Can Anger Be Addictive?

By Paul Gaita 06/27/19

The Boston Globe examined the potentially habit-forming effects of compulsive anger.

angry man

As the political and social arenas around the world transmit images and messages of greater strife and conflict, and half of all Americans reported being angrier in 2016 than they were in 2015, a new article in the Boston Globe asks a pertinent question: can anger be habit-forming?

While mental health professionals stop short at labeling angry behavior as addictive or a dependency, outrage can produce and feed on a rush of chemicals and conditioned responses that in many ways echo the mental and emotional processes associated with addiction.

Though the article cites the 2016 documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad as an example of how a steady diet of anger, fueled by conservative media sources, had a damaging effect on the well-being of the filmmaker's father, anger is not limited to one side of the political spectrum or the other. What is consistent is the response that regular exposure to angry emotions produces in the body.

Anger in the Brain

As the Globe piece noted, a perceived threat – whether real or imagined – provokes a response in the brain's limbic system, the region of the brain responsible for emotions, memories and stimulation.

The amygdalae – the almond-shaped neuron bundles linked to both fear and pleasure – inform the brain that a conflict is brewing, which in turn triggers the release of dopamine, which controls not only systems of reward and pleasure, but also movement, as well as a slew of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which send oxygen levels soaring in the blood and glucose skyrocketing in the brain.

As this rush of chemicals produces a physical response—as the Globe piece noted—we get physically tense and verbally louder; it also interrupts our ability to think clearly and produce short-term memories, which accounts for the difficulty in remembering what you thought or said while angry.

"The nature of anger is that it shuts off your cortex, your logic center, your thinking – it's literally overriding that center of your brain," said Dr. Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dopamine Fuels Addiction

What links anger to addiction is the presence of dopamine, which creates the same "afterglow" response produced after sexual intercourse, eating, exercise – and the use of certain drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and others.

When the brain produces a positive response to stimuli and encourages a repeat occurrence, even if the stimuli has a negative impact on the user, then that reaction correlates to compulsive and even addictive behavior.

Breaking the cycle of arousal to anger can be challenging, just like tackling the patterns of compulsion that surround addictions to drugs, alcohol and other stimuli. The Globe piece described how Frank Senko, the subject of Brainwashing, stepped away from his compulsive anger a step at a time – when the radio he used to tune into angry broadcasts broke, he began to draw closer to his wife and family, reprogrammed his television remote to avoid the high-stress news broadcasts, and unsubscribed from hyperbolic emails.

"He became happy," said his daughter, Jen, who directed the documentary. "The last couple years of his life, he was himself again, and we had him back."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.