Primal Rage: How to Manage Unproductive Anger

Primal Rage finalIf you ask the average person on the street to list “primal emotions,” I’d venture that anger would be one of the first examples they offer. I think we automatically connect a primal state with anger because anger’s power is more reminiscent of instinct than sentiment. It’s an emotion that can instantaneously engulf our entire being—a red hot feeling that can send all rational thought and genuine self-interest down the toilet in a nanosecond. While other emotions have their physical hold, anger can grip us in a way few others can. Fear, the other primary instinctual emotion, generally lifts with a clear, even euphoric release (as long as its situational, not a product of neuroses). Anger, however, doesn’t die so easily. Like the embers in a fire, it needs ample time to fade. The visceral energy of anger is remarkably durable. We kid ourselves if we think we’re immune to its inherent human force. That said, how can we keep it reined in enough to not thwart our own well-being (not to mention anyone else’s)? How can we control or manage it—even channel it? In short, how can we have and express anger without getting burned by it?

Evolutionarily speaking, anger is the stuff of warfare, murder, revenge and sabotage. And, yet, it’s also the boundary setter. Watch even the most devoted mother dog with her pups, and eventually she’ll offer a snarl if one gets too annoying or if she needs a rest.

At its best, anger is a self-protective instinct. We warn those who would try to mess with us or our kin to back off—and most socially astute, reasonable people (and even many animal predators) will retreat in the majority of situations. Anger, in this way, is part of the “checks and balances” system inherent to our social contracts. Of course, it doesn’t always result in retreat (nor should it). But the feeling and show of anger acts as a deterrent for another person or group, reminding the other party that their own aggression will be met with consequences. It can (or should) give the other party pause to consider whether it’s really worth provoking a particular exchange.

Although violence is undoubtedly part of our primal history, actual pre-agricultural band society would not have experienced the same impetus toward group warfare. Living with an economy of immediacy in which possessions were few and the “spoils” of the hunt were more or less equally shared among members within the moment (rather than stored and hoarded—or stolen—by a few members) offered little reason for large scale conflict. Bands were also relatively fluid with exchange and intermarriage of members at any given time.

That said, it’s inevitable that people broke the egalitarian code at various points or that a certain group encroached on another’s territory. People assuredly fought over mates or the band decisions. Anger at other people, at predators (you killed my son), and even at oneself (boy, that was a dumb move) would’ve been a natural and ingrained response to protecting what a person perceived as rightfully his/hers (e.g. one’s child, an opportunity lost through one’s own stupidity). The larger and more unjust the considered slight, threat or stumble, the more anger would’ve been evoked.

The job of the “selfish gene,” after all, was to preserve and promote one’s own survival and the survival of one’s kin. Even if a relatively small scale, egalitarian social structure often kept conflict from boiling over, the instinct to protect and secure one’s place would’ve called for anger as an impetus for mobilization. In that way, anger is assuredly one of the most directly practical emotions. It has essential purpose and may be, generally speaking, a natural set point (although research has shown some individuals are genetically more prone to direct physical aggression).

Fast forward to modern day, and it can seems like anger is the scourge of human nature. And, yet, I wonder how magnified our anger is by the conditions of our society, many of which are so starkly incongruent with our evolutionary circumstances. Most of us live without the regular threat to life and limb that our ancestors endured, but we live with plenty of other complaints—everything from “minor” daily disturbances to various global injustices.

When we each think of what overstimulates us (e.g. noise, work, other people in our space, exposure to negative news/media), for example, we start to get annoyed, then agitated and finally (if we achieve no sense of relief) angry. Those of us in more densely populated areas may feel this more often.

Add to this, as I’ve talked about many times before, most of us also have much less leisure time than our primal ancestors had. We tend to be overworked on the family (no tribal parenting for us) as well as job fronts. On top of it all, most of us are going on less sleep than we should be. There’s a recipe for anger if I ever heard one.

But even if we feel we can roll with the big layers of our daily life, too often it becomes a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our 7-year-old leaves the gate open, and now we’re chasing the dog around the neighborhood. Our teenager walks in the door an hour after curfew. Our partner forgets to put the gutter extension on after mowing, resulting in a flooded basement during a heavy rainstorm the next day. Our boss completely discounts our contribution to a major project and doesn’t offer what we perceive to be our due credit and raise. Despite our best “serenity now” efforts, anger floods the emotional plain.

How do we deal with anger? What do we do with this naturally occurring emotion when it’s not a matter of survival?

Tips for Managing Anger (So It Doesn’t Manage You):

1. Practice mindfulness, and bring that deep awareness to anger when it rises.

This isn’t about leaving society to live in a monastery or a cliffside somewhere. It’s simply about being cognizant of what you’re feeling and how those feelings unfold in you. To do this, we learn to stop identifying with our feelings and come to observe them instead.

2. Get back in your body while you’re at it.

Use the awareness to feel yourself become flushed in the face. Notice the blood retreat from your extremities. Sense the emotional force rising in our abdomens or pulsating in your forehead. Then breathe into those sensations, disarming each before they take off into uncontrolled rage. With practice, we can nip anger (when we deem it unproductive) in the bud by not trying to manipulate ourselves emotionally but by putting our full focus on physical “symptoms” and addressing those.

