Addiction is normally associated with tobacco, drugs, alcohol and many other ‘fun’ things in life. But is it possible to be addicted to anger? With Manipur burning despite all attempts to calm tempers down, this is a very pertinent question.
Neuroscience says that anger addiction is real. It is one of the most primitive emotions. Even animals are equipped with the same basic anger neural circuitry as humans. It operates on a spectrum from mild frustration to absolute fury. When we feel outraged, evolutionarily active mechanisms alert the brain to prepare for a fight (or flight). This signal causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing oxygen levels in the blood and glucose levels in the brain to rise. Our heart rate, blood sugar levels and blood pressure go up. This burst of neurochemicals released in the brain causes one to experience a burst of energy for a fight.
Certain drugs such as methamphetamines are so addictive because they mimic dopamine, the ‘feel good’ brain hormone. It is dopamine that prods our brain to keep doing something again and again, a behaviour pattern consistent with addiction. This addiction-creating dopamine hangs around in the brain after an anger burst, resulting in a post-tirade ‘glow’ in one’s mind. This is why rage actually feels exhilarating. Every time someone becomes angry, the neurochemical effect incentivizes that person to get angry more often. As this rage addiction grows, aggression too gets more intense.
The neurochemical-induced arousal caused by anger bursts lasts for many hours, at times even days. A sustained onslaught of anger lowers one’s anger threshold. Even if we do calm down after a flare-up, it takes a very long time for us to return to normalcy. During this slow cool-down period, we are more likely to get very angry in response to even minor irritations that would otherwise not have bothered us.
What makes anger addiction so destructive is that unlike other addictions, it is very contagious. Like a virus, it can spread quickly from, say, a talk-show host to passive listeners. The 2015 American documentary film The Brainwashing of My Dad, directed by Jen Senko, portrays the true story of her father who fell victim to the insidious influence of radio and television shows spewing venom 24×7. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 59% of social media users frequently saw other people online looking for opportunities to start arguments. A study of the Billboard Top 100 pop songs between 1951 and 2016 found that anger in lyrics increased by 232%, while joy decreased by 38%.
What are the underlying reasons for someone to get angry? When something or someone tries to harm you, or robs you of control, you might get angry. You may even decide to use force to prevent the harm and regain what has been taken away from you. This, in turn, gives one an illusory boost in power and status, an experience more pronounced among those who have underlying feelings of weakness or insecurity.
Anger is almost always directed towards an outsider. There are many anger manufacturers all around us. They seem very well aware that the key to manufacturing anger on a large scale and regular basis lies in the creation of a vicious out-group that one would love to hate.
Scientists believe that the capacity for anger towards out-groups has been hardwired into the brain over billions of years. Famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reminds us that the behavioural tendency to feel close to one’s in-group and shun an out-group is as old as unicellular organisms. About 3.8 billion years ago, those ‘defector’ single-cell bacteria who did not cooperate with the larger group of bacteria were considered an out-group and ostracized for it. This tendency to create out-groups of those marked for social expulsion continues unabated even today.
Thanks to the onslaught of polarizing messages from many sources, anger addiction has been spreading like wildfire. Exacerbating conflicts has become a key part of today’s political and religious discourse in India. More and more people are taking extreme positions on many issues. So-called debates on television and social media are nothing but all-out slugfests where all participants emerge stronger in the belief that their own point of view is right and there is nothing acceptable in the other side’s views. Where will this hardened posture of ‘I am okay but your are not’ take us?
What is happening in Manipur is just a reminder that it is very easy to set off anger addiction, but very difficult to manage it. How do we tackle this growing ‘angerholism’? Opportunistic anger manufacturers around us are using some of the most fundamental behaviour traits to inflame passions and light anger fires in society.
To tackle that onslaught, we should go back to the most fundamental of all behaviour traits—the need for survival. Examples of post-apartheid South Africa or post-genocide Rwanda where people realized that their very survival depends on the peaceful coexistence of those with opposing views offers us a beacon of hope. Both countries had adopted various strategies to de-addict an ‘angerholic’ nation. But history also reminds us that what’s needed most to de-addict a nation of anger are statesmen of the calibre of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.
Updated: 09 Aug 2023, 10:17 PM IST
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