Anger is Like an Addiction: My Story

Patient Expert
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Anger is seductive. It’s like an addiction, a shot, a smoke, a drug. It is power and energy. Like the roller coaster roaring around the loop, the chorus of your favorite song, sliding into second base, or that first bite of what you’ve been craving, it’s a rush.

My addiction to anger

When I first began searching for therapists in 2011, my goal was to find ways to manage my anger. After years of therapy and a recent talk with a good friend, I have opened my eyes to a new way of seeing my anger issues.

In addition to a mental health support group, I currently see a psychiatrist and a therapist on a regular basis. I'm slowly making strides towards being aware of, understanding, and managing my anger.

Anger is not just something that happens to me. It's something that turns on — kind of like a pressure cooker. When you use a pressure cooker, you have to lock the lid and turn on the heat. Both of those actions are intentional. As the pressure cooker continues to work on the stove, it builds up steam inside. And what is steam? Steam is POWER!

When I'm feeling powerless, I take a pill. I call that pill anger, which renews my sense of power over a situation. Once I unleash that power on the people closest to me, I attack and take no prisoners. These attacks are always emotional and/or verbal, and never physical.

Once I calm down, I do my best to repair any damage I have done through apologizing, owning up to it, and talking about it. But regardless of how many times this happens, I secretly know that I have a power pill in my pocket that I can take if I am feeling powerless.

For the most part, it’s much more manageable these days. Here are some things that I've learned:

Anger vs. rage

There is a difference between anger and rage. According to the Anger Management Resource, “Anger can be quiet, controlled or even healthy. Rage is rarely quiet and controlled, and never healthy.”

Rage is the frenzy. It is the moment when you really lose control. While anger can hurt others, it is rage which hurts them indiscriminately. Rage is turning anger up to 11 and then some.

If this sounds like you, then you may be thinking, "Well, I’m not so bad. I don’t hit people. I don’t destroy personal property. And I am not the kind of person who goes into such a frothing rage that I stop being at all coherent."

That’s all to the good. But you could still have an addiction to anger.

Biology

What happens when we get angry? If you feel a rush of adrenaline, you’re not alone. That’s the fight or flight response, and it was baked into our DNA long before our ancestors climbed down from the trees. Anger has its roots in self-defense, to help us avoid becoming the main dish in someone’s (or something's) dinner.

As a result, we get a rush that actually feels good. It may seem paradoxical, that our anger might come from pent-up frustration or any number of negative sources, but when we get mad, there is a degree of pleasure behind it. And much like other addictions (alcoholism, gambling, or anything else), this kind of rush or thrill can trigger our brain’s dopamine reward receptors (cocaine does this, too). Angry impulses can go far beyond a response to a personal challenge and, instead, turn into their own rewards.

Psychology

Getting mad can boost a fragile ego. It can make you feel powerful in the moment. And if you normally don’t have a lot of power, that can be intoxicating.

However, you can’t stay angry forever. Plus, anger has consequences: we all know what it’s like to hurl an insult we don’t really mean, in the heat of the moment.

If you already have issues with a fragile ego, the aftermath of an angry outburst can mean guilty feelings and the loss of everything from self-respect to interpersonal relationships. Feel guilty and powerless enough, and these feelings can explode into anger and then the cycle repeats itself.

Or anger can be a form of emotional avoidance. Combat veterans can feel this as a form of PTSD, as they have been through stressful and dangerous situations. Their emotions have almost tangibly jumped the track from fear to anger, as a kind of coping mechanism.

Tools for dealing with anger

Because anger has consequences, it can help to have different types of coping mechanisms in place to avoid or defuse it. One idea is simply to get exercise, or to make art. Burn off that energy another way, where it can be far more productive and healthy. And you don’t need to be a boxer or a wrestler for anger to work in your favor in sports. Think of the object of your wrath as the bull’s eye on your target at the archery range.

Take a time out and change your perspective. Beyond making art or getting some exercise, it can be productive to just get up and change positions, or leave briefly, before you say or do something you will regret later. We've all heard that we should "count to 10" before saying or doing anything we might regret, and the truth is it’s not a bad strategy.

Another idea is to write down any issues that have triggered your anger. Get to the heart of your reaction by writing about it.

Still another idea is to hash out your feelings with a symbol of your anger. Understanding why you’re triggered to anger can be exceptionally helpful. It can also help you to break the cycle, as you understand yourself and your motivations, separate from the heat of the moment.

Anger may be seductive, but that doesn’t mean you must succumb to its charms. Work on your feelings and manage them. Don't let them control you.