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Anger - part of the Fight or Flight response

Posted Jan 23 2009 6:25pm

When an animal is threatened or frightened, it goes into fight or flight, or it freezes to the spot. Physiologically, the animal experiences a massive sympathetic nervous system outpouring of adrenaline. Different species fight like lions, fly off like a bird, or freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. And in dogs at least, testosterone encourages fighting, neutered pets are less aggressive.

Humans experience all three reactions. Fight and anger, flight and panic, and the paralysis of fear. The same massive physiological outpouring of adrenaline occurs. Whether a person becomes panicky or angry depends in part in which direction their hormones push them. The souped-up testosterone domineering young male gets into a fight, the nervous frightened young woman has a panic attack, and both men and women become frozen with fear at the sight of examination paper.

Once the red mist has descended, there is often little a person can do to control their anger, just as there is little a person can do once they are in the grip of a panic attack. I have some sympathy for a man who lashes out when repeatedly provoked. Sometimes more than I have for the partner who provoked him. Violence is inexcusable, and the violent partner needs to learn to withdraw. Nonetheless, if an outburst of anger could be thought of as a male panic attack, people would think about differently.

People having panic and anger attacks, all too often have an unstable mood. More often than not they alternate between anxiety and depression, punctuated by episodes of panic or anger. Few people positively choose to be miserable. Even though, anger can make a person feel better in the moment, seconds later they bitterly regret it.

The key to good mental health is a stable mood. A stable mood needs a stable home, good physical health, secure relationships, an active mind and a purpose in life. A person in a good mood, is less likely to get violent or angry. Children know this intuitively. They wait until their parents are in a good mood, before they drop their bombshells.

Anger like panic is a physiological reaction. Good health means managing your own physiology. Just as a little anxiety can improve a person's performance and so well managed anger can direct social change. Uncontrolled anxiety leads to panic, and uncontrolled anger to violence.

Copyright (c) Dr. Liz Miller
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