Psychology of Anger

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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  1. Introduction
  2. Anger, Thoughts, & Social Behavior
  3. Anger: A Substitute Emotion
  4. Defining Anger
  5. Identifying Anger and Its Triggers
  6. Benefits and Costs of Anger: Social, Emotional, and Health


Anger is a natural and mostly automatic response to physical or emotional pain. It can be triggered by other emotions, such as feeling rejected or threatened or experiencing some type of loss.


Anger doesn't occur in isolation but is preceded by feelings of pain. Because of this, it is often characterized as a second-hand emotion.

Anger, Thoughts, & Social Behavior

  • Pain alone is not enough to cause anger.  Anger occurs when pain is combined with some anger-triggering thought.
  • Thoughts that can trigger anger include personal assessments or assumptions regarding a situation that make a person think someone else is attempting to hurt them.

In this sense, anger is a social emotion. Your anger is typically directed toward a target, even if that target is yourself. Feelings of pain combined with anger-triggering thoughts motivate you to take action, face threats, and defend yourself by striking out against the target you think is causing you pain.

Anger: A Substitute Emotion

  • Anger can also be a substitute emotion, as some people make themselves angry so that they don't have to feel pain. For some, it feels better to be angry than it does to be in pain, and this may be a conscious or an unconscious defense mechanism.

  • Being angry rather than simply in pain has a number of advantages, including distraction. People in pain generally think about their pain. However, angry people think about harming those who have caused pain. Part of the transmutation of pain into anger involves an attention shift from self-focus to other-focus..

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  • Anger can temporarily protect someone from having to recognize and deal with painful feelings. Making yourself angry can help you to hide the reality that you find a situation frightening or that you feel vulnerable.

  • In addition to providing a good smoke screen for feelings of vulnerability, becoming angry also creates feelings of righteousness, power, and moral superiority that aren't present when someone is merely in pain. 

Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Anger is not classified as a mental disorder in the DSM–5. It's a normal human emotion and in many cases, isn’t harmful. However, uncontrolled and destructive anger can lead to various health issues."

Defining Anger

Whether someone's anger is a problem often depends on whether or not other people agree with them that their anger and the actions they take in the name of their anger are justified.

More on Anger and Anger Management

Angry people often feel their anger is justified. However, other people don't always agree. The social judgment regarding anger creates real consequences for the angry person. An angry person may feel justified in committing an angry, aggressive action, but if a judge or jury of peers don’t see it that way, that angry person may go to jail. If a boss doesn't agree that anger expressed toward a customer is justified, it can result in the loss of a job. If a spouse doesn't agree that anger was justified, a marriage may have problems.

Identifying Anger and Its Triggers

Pain alone is not sufficient to cause anger; it is the combination of pain and anger-triggering thoughts that ignites this emotion. 

The connection between anger and underlying feelings like hurt or fear is pivotal. Anger frequently serves as a protective shield, masking deeper vulnerabilities. These underlying feelings may include hurt from rejection or loss or fear stemming from threats to one's well-being or security. By recognizing the role of these underlying emotions, individuals can better understand the roots of their anger. This insight aids in identifying triggers and facilitates a more empathetic approach to self and others when anger arises.

In this sense, anger is not just a social emotion with a direct target but also a complex interplay of thoughts and deeper emotional undercurrents. Acknowledging the role of these triggers and underlying feelings is a step toward more effective anger management, allowing individuals to address the root causes of their anger rather than merely its manifestations.

Benefits and Costs of Anger: Social, Emotional, and Health

Whether justified or unjustified, the seductive feeling of righteousness associated with anger offers a powerful temporary boost to self-esteem. It is more satisfying to feel angry than to acknowledge the painful feelings associated with vulnerability. You can also use anger to convert feelings of vulnerability and helplessness into feelings of control and power.

However, some people develop an unconscious habit of transforming almost all of their vulnerable feelings into anger so they can avoid having to deal with them. 

While anger may help you feel temporarily more powerful or distracted from your pain, it can't make that pain disappear. ​​Anger also generally does not resolve or address the problems that made you feel fearful or vulnerable in the first place, and it can create new problems, including social and health issues.

Dr. Vanta says, "While everyone may experience anger, Type A personalities tend to have increased levels of anger due to traits like competitiveness and impatience. Some scientific studies suggest both are linked to higher risks of developing cardiovascular diseases."

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Additional Resources

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