Man Screaming

 

By Anne Wilkinson

Anger is a problem many addiction professionals are familiar with in treating people in recovery.  A good rehab center like the Cove Center for Recovery has dedicated professionals working solely on helping clients to deal with their anger.

Why does anger often accompany addiction?

Often this has a lot to do with the fact that addictive substances frequently heighten emotions while simultaneously lowering inhibitions – meaning that anger is much more likely to become a major problem for addicts than it is for others. However, there are those who believe that anger itself is a motivating factor when it comes to substance addiction, and that those with anger issues should, as such, be noted as ‘at risk’ for substance abuse issues. Whether the anger is the cause or effect, when it comes to addiction issues, this is certainly an area that warrants further exploration.

Inhibition and suppressed Rage

An interesting area of anger which may tie into addiction issues is that of inhibition, or ‘bottling’. A study into alcohol-related violence found that those who ‘bottle’ their anger are more prone to both addiction and violent behavior while intoxicated – “results indicate that the effect of drinking is confined to those who tend to withhold their angry feelings” [1]. Alcohol is well known for its uninhibited side effects.  What does appear to make a difference is the generalized inclination of the individual to express their anger while they are in a sober state.

The psychiatric sciences are divided over whether or not anger should be ‘bottled’. While many consider anger suppression to be an “unhealthy behavior” [2], others argue that allowing our anger to get the better of ourselves can be equally damaging. The American Psychological Association warn that too much expression of anger can lead to serious “problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life” [3]. A modicum of control is therefore, obviously, advisable when it comes to managing one’s anger. However, somewhat converse to received expectations, it appears that the group most susceptible to addiction are those who (while clean and sober) control their emotions more closely than those who do not.

A Dynamic Emotion

Why is this? Well, on one level it is because anger is a highly destructive emotion, both inside and out. At the more directly visible end of the scale, explosive anger escalates situations to untenable levels and causes emotional damage in others. At the less visible end of the scale, suppressed anger retains the same amount of force, but enacts its destructive potential within the angry individual. Anger loses none of its force when not directly expressed – and it finds ways to divert its powerful energy through other means.

Often it turns corrosive and eats away at the individual generating the anger. It’s well documented that stored anger can physically damage you. Harvard Medical School point out that “Anger can bring on a heart attack or stroke” [4], among other things. It’s a powerful emotion, which will have an effect one way or another. Many people, rather than expressing or simply bottling their anger, choose to divert it, channeling its energy through something else. Now, this can be a good thing – an angry person who takes it out on a punchbag rather than a person has successfully unleashed their anger in a non-harmful way. However, many other people choose to expend or divert their anger in different, more harmful ways.

Anger Displacement

Now, there are many societal reasons why people with addiction issues may also suffer from anger issues – feelings of marginalization, for example, and perhaps growing up in an ‘angry’ culture. It’s also worth noting that people who supress a classically angry reaction may be doing so because they lack self-confidence, or at least confidence in their own personal expression, which may in itself drive someone into the arms of addiction [5]. These factors must not be denied or belittled. However, there is also some interesting neuroscience between the inhibited anger/addiction connection.

The bottom line is – suppressed anger leads to addiction-forming behaviors. If you’re angry, deal with it and get it out of your system in as controlled a manner as you can without the aid of chemicals or unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The “Fight or Flight” Response

Anger often triggers what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. When we get angry, our bodies prepare to either fight or run away in response to the emotion. Adrenaline and cortisol flood through our systems, our hearts beat faster, our breathing quickens and so on. The strenuous exercise the body thinks it is going to experience leads the brain to expect a flood of endorphins – natural ‘high’ inducing opiates which are released during exercise. If or when it is thwarted in its expectations, it seeks to satiate itself through other means.

The Anger Addiction Connection

With their opiate receptors primed and ready, it is fairly obvious why someone suppressing their anger would seek out something to give the brain the hit it’s worked itself up to expect. Anger not expressed is still felt, still induces a neurological reaction, and still causes the brain to expect a payoff for all that emotion-generating effort in the form of appeasing neurochemicals. In the absence of naturally produced chemicals, it – if already trained to expect such things from certain sources – will manipulate the individual into providing that reward through artificial means. Thus, someone shaking with suppressed anger may go and snort a line, shoot up, or down a bottle of vodka– and it will work (to a degree), because, as far as the brain is concerned, the effort/reward transaction has been completed successfully. Suppressing anger therefore leads people to seek alternative ‘cooling’ mechanisms, which can in turn lead to habit-forming addictions.

Healthy Solutions

That’s not to say that it’s better to lash out physically or emotionally when feeling angry – this too can be very damaging. The best thing to do when feeling angry, rather than reaching for a substance, is to divert the anger through an alternative channel, and give your brain the ‘reward’ it expects through other means than alcohol or drugs. Boxing classes and shadow-boxing have proven immensely effective for those with anger issues, as they let the body and brain deal with the emotion in a natural way, without actually hurting anyone in an uncontrolled manner.

Alternatively, you could go for a run, which will let you pound out the adrenaline on the paths, and give the requisite endorphin rush into the brain. Even just talking through what you’re feeling to an impartial third party can help to drain the emotion from your system. The bottom line is – suppressed anger leads to addiction-forming behaviors. If you’re angry, deal with it and get it out of your system in as controlled a manner as you can without the aid of chemicals or unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Sources:

[1] Thor Nordstrom, Hilde Pape, “Alcohol, suppressed anger and violence”, Swedish Institute for Social Research, Stokholm University, 2010

[2] Ari Novik, “Suppressing Anger Is An Unhealthy Behavior”, Examiner

[3] American Psychological Association, “Controlling anger before it controls you”

[4] William J. Cromie, “Anger can break your heart”, Harvard University Gazette, Sept 2006

[5] Carole Bennett, “Low self-esteem; a disposition that can lead to addiction”, Psychology Today, June 2013