“It makes me want to grunt.聽“It sounds like he’s trying to provoke me on purpose.聽“At times like this, he doesn’t want to hear anything.聽“He’s exasperated by everything.聽“Despite their excesses, irritation and anger are essential defensive instincts. Anger is used to respond to provocation or aggression, or to signal our sensitivities or limits of tolerance. Sometimes it even helps us to survive.

The brain’s defensive aggression circuits coordinate the many components of irritation and anger reactions. Our face signals our discontent (frowning eyebrows, a look that becomes threatening). Our bodies become active and stiff (jaw and shoulders tight). Even our tone of voice and our reactions signal that a tolerance limit is being crossed and that we are about to react (e.g., protesting, grunting, shouting, hitting).

Irritation and anger appear early in childhood in response to certain triggers such as frustration (e.g., having a toy taken away, being refused a coveted treat) or aggression (e.g., being pushed). Through learning, these pre-programmed reactions can be generalized to a host of “stressors” that are not provocations (e.g., bumping your foot, a computer blocking). Depending on our experiences and fragilities, a host of stimuli can be perceived as provocations and trigger irritation.

Attacks on our pride (e.g., being told that we are wrong) are very effective irritants. The threshold of these triggers can vary. When our self-confidence decreases (anxiety, depression …), the most banal social provocations can trigger irritation (e.g., provocative jokes become insults). Men are more prone to this type of irritation because of their often more sensitive pride system.

Disappointed expectations (e.g., a teammate who doesn’t do his part) or frustrated desires (e.g., traffic slowing down) are also major sources of irritation. Impatience is often an irritation about the course of events. For impulsive or stressed people, delays or slowdowns can become intolerable. Their expectations or sense of urgency are often contradicted by the slowness of events or the people around them, and imposed slowdowns can easily be perceived as a provocation.

Irritation needs a target, a situation or a responsible person to respond to. The real trigger of irritation is often unconscious or minor (fatigue in children, disappointments, setbacks or obstacles in adults), but once activated, irritation often looks for scapegoats (e.g., the next person who contradicts me, the little brother, the parent, the spouse). Sometimes, we cling to a complaint or discord or we aim a bit randomly because identifying a source of irritation and reacting to it reduces our stress and gives us a sense of satisfaction. In the long run, the search for irritants can make us more demanding and bitter, as if life owed us a debt.

Like fear, anger is fuelled by a loop that maintains or amplifies it for a period of time. Initial reactions provide satisfaction, but they also stimulate memories of past irritants and the imagination that suggests new reasons for being irritated. For some people, victims of a concussion or suffering from a psychological disorder, the loop of irritation may lack brakes. Periods of irritability (bad mood) can be long and frequent. They may brood for several days over an affront or frustration. They may have an irresistible urge to complain about everything, to revolt (everything is going badly and there are many guilty parties) or to say hurtful things.

Although it is more likely to provoke defence and rejection than empathy, irritability is often a cry for help, a sign of distress or depression. It is a clumsy response to “stressors” (e.g., conflicts at the office that are ventilated at home, children’s concerns expressed through bad moods). Distress leads to a fragility that can cause many “stressors” to be perceived as provocations. Children with oppositional behaviour (arguing, defying, etc.) are often irritable, prone to provocation or infringements of their freedom. Children who are frequently irritable are more likely to develop disorders such as anxiety and depression as they get older.

Anger is often a response to an affront, so it is a social and moral emotion. It is often followed by feelings such as shame, remorse or guilt, which are the basis of our moral codes and notions of justice. Anger is frowned upon socially, which favours its inhibition and its more discreet expression (verbal spikes, anonymous revenge…).

Irritation has important social roles. It often aims to change our environment so that it becomes less threatening or closer to our expectations. Reprimands and reproaches aim to signal our dissatisfaction. Indignation triggered by a perception of injustice or a clash of values is an irritation related to moral expectations. Resentment and resentment are persistent irritations that may be associated with a lack of power to change our environment.

Our defence instincts are controlled by modulation circuits. These circuits develop with age and with our socialization experiences (parents, educators, social interactions). However, modulation circuits are easily disrupted. Many people wake up irritable (confused state) especially after a nap due to incomplete awakening of the circuits that modulate the defensive reactions. Inhibition of anger can also be reduced by alcohol, or by context (e.g., hostile environments, an angry crowd in a riot, violent environments, feelings of impunity). Irritation is also facilitated by “stressors” and stimulants (e.g., caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines). It is reduced by drugs that decrease the dopamine and adrenaline available in the brain.

Anger can cause blindness. It alters our state of consciousness and can make us insensitive to many of our usual social and moral brakes. We say too much, we go too far, and we may regret it afterwards. In their outbursts of irritation, some people blame others in an exaggerated way, sometimes with paranoid mistrust, and often they don’t realize their exaggeration.

Anger can take control of the brain. Some children (e.g., Tourette’s syndrome) have rage attacks that are out of proportion to the triggers and are difficult to stop.

Anger can also produce amnesia of the incident. People who kill their loved ones are often in a state that is dissociated from reality and their own judgment and may either not record the event or block the memory of it.

People who have dysfunctions in their anger circuits may show violent reactions. A person who has seizures that affect these circuits may grunt and hit those around him or her during the seizures. A tumour in these circuits can even sometimes lead to an escalation of aggression leading to homicidal madness (e.g. the case of Charles Whitman).

On the contrary, some people show a significant decrease in their defensive reactions caused by depression, neurodegenerative disease or another condition. These people are more often victims of fraud or physical or psychological abuse.

Predicting violence or assessing a person’s dangerousness is very difficult. Sometimes, past behaviour, escalating anger, or the content of obsessions or delusions (e.g., in schizophrenia) can predict violent acts, but the risk of violence is usually due to a number of factors.

Using neuroimaging techniques, abnormalities of certain brain circuits can sometimes be found in people who are prone to violence. These neurological factors may interact with psychosocial factors that promote violence (e.g., early exposure to family or community violence). A neurological explanation does not necessarily reduce our moral responsibility for the aggression. It does not reduce all violence to illness. However, a better understanding of its origin makes aggression more humane (it is not possession by demons) and allows us to consider interventions that go beyond repression, including better management of irritants and irritable people and better prevention of violence.

(from the website: https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/francois-richer)

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