Anger addiction… It’s a wild notion, isn’t it? Perhaps you know someone or maybe even know them very personally (if you know what I mean) who is an anger junkie; who always seems to have a crisis going on. Heck, some people walk around looking for reasons to get offended. Be it light or overblown, these folks have dramatic conflicts with people in their lives, exploding in anger and causing silly drama.
Addiction is normally associated with drugs, alcohol, sex, and many other fun things in life but is it possible to be addicted to anger? After all, how can anyone possibly like being pissed off so much that they would want to repeat it over and over? Science says anger addiction is a real deal. Perhaps one of the most surprising realizations for you may be that rage can actually feel quite exhilarating.
Mechanics of Anger Addiction
It all starts early when the frontal lobe of the brain (emotional control center) has not fully developed yet. At this stage, an impulsive thought easily overrides any consideration for potential consequences of one’s actions and sends one down the path of whimsy and reckless behavior. “Look ma’! I can smoke, chat on the cell and drive a bicycle at the same time.” Some refer it as the “head-in-underwear” syndrome. This phenomenon is caused by the immature and slower development of the frontal lobe in humans. Since this area of the brain is not completely matured until a human is in his mid-to-late 20’s we really have enough time to establish some “noble” habits and addictions.
Your Brain’s Mighty Fine Drug – Dopamine
Anger addiction starts in the brain’s limbic system, which is the seat of all emotions. This system also causes the secretion of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Dopamine (where we get the word “dope”) is the anatomical and chemical stepping-stone to addiction.
Dopamine is a naturally occurring pleasure chemical that is unleashed by your brain in response to or even in anticipation of fun stimulants like a vodka martini, a cigarette, sex, food, even a shopping spree. Since you like the way you feel, you learn to repeat the behavior and your brain participates big time. When the reward center of your brain is stimulated it actively wires itself with mental associations of cause and effect; meaning it remembers what thing or activity produced this pleasurable effect so that next time it can summon all of your mind’s creative juices to manipulate your behavior (without you even making a conscious note of it) to achieve a similar gratifying outcome.
The problem with chronic dopamine release is that with time your brain’s receptors get desensitized and bring little pleasure. A small amount of dopamine can only help you to feel temporarily ‘normal’ again. As with drugs, an agerholic will in turn crave a larger release of dopamine to feel the same ‘high’ and the only way to achieve this is to up the rage and act out more; either verbally or violently. This is how anger addiction is born.
Pleasure Seeking Missile – The Go System
As part of our survival mechanism, our brains have developed a pleasure center that serves one function – pursue rewards. It is located in the middle of the brain and you know your reward system is active when the little voice inside your head whispers “Go dude, go!… Faster! Bigger! Bolder!… If you only do this you can have that…” and so on. It is this center of the brain that can encourage one to achieve great personal success or encourage to go for that taboo love affair that has a potential to destroy your life.
Screeching Brakes – The Stop System
Your brain also has a part that is a bit like a party spoiler to the Go System. It lives in the prefrontal cortex or “higher brain”, and it gifted us with some mental space to ‘evaluate’ consequences before acting out your impulses. It screams “Stop!, Are you sure about this? Sure driving home wasted seems like a good idea now but what if the cop has a different opinion?”
The only bummer with pre-frontal cortex is that it is a part of the frontal lobe. As mentioned before, this area of the brain is not fully developed till we’re in the late 20’s (and if you asked me, in some people its missing altogether.) That is why you see many young people “do first, think later.” Another snag is that the signals to the prefrontal cortex tend to be a bit slower so reasoning through impulses actually takes some time. This is why the reverse order of “think first, act later” can be so darn difficult in adolescent years.
The Hijack Maneuver
The reason most anger addicts are not able to control their anger can be attributed to the infamous Hijack System of the brain. Basically, here, the “go system” hijacks the “stop system” and produces the “oh crap! system.” The impulses are so strong and behavior of acting them out are so “wired in” (through repetition in the past) that this behavior seems totally natural. In fact, anything contrary to that state creates internal tension.
This is the reason why anger addiction can be just as serious as any other addiction to things like drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc. It can ruin friendships, destroy careers and even land one in a penitentiary with beans and hot dogs for lunch every day for the rest of one’s life.
Why Getting Angry Can Feel so Damn Good
By now you maybe saying to yourself, “OK this is fun, but how in the world can anger feel so good that I can get addicted to it?” It’s simple. Remember dopamine, right? Here are three ways how anger can produce pleasure and stimulate the release of dopamine:
1. It is all about the “rush” – that surge of adrenaline in conjunction with increased heart rate and blood pressure can actually feel quite good, even euphoric. A physical manifestation of anger, like slamming your fist on the table or smashing a porcelain plate against the wall will cause your body to release dopamine, creating an even greater sense of excitement. The trap here is that using rage produced adrenaline to feel ‘high’ is like drinking tequila to have less inhibitions on the dance floor – its short lived and is followed by a nasty hangover.
2. Releasing stored up feelings can feel great. When addicts need their daily “fix” but can’t get it they become antsy and irritable. They feel mental tension and discomfort in various parts of their body. When they finally satisfy their craving they experience a wonderful feeling of relief. Anger addiction is no different. Pent up negative emotions manifest in a very uncomfortable way and their release by screaming or punching something brings about a feeling of relief and satisfaction. The problem is that it’s a vicious circle – the more the brain is wired to experience pleasure from disturbing emotions, the more the anger and addiction grow together as friends.
3. Being in control feels good. When something or someone robs you of control it feels bad. Somebody offends you, a driver cuts you off, you are denied access to your routine cigarette brake, you name it… You lose power, get angry and decide to use force to regain power so you do something to insult or hurt another being to “re-gain” power. This in turn gives one an illusory boost in power and status. Kicking someone’s ass (verbally or physically) in vengeance can feel awesome. Of course, this is exactly the type of behavior that sparks conflicts and pours more fuel into the fire as a result. This is why the most famous sage – Gautama Buddha – skillfully describes anger’s attributes as a “honeyed tip with a poison root.”
It is Your Cactus
Anger is addictive. If you are a chronically angry person, now you know that it is the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and brain chemicals that are driving your wild behavior. However, I invite you not to use your new awareness as an excuse to keep acting like a lunatic because “it’s all in your brain now.”
Let us resolve to be masters, not the victims, of our history, controlling our own destiny without giving way to blind suspicions and emotions – John F. Kennedy.
You may hear that you need a therapist to help you deal with anger but I assure you that you can do this on your own by picking up a few anger management techniques and then relentlessly putting them to practice till it becomes second nature. To overcome it, anger addiction will demand all of your will power, patience, and willingness to learn new things that will make a profound impact on your quality of life.