Out of the wide repertoire of human emotions, only one has the power to stoke the fires of violence. What’s its name? It goes by “Anger,” and its offspring are called rage, revenge, retaliation and fury. For centuries, violent individuals were viewed as morally defective, psychopaths, genetically inferior, criminals, alcohol/drug crazed or possessed by demons.

Neuroscience (the study of how the brain works) has discovered a new explanation for anger problems: the brain’s mechanism that regulates anger — think of it as an “emotional thermostat” — has been broken. New treatments designed to restore the emotional thermostat will be woven into the fabric of today’s article, which examines three specific types of anger: Healthy anger, and two forms of abnormal anger — passive aggressive, and masochistic self-rage.

A ray of sunshine awaits you at the article’s end.

• Healthy Anger:

When Owen, a 10-year-old obese boy, tripped while going up the school bus stairs, rowdy insults of “Fatty, Fatty,” broke out. The bus driver stood up and with anger, yelled, “Quiet! No talking!”

• Abnormal Anger:

Passive Aggressive: Meet Beth, a 45-year-old woman with a long string of failed romances, and estranged family members. Why has she struggled with relationships? Her seething anger had turned her into a honey-glazed hyena.

Instead of building relationships around trust, she used power. If she ever possessed great power — say, a general in the Army — guess what her first battle command would be? “Take no prisoners.”

Perched upon her throne, she declared her rules for relationships: “You either love me or hate me. If you love me, you must love all of me, all the time.” Let’s watch Beth as she wields her anger.

Beth’s latest husband, Bill, loved to bowl. When his team announced they would be in the finals, he told Beth, “The upcoming tournament is on the same day we booked our trip to New Orleans — would it be OK if we left three days later for vacation, so I could bowl in the tournament?”

With a velvet voice, Beth replied, “Of course, I’ll change the reservations.” When the tournament was over, and Bill was packing his suitcase, Beth said, “Bill, the hotel in New Orleans lost our reservation and now they have no vacancies. What can we do?” When Bill called the hotel, he was told that no changes had been made in the original reservation.

When he told this news to Beth, she raged, “You’re calling me a liar?” For the next three days, Beth gave him the cold shoulder, aka, the silent treatment. The botched vacation was never discussed.

• Second example of unhealthy anger: Masochistic Self-Rage:

Meet Angie, a 22-year-old first-year Harvard law student who recently relocated from her home in Houston, Texas, to Boston, Mass. Physically, she is stunning — sea green eyes, lustrous locks of auburn hair and a petite body which, up until her move, had been toned by daily rigorous swimming.

Since her move to Boston, everything had gone wrong. Her mother, who had chronic heart problems, had to be hospitalized. For the first time, Angie could not be with her. After her parents had divorced when Angie was 8, she and her mother became two peas in a pod.

Angie had gone to college at Rice, in Houston, but lived at home. Her inability to keep an eye on her mother caused her to worry, which disrupted her sleep. She gained 10 pounds and began to have nightmares.

Worse, anger boiled into self-rage. Desperate to find a way to calm herself, she decided to take a hot shower at bedtime. After her shower, she stood in front of her mirror and unleashed a volley of self-punishing daggers: “You’re a fat pig, hideous, gross.” She then binged on candy and a half-gallon of ice cream. For the next two days, she would eat nothing.

As she spiraled downward, she made two decisions. Start psychological treatment and apply for a one-year medical leave so she could visit her mother.

One year later: Angie learned that the origins of her self-rage were embedded in the traumas she had sustained. From the age of 6 up to age 22, her mother had been hospitalized 10 times. This extreme stress had unbalanced her brain’s “emotional thermostat,” leading to disruptions in sleep, anger and eating. Angie received trauma-specific treatments, as well as a broad array of other supports — education about nutrition, a return to swimming and skills to build high-trust relationships. Angie successfully took back the reins of her life.

Conclusion:

Neuroscience has broadened our understanding of anger: psychological trauma occurring in the first two decades of life disrupts the brain’s “emotional thermostat,” causing unregulated anger and rage. Trauma-specific treatments help to restore the brain’s ability to control anger.

How about that ray of sunshine?

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Men/women must evolve, for all human conflict, a method that rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation for such a method is love.” (Martin Luther King, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 12/11/1964).

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

References: 1. “Power over Anger,” Warren Holleman, 2007. 2. “The Body Keeps the Score,” Van Der Kolk, 2014, Penguin Books.

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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