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Anger: Attachment and Neurobiological Perspectives

Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

 

When anger really gets the best of us,

We’ve really lost our heads.

We often say a lot of things, oh darlin,

Wish we never said.

Oh, reason is beyond control,

And things we do spite.

Makes me ashamed,

And I mean this baby, make me want to do things right.

 Marvin Gaye, Anger

Marvin Gaye said it correctly, when anger gets the best of us, we often say and/or do things we wish later we hadn’t said or done.  Later on, when cooler heads prevail, we often feel the shame and guilt associated with our actions when we were possessed by our anger.   Anger is a universal emotion, in that all creatures large and small experience something similar to what humans label as the emotion of anger.  But, not all expressions of anger have to be harmful to self or others.  In fact, anger can motivate people to take actions that can result in great changes to themselves, their families, communities, or even whole societies.  However, when problems with anger (as well as other emotions) develop, mental health professionals are often asked to help those individuals either become better at expressing their anger or more effective at controlling their anger.  This area of treatment focus has resulted in the contemporary term, anger management, becoming a commonly used expression in both professional settings and by the general public.  In fact, not long ago, a major motion picture was produced detailing the humorous and somewhat tragic experience of an individual mandated to an anger management specialist.

But like many mental health terms, anger management, is an oversimplified term lacking nuance for what can be a complex treatment process.  Not all roads to the healthy management of anger are the same.  Although many professionals describe a cookie-cutter approach to the management of anger, it is incorrect to assume that one method will fit all.  Not only do the causes of anger disregulation differ from person to person, but the pathways to change will be different as well.

Attachment theory is an ideal lens to understand anger.  John Bowlby first witnessed the effects of infants separated from their mothers in a hospital setting, when intense displays of anger were followed by despair and detachment (1988).  He proposed that the function of the anger was meant to be a signal to the parent to become available to provide comfort and support, soothing the fear and anxiety associated with separation, at a time when self-soothing capacities are not yet developed.  And depending on the response of the caregiver(s), the healthy expression of anger can become dysfunctional due to insensitive or fear-inducing responses by the parents.

With the improvement of scanning technology in the late twentieth century, we can now literally peek into the human brain as it is in the process of experiencing emotions, such as anger.  As a result, the affective neurosciences have revolutionized our understanding of anger - its source point in the brain, its relationship to the body, and its relationship to cognition.  This revolution has ultimately resulted in a better understanding of how to move from not good for life states of mind to good for life states of mind. Most importantly, we now have a better understanding of differences between emotion and feeling, the relationship between emotion and memory, and how our minds are wired to communicate emotion between each other. 

This article will explore both the attachment and neurobiological correlates of anger.  I will discuss how anger problems can be understood based on different attachment styles, which will imply different approaches to the better control or regulation of anger.  We will also look into the latest findings in the affective neurosciences to learn how anger not only functions within the individual but between individuals involved in an angry interaction.  The purpose of this article is to explore the many roads that lead to anger problems, and the many possible paths from anger dysfunction, to emotional control. 

Attachment Theory and Anger

In its essence, attachment theory is a theory of affect regulation (Sroufe, 1995).  It helps us understand how secure attachments develop, and how attachment security helps an individual survive temporary states of emotional distress, conflict or crisis and reestablish a sense of hope, optimism, and a state of emotional equanimity and wellbeing (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007).  It also helps us understand how insecure attachment develops and how it can lead to emotional regulation and interpersonal problems, as well as problems in overall mental health.

Mary Ainsworth identified three infant attachment strategies, on a continuum of deactivation to hyperactivation of the attachment behavioral system (Ainsworth, et. al., 1978).    On one end of the continuum, “A-babies”, also labeled “anxious-avoidant”, deactivated visual demonstrations of distress during separations and reunions with attachment figures in the Strange Situation (the method she developed to assess attachment behaviors).  Avoidant babies sacrificed proximity to a caretaker for chronic exploration.  Through many interactions with their caregiver, they learned that seeking proximity to a consistently insensitive parent did not lead to alleviation of distress. They developed a mental representation that others are not likely to alleviate distress; therefore, rigid self-sufficiency is the only option, even though the natural instinct is to seek proximity to others for soothing.

