This is similar to a question that I was asked on Quora.com. I thought it was a good question that you, my readers, might enjoy so I decided to post my answer here.
To whomever asked this question.. I really like the fact that you did NOT ask “What makes me angry?”
While it may seem like the two questions (What makes me angry? and What is the cause of my anger?) are the same, they are not.
When one asks about what “makes” me angry, they imply that the source, or cause, of their anger is outside of themselves. Not only does this change their relationship to their emotions but it gives away any power their emotions provide them to deal with their surroundings and the challenges they face. I mention this because you will hear people question what makes them angry or, worse, blame someone else for making them angry.
In order to understand the cause of your emotions, you have to know what emotions are and how the emotional process works.
There are 6 primary emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise). This number will vary depending on whose list you read but 6 is representative. The emotions in bold are primitive threat detectors and focus our attention on a threat that could hurt us. The other two emotions focus our attention on an activity we might like to engage in. All emotions are adaptive.
Here is how the emotional process works today and has worked since we lived in caves. You are hard wired to unconsciously scan your surroundings for any threat. When our ancestors lived in caves, there were many threats all of which wanted to kill them. These are called survival threats and the emotional process developed in response to these threats and helped us survive as a species. The problem is that today, while survival threats still exist, most of what we face are psychological threats such as traffic jams, difficult deadlines, and exasperating co-workers. While the nature of the threats we face has changed, the emotional process has not.
Once you perceive a threat, your senses alert the emotional center in your brain (the Amygdala)which unconsciously prepares you to deal with the threat. This is the fast track message. Your body does not distinguish between types of threat. It just reacts. Your body’s reaction to the perceived threat informs you that you are experiencing an emotion. At the same time, a slower message goes to the thinking part of your brain (the cerebral cortex). This slower message gives you the opportunity to examine the “cause” or your feeling and choose a response.
So, let’s look at anger and directly address your question.
Each of the emotions has a unique message.
The message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. Your body is prepared to go to war and you have unconsciously determined that you can win the war. Your anger prepares you for battle.
Once you know how your body reacts when you are angry (which muscles tighten, how your breathing changes, the thoughts you have about to eliminate the threat), you are on your way to finding out the cause of your anger.
Your next step is to take a step back from the situation and take a breath. This gives you both physical and psychological space between you and the threat. It also can stop you from reacting and later regretting what you might have done.
Your third step is to assess the nature of the threat. This is the cause of your anger and is the information you are seeking. You can ask yourself, “What is the threat that I am reacting to?” In most cases, it will involve a challenge to your beliefs in right/wrong, your values, the way things should be, your goals, your finances, and so forth. When you identify the perceived threat, you know the cause of your anger.
You master your anger when you take the fourth step which is to choose how you want to respond to the threat. My book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool discusses the anger cycle and anger mastery in more detail.
I welcome your comments.