Why do I get angry over the smallest things in life and is there an ‘anger gene’ or something in the brain that triggers this? (Tomas, age 19)

Answer by: Professor Laurence Steinberg - Temple University, Philadelphia, USA

Anger is a normal human emotion, experienced by everyone at one time or another.  Generally, we feel anger when something we want is blocked by something that is out of our control.

Although it would be oversimplifying things to say that there is an ‘anger gene’, we know that some people are temperamentally more inclined than others to become angry, and it is likely that this predisposition is at least partly genetic.  There is a trait that psychologists call ‘negative affectivity’ – a cumbersome term for the tendency of some people to be quicker than others to feel negative emotions (anger, anxiety, fear, sadness).  There are several studies indicating that teenagers who are high in negative affectivity were similarly prone to negative emotions as early as infancy.  Many scientists believe that adolescents are especially susceptible to feeling strong emotions – both positive and negative – because brain systems responsible for regulating our feelings and modulating emotional reactions, are still developing at this time.

Just because a trait has a genetic component doesn’t mean that it can’t be modified, or even be overcome.  One characteristic of individuals who are frequently angry is that they are quick to interpret the innocent actions of others in negative terms.  When someone accidentally bumps into them, they assume it was deliberate.  When someone forgets to say hello, they take it as an intentional snub.  One strategy for managing anger in these sorts of situations is to pause before reaching a judgment about the other person’s behaviour and see if it is possible to put it in a different, less negative, light.

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