At the other end of the continuum, “C-babies”, also labeled “anxious-resistant”, hyperactivated attachment distress during time of separations and reunions with attachment figures.  These infants sacrificed exploration for the sake of chronic proximity seeking.  Through many interactions with their caregiver(s), they learned that they had to keep a hypervigilent watch over their inconsistently insensitive parent, in hope that the parent would respond in a sensitive manner.  They developed a mental representation that they were unable to self-sooth and therefore need others for that purpose. 

In the middle are “B-babies”, also labeled “secure”, who are more flexible in their response to separation distress.  They curtail exploration when their attachment behavioral system is activated, and can seek and respond to soothing offered from caregivers, which in turn deactivates the distress system so that they can return to exploration and play. 

A fourth category, termed “Can Not Classify”, seemed to show both deactivating and hyperactivating strategies.  This category was not more fully understood until Mary Main and Carol Solomon (1986) reexamined this group.  The reason for this disorganized strategy (approaching and avoiding proximity at the same time), was because the vast majority of these infants were experiencing abuse by their caregiver.  The person to whom they looked to for soothing, was also the source of their fear.  They were experiencing fear without solution. 

Children in all four attachment categories experience anger and frustration, but it is how their caregiver(s) responds to their distress, that in part determines how the child ultimately copes with these emotions.  Avoidant children deactivate distress and therefore anger is more likely to be expressed in more indirect ways.  Resistant children are more likely to be chronically angry, and to express other emotions through their anger.  Disorganized children may get so overwhelmed with emotional flooding, that they could dissociate or become aggressive toward self or others.  Secure children do become angry too, but they are more likely to express it directly to others.  When the source of anger is not available they can rely on mental representations that allow for self-soothing and returning toward a state of emotional well-being.  Insecure children lack a positive mental representation of soothing, so their mental representations are likely to contribute to more anger, rather than less (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007).

Adult attachment researchers have found that there is about an 80% continuity between childhood attachment patterns and adult attachment patterns (Suess and Sroufe, 2005).  This means that strategies for dealing with anger are likely to persist into adulthood.  Some expressions of the strategies may become more sophisticated, whereas some may not be too dissimilar from a child’s expression of anger (we all know adults who can throw a full-fledged temper tantrum).  However, the generalized pattern of deactivation, hyperactivation, and flexibility can be seen to persist in adolescence and adulthood, unless other factors intervene (for a discussion of this possibility, see the literature on “earned-security”).  And, as in childhood, anger in adulthood could serve to alert the individual that a problem needs to be solved.  The healthy expression and working through of the anger, will usually lead to increased self-esteem, greater trust and intimacy with others, and a general feeling of wellbeing.

Based on attachment theory, anger problems can potentially have three possible etiologies, therefore, the proper intervention will depend on the therapist understanding these differences and responding accordingly.  Deactivating strategies (referred to as “dismissing attachment” in adults) can result in the passive expression of anger, being critical and devaluing of others emotional needs, the use of anger to distance and control others, and periodic explosions when holding back is no longer a viable option.  Hyperactivating strategies (referred to “preoccupied attachment” in adults) can result in the chronic expression of irritation, anger, and anxiety; hypersensitivity to separation and difference, the chronic blaming of others for the person’s distress, attempting to get others to change in order to reduce their anger and anxiety, and difficulty being soothed by others’ attempts at caregiving.  Disorganized strategies (referred to as unresolved or disorganized in adults) can result in extreme expressions of anger that manifest in the inconsistent expression of approach and avoidance strategies, aggression and violence toward self and/or others, dissociation, and PTSD symptomology due to unresolved childhood trauma.

The treatment goal for each of these categories is the healthy management of anger.  However, the objectives will depend on some assessment of the individual’s attachment category.  For a comprehensive discussion of the various methods of assessing attachment status/style see Cassidy and Shaver (2008).

In general, persons with a deactivating style, will need help in identifying emotional reactions and learning to make use of dyadic soothing strategies (e.g., seek support from others and talk about their feelings), whereas individuals with hyperactivating patterns will need help in containing their emotional reactivity while learning to develop more self-soothing strategies (depending more on self during times of distress).  According to attachment theory, individuals with disorganized attachment need to resolve trauma and loss that contributes to intense emotional states that result in a collapse of coping strategies that can lead to harming others or self. 

The Neurobiology of Emotion

One of the most exciting developments in the neurosciences is our expanded understanding of emotion - its function, relationship to cognition and how our brains are wired to communicate emotionally. UCLA researcher Antonio Damasio (1999, 2005) suggests that there are five axioms we should consider when having a discussion about emotion in general.

