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A Handle on your Health: Anger & Violence

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Everywhere you look these days, it seems like America is an angry country. Between mass shootings, divisive political rhetoric and reality TV that sensationalizes backstabbing and trash talking, anger seems to be at a high. Just last weekend a high school football player head-butted a referee out of frustration with penalties.  A lot of us that grew up in the 70s and 80s find this recent surge of anger extremely disheartening. Studies say that violent crime is actually down ever since the 1990s but it sure doesn’t feel that way.  We feel like a much more angry country these days.  Have we always been angry? Are we just manifesting our anger in different ways now compared to years past? Was Norman Rockwell wrong in his depiction of post World War II American life in his paintings?

Let’s start with where anger comes from. The brain, as you are probably aware, is a complicated structure. The cortex is the more developed part of the brain that allows for higher-functioning thought. Anger does not come from here. 

Found lower in the brain is a more primitive region we call the limbic system and it is here that emotions like anger are derived. Buried deep inside the limbic system is another structure called the amygdala, which is responsible for our “fight or flight” responses or our survival instincts. Anger seems to come from within these two structures. This means that often when we get signals triggering an emotional response we are not using our more advanced cerebral cortex, which would allow for intelligent thought, but instead using our primitive lower brain.

Societal stereotypes typically pin women as being more emotional beings and men as the more logical ones, but science says this is in fact false. Scientists have discovered that men actually devote a larger part of their brain to emotional responses and a smaller region for logical thinking than women.  If you consider the energy needed to be vigilant for self-protection this makes sense. Men are wired more for hunting, competition and dominance. Their bursts of emotion and anger, when seen through the hunter-gatherer lens, are actually helpful during confrontation.

We are, however, no longer hunter-gatherers and our emotional outbursts are hampering our ability to live and get along with one another in this society. Our amygdalae are being hijacked. Young men and boys are finding it necessary to vent their frustration by committing heinous acts of terror. This begs the question “why?”  Why are people seemingly so hateful and angry these days?  

Before we can have a discussion about anger and violence and homicides in our country we have to first be honest about the statistics. The reality is that homicides are way down from the last few centuries. This is the trend for the world as a whole too. Since the middle ages when we saw homicide rates of 70 out of every 100,000 or more, we have come down to mostly single digits. Homicides for most of the world are under 10 out of every 100,000. Our country has seen the rate of homicides drop to around 7 out of every 100,000 but did see a spike to almost 10 out of every 100,000 in the early 1990s. Since then, the rate has trended back down again. This data is out there for anyone to check on themselves. So then you have to now ask the question, “Are we really all that angry these days?”

I would say, in general, we are not angrier these days than compared to days past.  We are actually doing better. This isn’t to say we are perfect. Obviously we have our problems. The mass shootings these days are terrifying and we aren’t used to this kind of show of anger. It’s a new form of violence so it’s getting all the attention, as it should. But compared to 100 years ago, we are much less angry, or at least violent, today. 

Maybe our brains are evolving or maybe we actually are learning to behave better with our fellow man; either way, the point here is to say to you, don’t be fooled into believing we are more violent, more murderous, more angry today than in centuries past. The reality is we are doing better controlling our limbic system and our amygdala than our predecessors.

But if anyone is struggling with anger issues please seek out help, whether it be with your doctor, your friends, your teachers, your coach or your parents. There are people that can help.

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Dr. John Turner is a family medicine and emergency medicine doctor with 25 years of experience. He is also the owner of My Primary Care Clinic and My Emergency Room 24/7 here in Hays County. Dr. Turner may be reached at 512-667-6087.

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