3. Make sure what you’re feeling is truly anger.

Sometimes we get in the habit of distorting our emotional responses to avoid feeling what is most uncomfortable and unacceptable to us. Perhaps we won’t let ourselves feel fear, or we’re afraid to plunge into the depths of grief or regret. So, we morph the big feelings into anger, which doesn’t feel as vulnerable. We might think we’re saving face in some imagined way, but we pay for it on the other end by hanging onto an unfelt, unresolved emotion. So take some inventory to make sure your anger isn’t really a proxy for something else.

4. Keep your tank full.

This might mean saying no to a lot of demands in order to take care of yourself. It might mean getting honest about the effects of your lifestyle choices (e.g. the toll of that hour-long commute) and finding other work or moving. It can mean getting outside more or rediscovering a pastime you love. It can mean getting the sleep you need and taking your allotted vacation. Whatever it is, making sure you’re not burning your candle at both ends can help prevent a blowup.

5. Pursue risk and euphoria.

Modern life can keep us peaceful—or subdued, depending on how you look at it. Some folks do well with this, while others just don’t. Your quick temper might be a sign you’re not getting your thrills from the physical risk and adventure you inherently crave. Anger is a big, bold feeling, but it’s not the best direction for that heightened emotional intensity. Move that energy productively by trying a little intermittent euphoria on for size, and see how much better you are at keeping the peace in the rest of your days.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How have you learned to manage your anger? What role does it play in how you operate day to day? 

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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25 thoughts on “Primal Rage: How to Manage Unproductive Anger”

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  1. A good lesson. Anger is never productive. It impedes rational thought, and the resulting words and/or actions can never be erased. The prisons are full of people whose anger got out of hand. Some people are more prone to violent anger than others, less adept at controlling it, and they can hold a grudge literally forever. Those people have a serious problem, often stemming from an unrealistic sense of entitlement. For ordinary garden-variety anger that burns out quickly, the old trick of counting to 10 (or maybe 50) before engaging the mouth or punching a hole in the wall usually works pretty well. Heading straight out the door for a long walk works well too.

    1. Appropriate anger can be productive in setting or defending boundaries and re-setting power relations that have become unjust.

      1. “Anger is an energy.” – John Lydon

        Use your anger transformatively. Change your world, change yourself, create something. Control it, don’t let it control you.

        1. Thanks to both of you in pointing out the positives in using the energy of anger consciously, to make needed changes. Suppressed emotion over long periods of time has to go somewhere, either directed outward as in a volcano, or inward as depression or something else.

        2. There’s no better way to express your love than to scream in anger at your partner about how much you love them ??

  2. From the book, “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethra, we find that the pre-agricultural foragers group were, just like those that survived into the modern era, mostly not concerned about fatherhood and kin the way we are today. As one Amazonian tribal elder told a Jesuit missionary who was chiding him about not knowing who were the true fathers of their children so they could love them and protect them: We love and protect all our children. The concept of a family in the sense of a father, mother, and their biological children, with a culturally designed fence around them was strange to them. Part of the lack of conflict by such forager groups is that multi-partner sex was the accepted way of dealing with sexual urges, both men and women. The war-like conflict and anger came with agriculture, the accumulation of wealth, treating women a possession, and much more. But, seriously, read “Sex at Dawn.” It’s a well-documented and a well-reasoned discussion of our true evolve nature.

  3. I agree on pretty much all counts. Whenever I’ve been cooped up too long and start getting antsy, that can translate to annoyance/grouchiness. So I make sure to get out and do something that gets the adrenaline pumping a bit (rock climbing, sprinting, etc.) I usually find that I feel a million times calmer afterward and it carries over well after the activity.

  4. I notice that indignation can be a really positive thing when it comes to energizing people to take action on issues that need addressing. I’m sure many of us here on MDA get pretty steamed about the state of nutritional information in this country, which is what motivates us to make lots of positive changes. So anger, when harnessed correctly, certainly isn’t a bad thing. 🙂

  5. You know what makes me angry? Conventional Wisdom. But I’ll follow your tips and not get too angry about it. Because that’ll give me high blood pressure (aka poorer health) and CW would still be sticking it to me! Hahaha.

  6. Mindfulness/mindful awareness has been a big help to me. Whenever I feel anger rising in traffic jams, hectic work environments, etc., I just take a few extra moments to sit and observe the feeling. That usually creates a level of separation that diffuses the anger itself.