  1. Emotions are complicated collections of chemical and neural responses that are involved in the management of life.
  2. Although learning and culture alter the expression of emotions and give emotions new meanings, emotions are biologically determined processes that have evolved over time.
  3. The parts of the brain that produce emotions occupy a fairly restricted ensemble of subcortical regions, beginning at the level of the brain stem and moving up to the higher brain
  4. All emotions can and do operate unconsciously, and it’s only when we are aware of having an emotion (mental representation) that we are having a feeling.
  5. All emotions are experienced in the body.  But will also affect the brain as well (e.g. cognition).

In addition, Damasio describes different types of emotions: primary emotions (anger, happiness, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise); background emotions (simply feeling good, or bad and everything in-between – similar to the concept of mood); and social emotions (shame, guilt, love, awe – often a nesting of various emotions at once).  As therapists we often put too much focus on the primary emotions, when the background emotions are far more frequently experienced.

Another aspect to the study of emotion is the concept of the emotionally competent stimulus, an event that is likely to trigger an emotion.  Some stimuli are made competent by evolution (snakes), but other stimuli can be made competent by experience.  Hence, in families where disagreement or conflict coexisted with violence, rejection, or other painful experiences, those events will be likely to cause a negative reaction for many years after.  The brain is primed to respond in a particular way; therefore, angry withdrawal or angry dependence may become the automatic response to threat in adulthood.

Most importantly, these axioms suggest that emotion is a process that occurs frequently outside of our awareness.  The organism solves the problem without thought or awareness, for better or worse.  Helping clients understand this fact is important because it explains why someone else might notice a deactivating person’s anger before they are aware of it.  The deactivating person is showing his/her anger, but not aware of it and talking about it (the process of feeling).  Similarly, a preoccupied person’s negative background emotion (feeling bad) may exacerbate the expression of their primary emotion of anger.  Being aware of one’s background emotions can help one reduce the possibility of this exacerbated response by managing the background emotion before encountering a situation that is likely to trigger a primary emotion, such as anger.  Because the brain is primed to respond in a particular way due to early childhood conditioning, breaking automatic solutions to anger express takes consciousness (awareness of emotion), a decision to express it differently, and repetition to reprogram the response pattern.

Taming the Angry Beast Within

Richard Davidson (2004), neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has made some important findings regarding brain asymmetry as it relates to optimism and pessimism.  By scanning the brains of Buddhist monks, he found that the personality traits of compassion and optimism could be linked to the relative activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex. Those whose left prefrontal is more active relative to the right prefrontal, tend to have a more optimistic, forgiving, and hopeful view on life, whereas those with a more active right prefrontal cortex tend to have a more negativistic view on life.  What this suggests is that people who see the glass as half-full, may do so because their brain processes the information differently, through different sides.  Davidson also found that the relative activation pattern can be changed through mindfulness training.

These findings have significant implications for the treatment of anger problems.  Anger may be considered a withdraw emotion, in that the source of the anger may be viewed by the person as threatening or not welcoming.  However, if a person is chronically angry (hyperactivating strategies or preoccupied attachment), it is possible that they are viewing many situations as threatening, even if they are actually more benign.   The right prefrontal cortex may be viewing the world through a more threatening lens, therefore interpreting most situations as so.  By strengthening the left prefrontal cortex through mindfulness and other meditative practices, the person may be able to approach conflict, and other vulnerable situations in a more open and compassionate manner, making constructive problem-solving a more viable outcome.

Emotional Contagion: Mirror Neuron and Anger

Another incredible discovery in the neurosciences is the description of the mirror neuron system (Iacoboni, 2008).  Believed to be located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the mirror neuron system (MNS) scans the intentions of others through non-verbal signals, interprets those signals and simulates the intention within the receiver of the signal.  The mirror neuron system is thought to be the proximate basis for the human capacity for empathy.  What’s critical to understand here is that the MNS may simulate within the receiver, the observed emotional state in the other.  So, when we say we feel another person’s pain, sadness, or anger, we may actually be feeling it.  This makes intuitive sense. Why else would our emotional selves be so active when watching movies, television, reading, or viewing a performance?  Are brains are wired to experience what others are experiencing, while at the same time knowing that we are separate beings.  This is all fine when going to the movies, but what about living with other minds on a day-to-day basis?  If it is true that our minds are wired to recognize the emotions in others by simulating those emotions within ourselves, then it would follow that people living in close proximity are likely to be stimulating each other’s mirror neuron systems.

