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What is “toxic” about anger?

The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team debates over a selection of candidates for Word of the Year, choosing the one that best captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. The 2018 Oxford Word of the Year is: toxic.

It is the sheer scope of the word’s application that has made toxic the stand-out choice for the Oxford Word of the Year. Here, psychology professor Ephrem Fernandez reflects on what makes anger a toxic emotion.

What is anger?

In essence, anger is a subjective feeling tied to perceived wrongdoing and a tendency to counter or redress that wrongdoing in ways that may range from resistance to retaliation (Fernandez, 2013). Like sadness and fear, the feeling of anger can take the form of emotion, mood, or temperament (Fernandez & Kerns, 2008).

What wrongdoings usually elicit anger?

Many psychological tests of anger present a list of anger-provoking scenarios. Some of the items on these inventories pertain to idiosyncratic reactions to highly specific situations. In general, our research shows that most wrongdoings can be broadly classified according to the following types: (i) insults or affronts, (ii) insensitivity or indifference, (iii) deception and betrayal, (iv) abandonment and rejection, (v) breach of agreement or promise, (vi) ingratitude, (vii) exploitation, (viii) ineptitude, and (ix) assault. As can be seen, most of the elicitors are psychological rather than physical. Whatever the elicitor, it is important to keep in mind that anger arises from a subjective perception of being wronged, one that is of course open to different interpretations.

What is the difference between the experience and expression of anger?

A common saying is that the good or the bad is not in anger per se, but in “what you do with it.” In other words, it is not the experience of anger but its expression that determines whether it is appropriate or not. After all, in the psychoevolutionary perspective, anger (like any affective quality) has evolved to serve a function. That function, in the case of anger, is to mobilize the individual to counter or redress a wrongdoing, just as fear would serve to mobilize the individual to escape or avoid, and sadness might demobilize the individual to the point of yielding or giving up.

So, should we direct our attention to the expression of anger more so than the experience of anger? Not so fast! There is abundant research showing that anger itself has deleterious effects on one’s health. Foremost among these is the effect on cardiovascular function. One striking observation in this regard is that a one-point increase in externalized anger or internalized anger is associated with a 12% increase in the risk of hypertension (Everson et al., 1998).

But anger is virtually unavoidable in human relations, and to eradicate it as we go about eradicating smallpox and other pathogens would be unrealistic in the world as we know it. Therefore, it makes more sense to direct our efforts to the expression of anger.

What makes anger dysfunctional?

The typical answer uttered in response to this question is “violence” or “aggression.” However, clinical anecdotes are replete with people who do not get aggressive or violent, yet harbor anger that impairs their relationships in work, family, and social settings. As Averill (1983) astutely pointed out, anger can occur without aggression and vice versa. Anger may be expressed along a variety of dimensions (Fernandez, 2008): it may be reflected or deflected, internalized or externalized, physical or verbal, resistance or retaliation, controlled or uncontrolled, and restorative or punitive. Elevations on particular dimensions can be plotted to form configurations that reflect such diagnoses as intermittent explosive disorder or passive aggressive personality.

Of course, any psychometric scores or profiles of anger should not be divorced from the particular context in which the anger occurs. A diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, for example, hinges on the extent to which the aggressive outburst is out of proportion to the provoking event. As with other so-called “mental disorders,” broader sociocultural contextualization is also crucial when reaching conclusions about what is a disorder and what is not. However, one provocative question that arises is whether a whole sociocultural standard for the expression of anger could be dysfunctional—a matter for further debate.

One lesson that emerges in the search for what is wrong with anger is that it is not just the (culturally unsanctioned) blatantly aggressive anger that is maladaptive. Anger that is expressed in covert and indirect ways has also been the object of much interest, dating back to the famous Buss-Durkee Hostility Inventory (BDHI; Buss & Durkee, 1957). For there is much in anger that is not manifest but masked, not obvious but insidious, and such anger may also have considerable destructive potential to others, not to mention the long-term ill effects exerted on the person who harbors such anger.

How is dysfunctional anger treated?

With regard to “anger management” as it is popularly called, the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) remains dominant and supported by empirical evidence. Typically, this emphasizes techniques to help the client de-arouse and reappraise. This approach can be greatly enhanced by additional cognitive and behavioral strategies as well as emotionally-evocative techniques as espoused in emotion-focused therapy. The product of such enhancements is an even more integrative program such as Cognitive Behavioral Affective Therapy (CBAT).

Feature image credit: “For Dear Life” photo by Mitch Lensink. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Randall Fields

    Dysfunctional anger can be shared by groups, and exacerbated by charismatic group leaders, as exhibited by religious and political ideologues. Real, physical harm to group members is the result.

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