Addicts and Anger – A Dangerous Combination
Everyone experiences anger from time-to-time, but in the alcoholic or drug addict – anger becomes a toxic emotion that often leads to acts of violence either to oneself, or toward another person.
While anger is often a secondary response to traumatic memories, conflict and stress – things common to all – the response to anger in an addict is more severe due to neurological changes caused by substance use. Anger can be a devastating, overpowering emotion for an addict and result in aggressive behavior. This is due to neurological impairments caused by substance abuse in the areas of the brain that manage anger and stress. Self-medication by the addict only adds to the demise of the brain’s ability to implement a healthy response to anger, which starts a spiral of substance use and negative behavior.
Anger + Substance Abuse = Fire + Gasoline
The relationship between substance abuse and anger is a lot like the relationship between fire and gasoline; one can quickly intensify the other, and together they form a highly dangerous and frightening loss of control. Uncontrolled anger, especially when alcohol or drugs fuel it, increases the risk of aggression considerably, and that can result in devastating consequences. Alternatively, anger may give one a sense of power over others.
Characteristics of Anger
|Physical||Rapid heartbeat, tightness in chest, and feeling hot or flushed|
|Behavioral||Pacing, clenching fists, raising one’s voice, or staring|
|Emotional||Fear, hurt, jealousy, guilt, outrage|
|Cognitive/thoughts||Hostile self-talk, images of aggression and revenge|
Source: Anger Management for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Clients
During a bout of anger, one’s perceptual vision is narrowed to incorporate only the focus, or object, of the anger. This singular focus results in a decrease in one’s capacity for critical thinking and problems solving. The body is gearing up for a fight to survive a perceived wrong that’s been perpetrated against the individual. Chemicals like adrenaline and norepinephrine surge through the body similar to a drug.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with emotion and during a bout of anger it goes into high gear. It immediately sends a signal for the individual to do something – usually in a quarter of a second from the trigger to a response. Simultaneously, an increase in blood flow to the frontal lobe in the area over the left eye, the area that controls reasoning, occurs. This increase in blood to the frontal lobe is likely what’s preventing one from behaving aggressively, like hurling a vase across a room.
Addiction Related Frontal Lobe Damage
Research shows that the neurological response to anger lasts less than two seconds, so things tend to happen quickly. Research has also proven that drugs and alcohol damage the brain’s frontal lobe thus reducing its capacity for rational and executive thinking. (Studies have also shown that frontal lobe damage does reverse with sobriety.)
So when an alcoholic or drug addict experiences anger, the possibility of the individual hurling that vase, or doing something worse, is increased quite a bit.
Medical Risks of Ongoing Anger
Continuous abuse of drugs and alcohol over time may contribute toward a limited capacity to produce acetylcholine, a hormone which tempers the more severe effects of adrenaline. A decrease in acetylcholine results in an overexertion of the nervous system, which leads to medical complications including: a weakened heart, stiffer arteries, liver and kidney damage, as well as high cholesterol. Additional medical risks are both physiological and psychological and include depression and anxiety. This is a factor in the high prevalence of depression and anxiety diagnoses among addicts.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The volatile effects of drugs and alcohol abuse combined with anger can contribute to dramatic personality changes not unlike the fictional character Dr. Jekyll who turned into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, many substance abusers may not even be aware that they have an underlying anger problem and do not “connect” their anger problem to their continued use of drugs and/or alcohol. The results can be devastating to the addict, family members and others.
At Arrowhead Lodge Recovery we treat co-occurring disorders related to substance abuse. Anger and stress management is integral to the work we do with men, along with cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, meditation and breath work. A multidisciplinary team approach is used to help diagnose and provide solutions for the addict as he begins the process of change toward a more healthy and balance lifestyle. Our clients not only recover from addiction, they become aware of the need for change at a deeper level so that they may experience the joy of authenticity – and the blessing of being clean and sober.
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