In their excellent paper entitled, “Empathy: Its Ultimate and Proximate Bases”, Preston and de Waal (2002), explore the relationship between empathy and the mirror neuron system. They discuss the various terms used to describe the perception of other’s emotional states, specifically the difference between emotional contagion and empathy.  Both involve the subject’s inner state matching the object’s perceived state.  However, with empathy there is a self-other distinction, whereas with emotional contagion there isn’t.  In other words, when experiencing emotional contagion we are not aware that we may be experiencing someone else’s emotion.  Freud discussed a similar process and called it projective identification – the therapist experiencing the patient’s disavowed or not-conscious mental states (Freud, 1950).  So, it is possible that people living with others who are chronically angry (whether they are aware of it or not) can infect others in close proximity.  One can assume, when running groups dealing with anger (or any group for that matter), that a certain amount of emotional contagion is occurring, which can be excellent grist for the therapeutic mill.

But what about the mirror neuron systems within the therapist’s and the client’s brains?  Sitting face to face in the therapist’s office creates the perfect opportunity for the therapist’s mirror neuron system to scan the facial and other non-verbal emotional cues of the client in real time.  So when the therapist is feeling anger for an inexplicable reason, the best possible explanation is sitting across the room from her or him.  The client may or may not be aware of their emotion (anger), and so the therapist may need to gently help them connect with their body and try to identify their present state of mind.  It may not be anger specifically, but could be a background emotion of a negative valence or a social emotion that may have anger nested within it (such as shame).  What is most exciting about this process is that the therapist can intervene and help the client find new ways of managing emotions at the moment they are occurring, rather than simply rehashing the events that have occurred between sessions.  Not that looking back is not helpful, but working with in-the-moment experiences of anger can result in greater changes and increase positive outcomes in psychotherapy.

From Cookie-Cutter to Nuance

Although many inappropriate expressions of anger look alike and result in the same negative feelings, both for the subject as well as the object of the anger, the development of any particular manifestation of anger will vary from person to person, no matter how similar its expression may be.  Therefore, in order to bring about meaningful change in the client’s affect regulation strategies, therapists should first consider the possible developmental origins of the problem.  Attachment theory can be a useful frame for understanding both the healthy expression of anger, as well as its maladaptive manifestation.  Different types of insecure attachment suggest different approaches to managing dysfunctional anger: up-regulating or emotional awareness for dismissing attachment, down-regulating or containment for preoccupied attachment, and the necessary resolution of trauma for disorganized attachment.

It is also important for therapists to become more informed of the latest advances in the affective neurosciences when addressing problems in the regulation of anger as well as other emotions.  Therapists who were trained in the 1980’s and earlier, may be operating under misconceptions about emotion and the brain, such as the onion metaphor, the idea that emotions are underneath each other, or that emotion and feeling are synonymous.  Having a better understanding of the neuroscience of emotion, can only serve to improve outcomes and help clients experience more success in their management of anger, thereby improving self-esteem and increasing their faith in the healing nature of secure-base relationships. 

References

Ainsworth, M.D.S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An Ethological Approach to Personality Development. American Psychologist, 46, 333-341.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.

Cassidy J. & P. R. Shaver (Eds.)(1999, rev. 2008), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press.

Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin.

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Davidson, Richard (2004). What does the prefrontal cortex “do” in affect: Perspectives on frontal EEG asymmetry research. Biological Psychology 67, pp. 219–233.

Freud, S. (1950).  Collected works chronologically arranged: Works from the years 1932–1939.  Vol. 16. Imago.

Iacoboni, M. (2008).  Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, NY.

Main, M. and J. Solomon (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/ disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton and M. W. Yogman, Affective development in infancy. Nowrood, NJ, Ablex Publishing.

Mikulincer, M. and Shaver, P. (2007).  Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics and change.  New York: Guilford Press.

Preston, Stephanie D. and de Waal, Frans B. M.  (2002). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases.  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1–72. 

Sroufe L.A. (1995). Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Suess, Gerhard J. and Sroufe, June (2005).  Clinical implications of the development of the person. Attachment & Human Development, December 2005; 7(4): 381 – 392.