  7. As part of my journey to better handle my impulses, which include rage and temper tantrums over the littlest of things when I’m even slightly run down (which is often), I read “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal. The book looks at impulses as being necessary for survival and evolution. My takeaway from the book is that keeping your behavior in line with your goals (and not your impulses) requires mindfulness, in addition to the basics (good food, exercise, sleep). I just finished reading it this morning, so I can’t yet comment on how effect the many suggestions/exercises are, but wow, it was a great read. Very entertaining and insightful with discussion of studies and many practical suggestions that I think I can really use in many areas of my life. This week I’ve started working on meditation as a tool to increase mindfulness. Apparently just trying to meditate, even if you are terrible at it, is enough to increase mindfulness. I used to boast that meditation wasn’t for me, I’m too efficient and productive to waste my time sitting around breathing…but I think that same mindset, and the fact that I never stop going, has actually become a real problem now that I am not 25 and have many more responsibilities. Seriously, read this book – it is wonderful. $11 on amazon.

  8. Hmmm… A post about vegan/vegetarianism followed by a post about anger. Does the first just naturally lead to the second?

  9. I would add… don’t inundate yourself with the news. It’s good to know what’s going on, but don’t dwell on it. Getting upset over what’s happening in other countries is the most futile anger in the world.

    1. +1
      Watching the news is almost a guarantee that you’ll finish with a feeling of depressions and/or anger about the world.

  10. Anger by a swatch of our U.S population is what is giving us Donald Trump!

  11. I was a very angry kid. They always said it was a redhead thing. But some time in the past couple years, I started feeling deep compassion for everything and my anger kind of disappeared. I rarely get angry anymore, and I usually get over it rather quickly because it just doesn’t feel good to be angry. I went so long without it that when I got angry again it was such an obviously unpleasant experience. Now, when I was on depo provera, I was the angriest person (along with a lot of depression), and I took it all out on my boyfriend (who thankfully stayed because now we have a baby together). I flipped chairs and called him a piece of shit all the time. Birth control is not fun stuff people. Not fun at all. It’s better to be pregnant. lol also, I find that if I eat sugar too frequently in large quantities, I get angry a looott easier…

  12. “Our partner forgets to put the gutter extension on after mowing, resulting in a flooded basement during a heavy rainstorm the next day”

    That one seemed pretty specific Mark. Anything you want to share with your readers? 🙂

  13. Certain Eastern traditions think of anger as a potentially dangerous emotion–not “bad”, but dangerous in the sense that anger is like fire. Out of control, it can burn and destroy on the outside and consume us on the inside.

    So, as an antidote to anger, they offer gentleness…softening…even sadness. These are quenching, in the sense that they can quench the fire of anger.

    When I mention these–gentleness, softening, sadness–I’m not suggesting anyone try to turn anger into them (in my experience,that doesn’t work so well). Rather, I practice meeting anger with gentleness, softening, sadness…and then getting curious what unfolds.

    Another place of work for me is to ask: Is there just anger here? Or is there something else (fear, sadness or grief, perhaps) beneath the surface? Whenever I look closely, letting go of my “angry story” and approach things with a sense of curiosity, there’s always something else. Just noticing that something else often causes anger to shift…to lessen.

    So glad you brought in mindfulness here, Mark. And also mindfulness of the body and body sensations. In everything I just mentioned, those play a key part in the practice. Thank you for a week of especially excellent posts!

  14. A daily prayer/meditation/breathing/gratitude practice has worked wonders for me. It’s very rare for me to get angry, even though I am a pretty high strung/high energy person.

  15. Anger is not considered to be a primary emotion, behind anger you may well find fear.
    Anger is neither good nor bad it is just information. Information that something is not right in your world and needs addressing.
    Anger motivates us to action by increasing our ‘fight and flight’ hormones such as testosterone and cortisol.
    Research by Aaron Sell, “showed that anger evolved to motivate effective bargaining behaviour during conflicts of interest”.
    The strategies you use to address your needs is where the problem of violence arises.

    A good book to read on this subject is “The Surprising Purpose of Anger” by Dr Marshall Rosenberg.

    Aaron Sell is a lecturer at the School of Criminology at Griffith University in Australia and former postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology.

  16. its been lingering around my head for awhile on my long walks.
    i like to believe that every emotion has it uses, anger can release overwhelming of energy, controlling it is the key, keeping it inside feels wrong and unhealthy.
    i also think that anger is a striving force for balance. to get equal so to speak

  17. When I address anger I reflect back on the natural world. Anger is not manmade. A mother bear defending her cub has a purpose. Primal humans experienced environmental anger, hurricanes, thunder and lightning, blizzards, drought, etc. These events were humbling and were far greater than any emotion conjured within the individual. Modern man has conquered the rages of the natural world with concrete, double-paned glass, indoor plumbing, a power grid and ballistic weapons. Our lives are too comfortable which leaves plenty of mindspace to feel threatened by(angry towards) anything that may inconvenience us. It is spiritual poverty to express anger towards someone who takes your favorite parking space. Save it for if and when something physically threatens the wellbeing of your tribe.

  18. I used the first two steps when I realized I was internalizing stress the other day while my daughter was getting some medical tests. It really did help to resolve the pain I was experiencing in my stomach. It was a big step to recognize that the pàin was a result of internalizing my stress. I look forward to trying this with anger.

  19. a written page or two is much for an introduction. i would have been happy to start w:

    Tips for Managing Anger (So It Doesn’t Manage You):