Threats and Anger

A lot of anger can stem from feeling threatened.  These feelings may come from real or perceived threats.  When we feel threatened, anger is our body’s natural response that invites us to protect ourselves and stay safe. Some threats are real, many others are just perceived. There are four areas which can relate to feeling threatened that we will address in this section. They are surprise, belief, fear, and miscommunication.

Let’s further dissect these four, looking at them as perceived threats: 

  • Surprise— this is a marked by a threat to emotional well-being. When we are the recipients of a certain type of surprise, we can be left feeling helpless to a situation for which we are not prepared.
  • Belief— this is marked by a threat to one’s sense of self, threat to core values, threat to the safe feeling of learned behavior and habit. Sometimes when our beliefs about how the world works are threatened, anger can arise very quickly.
  • Fear— this is marked by a threat to physical and/or emotional wellbeing, desire to not have pain or suffering, threat to status or personal identity. Anger is often a response to fear.
  • Miscommunication— feeling unheard can trigger the fear of being abandoned or being seen as ignorant or misunderstood by another. This may feel like a threat to our ego, threat of being alone, or a threat of punishment from our community.

Why Threats?

Looking at anger in relation to possible ways you may feel threatened may help you shift your perspective on a situation.  Breaking anger down into smaller pieces can increase awareness, honesty, and objectivity to the situation.

Anger can stem from feeling threatened, whether these threats are real or just perceived.

Threats can be a related to several different areas of yourself or your life.  Here is a list of the different areas where you may have an experience of feeling threatened: 

  •         physical health and wellbeing
  •         emotional health and wellbeing
  •         your ego
  •         your personal or professional identity
  •         your financial security
  •         your values or beliefs
  •         your personal status
  •         loss of family, relationship, community

These threats may be real when someone or something is doing something that directly affect these areas, for example a tornado moving toward your home is an active threat to your home.  Perceived threats are things that may or may not actually be a threat to one of these areas.  An example of this is viewing a thunderstorm as a threat to your home or immediate physical safety.

Perceived threats can be tricky to identify because to us they often feel real.  They are usually based off of past negative experiences that we have had.  We take these past experiences and generalize them to other situations that are similar or that may feel similar to us.  Sometimes our fears prove to be true and when this happens it reinforces these fears and beliefs.  This can cause us to start filtering out all the times and situations that don’t support these fears and beliefs (the times when nothing bad happened), leaving us to always expect the worst/be on alert for a threat that just isn’t there. Once these threats are firmly reinforced we may falsely see things that are positive or neutral as threatening.

Pretend you were once bit by a dog. In the future, it may become easy to misread harmless dogs as a result. If you’ve been bit by a dog, you may begin to distrust all dogs and become scared by a dog when there is no reason at all to feel threatened. The truth is that some dogs are threats, some are not, and every situation is unique.  A problem occurs when you assume or try to predict the outcome of a situation solely based off your past experiences and beliefs.  You run the risk of misreading a situation, while ignoring other cues, information, and possibilities.

How Does This Relate to Anger?

You may remember in previous sections we discussed the importance of having perspective, more awareness of our thoughts and feelings, and a better understanding of other people’s perspectives.  When we feel threatened our body and mind can often mistakenly take the situation to be a life or death situation.

Life and death situations trigger the parts of our brains that control the fight, flight, freeze response.  Think back to a situation recently where you strongly felt anger and fear.  Do you remember what you did?  Would it have fit in the category or fight, flight, or freeze?  Your brain is not accessing the areas that allow for reasoned thought when you are in this state.  In other words you are not in the right mindset to think things through and make calm, considered decisions.

Shame and Anger

Everyone has experienced a sense of regret or shame for their actions.  Shame, like anger, can take healthy and unhealthy forms.  For instance, a temporary feeling of shame when you forgot to pick up an important delivery for your boss may lead you to re-examine your organizational skills.  Shame that lasts beyond a given moment or becomes on-going can lead to feelings of guilt and can be unhealthy.  Unhealthy amounts of guilt or shame can feel like handcuffs, keeping you stuck in harmful actions or frozen in inaction.

Sometimes it is not obvious how guilt and shame might be contributing to personal and emotional struggles or discord in your life.  Constantly feeling guilty about the past and being stuck in your guilt and shame can contribute to the following: lowered self-esteem, depression, anxiety,  and unhealthy use of drugs. Sometimes shame can create irrational thoughts or beliefs that contribute to our anger.

Consider the following:

Patrick was immensely bullied growing up by his older brother and his friends.  He would be teased until the point of crying, upon which he was teased even more.  As an adult, Patrick and his girlfriend, Alex, have recently lost their pet cat.  Patrick is stricken with grief but instead of crying he picks fights with Alex, trying to avoid the pain of loss. Crying may trigger feelings of shame, related to feelings of embarrassment and weakness related to his childhood.

Shame can threaten your sense of self and results from a judgment, whether it be a personal judgment by yourself or another person(s), that directly attacks your personal being.  Shame can lead to isolation that keeps us from love and connection to others. This isolation my breed anger.

Exercise

Think back to a shameful experience in your past. What beliefs about yourself or others arose from that event?  What beliefs do you still carry about it today?

Look back over your record of anger triggers.  How are these related to shame?

Continue to write down your times of anger, and continue to incorporate relaxation into your schedule.

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