• Robert Clarke MFT

Anger is the Fight of Flight-or-Fight

Anger often seems like it can come out of nowhere in a split second. You may feel calm one minute and then in the blink of an eye you find yourself boiling with anger. It can seem baffling, but the explanation is pretty simple: Anger is the "fight" of Flight-or-Fight. That's right, the part of our brain that is designed to protect us has sensed danger and has activated. But there’s no real danger, right? That’s what makes this so confusing; there is no real danger, just a danger that is in your head.

What happens when a cat or dog is afraid? The first thing they usually do is run. If they can’t run, then the next thing they do is lash out. That is also Flight-or-Fight but in that case it’s usually obvious what is causing the fear and anger.

For humans, with our incredible abstract thinking ability, the threat can be completely in our heads. If you hear something that causes fear – perhaps your spouse just told you that they got a speeding ticket – you might be afraid that you or they will have to pay a fine, or maybe lose their license and then they won’t be able to drive and then they might lose their job and ... And as a result of this thinking, you panic, you lose your cool, and you start to yell. Yet, there was no visible threat, just words.

Perhaps you’ve had an experience when you’ve been mocked or made fun of and you lost your cool and wanted to punch the person who did this. That’s Flight-or-Fight again trying to save you from being embarrassed or from some other perceived threat to your identity. Again, completely abstract and in your head, but to your Lymbic System (the part of your brain responsible for Flight-or-Fight) it’s still a threat, and is perceived as no different from being threatened by someone physically attacking you. That's worth mentioning again: the Lymbic System can't distinguish between a real physical threat, or a threat that you've imagined.

Next time you find yourself beginning to get angry, see if you can stop and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. You might be surprised by the answer.

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My posts are purely my own thoughts and opinions and are not meant to give you advice, but instead to give you insight into some of my thinking. My hope is that you will find useful information here as you navigate your life and relationships.