Does Sadness Transform Into Anger

I contribute to a website where people ask questions.  Several people noted that their sadness seemed to transform into anger and they wondered why this happened.  I wanted to address this issue as you, my readers, might have experienced this (or know someone who has). Note: For those of you who have read all of my posts, some of this post will be a review.

To begin, sadness does not “transform” into anger. Sadness and anger are both primary emotions which exist in nearly all human species and some subhuman species. The number of primary emotions varies depending on whose list you look at but most writers in the field agree that the main primary emotions are mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, disgust and surprise. If you have kids, you will have noticed these emotions appear early in your kid’s development.

Here is how the emotional process works… you are constantly and unconsciously scanning your surroundings for any threat. When your senses (eyes, ears, nose) sense a threat, a fast track signal goes to the emotional center in your brain (the Amygdala) which then sends out signals, through the Thalamus, to the body to prepare for a fight or flight REACTION. This is all done very fast and totally outside of your awareness. If you were facing a Sabre-toothed tiger or a marauder from another village who wanted to kill you, you would want this process to happen without you having to think about it. Humans have done this since we, as a species, lived in caves or roamed the Savannah. The emotional process evolved to protect us and keep us alive.

I discuss the emotional process (and the primary emotions) in my book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings (Amazon)

At the same time as the fast track message goes out, a slower (still quick but relatively slower) message goes to the thinking part of your brain (the cerebral cortex) which allows you to assess the nature of the threat and choose a RESPONSE.

You can begin to understand all emotions by looking at the message of the emotion.

The easiest way to start this learning is to look at the primary emotions. The message of the emotion alerts you to the threat that you have perceived to exist. The messages of the primary emotions are as follows:

Mad: you perceive a threat you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. You are prepared to go to war

Sad: you have experienced a loss. Your body slows down, you want to be alone so you can mourn your loss, tie up loose emotional ends, and, when ready, resume your life.

Glad: you are engaged in an activity with is enjoyable and which you want to continue to do.

Fear: you have a perceived a threat which will kill you unless you either escape from it or freeze in place and hope it will go away.

Disgust: you have experienced a threat which totally turns you off and which you want to get away from. It might be bad food, a nautious smell, or a person whose company you no longer want.

Surprise: you have encountered a new experience that grabs your attention and which you want to know more about.

While it may seem that sadness morphs into anger, they are, in fact, two separate emotions. What is probably happening is that anger replaces sadness.

Anger might replace sadness in this way. You are sad because you have experienced a loss. You become angry when you begin to focus on something either you did, or did not do, that led to the loss. The perceived threat indicated by the anger is to your sense of right and wrong, your belief that the loss could have been, but was not, avoided, and so forth.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I have been friends with the Smiths (a pseudonym) for over 30 years. Recently, Mr. Smith passed away. Mrs. Smith was understandably sad.

As it later turned out, Mr. Smith’s death might have been prevented if he had gotten some recommended tests that he chose to avoid.

When this information came out, Mrs. Smith found herself highly conflicted. Being angry at a spouse who recently died is not a feeling you expect to experience in these situations and she wasn’t sure how to handle it.

She was very sad about losing her husband and she was angry at her husband for “leaving” her by not getting the test that could have saved his life. As you can see, her sadness and her anger reflected two different perceived “threats” and the body’s emotional reaction to those threats.

When I explained the emotional process to her, Mrs. Smith was able to master her emotions and proceed through the process of grieving (being sad about) the loss of her husband.

By the way, you can learn to master your emotions and strategically apply them to improve your life. Emotional mastery involves understanding the message of the emotion, assessing the validity of the message, and choosing an adaptive response. I cover this process in depth in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool (Amazon).

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments.

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