Another is that because of our increased focus on a specific perceived personal source of danger we become much less willing or able to take other people and their points of view into account. Our personal and professional relationships will suffer, and this in itself will continue to increase our stress. We run the risk of being caught in a cycle from which it is very difficult for us to escape and this can make us very angry.
If any of this sounds familiar to you there are things you can do. First, make sure that you do get some regular exercise. Don’t jump straight into circuit training or competitive team games if you have become a couch potato. Take care of yourself and build up gradually from walking to more strenuous activities. This taking control will itself start to reduce your stress level, and the exercise itself will continue the process. And your health will improve.
If you are aware that anger is now a major part of who you are, you might consider taking an anger management course. You don’t have to fight this battle on your own. You will find more information about what help is available for you on our website or you can call us on 0121 314 7075.
You do not have to deal with all of this on your own. Our one to one anger management in person or via Skype, our intensive anger management courses and our online anger management courses help hundreds of people every year overcome their anger.