Do you get angry? Or do you get furious? I suppose furious. The term “wrath” or “anger” seems to have disappeared from normal usage. Hardly anyone I interviewed during the research (non-representative 😊 and only German-speaking) used “anger” in conversation. Cause for me to find out if there is a difference in meaning between the two words.

Why wrath can be holy, but anger cannot.

Brokenness or rage

In the German language

Right off the bat, yes, there is a difference in meaning between rage/fury (Wut) and anger (Zorn). Again, the Old High German terms give the first clues. The Old High German “wuot” is to be translated as fury and fierceness. While the Old High German “turna” rather as disunity and brokenness.

The wilder, more explosive term is apparently rage. Anger seems more controllable than rage and also refers to longer-term states. Thus, an angry person is one in whom anger has become a personality trait. Anger can also smoulder for a long time. Anger refers mainly to people’s behaviour, whereas rage can refer to almost anything.

Thus, anger can even be used for non-emotional issues, as in “cleaning rage” or “gathering rage”. Moreover, storm can rage, or inflation. In none of these cases could we substitute “anger” for “rage”. However, the long-term feeling of anger can explode in a fit of rage. We also recognise the explosive power of rage by the fact that we can increase “rage” to “sow rage” or “stink rage”, which also does not work with “anger”. Overall, we obviously relate anger more to feelings of discomfort, while we associate anger more with things that involve rule-breaking by others.

In other languages

In other languages, one notices this difference even more clearly than in German. The Latin word for “rage” is “furor”, which means fury or madness. While the French and English “rage” denotes an extremely violent emotion.The Latin “ira”, on the other hand, stands more for bitterness. The French and English equivalents are milder (as raging anger) and mean more “strong anger”.

In English, there are even more terms that deal with the subject of anger and rage. Not only the familiar words anger and rage, but also ire, fury, wrath and indignation. But here too there are not only gradations in the strength of the feeling, but also the distinction between short- and long-term feelings, and in addition the more overarching term wrath, which also contains the long-term, divine feeling of resentment (see here for the exact distinction between the English terms).

Holy wrath

This focus of wrath on rule violations is arguably the basis for what is called “holy wrath”. With this, God not only punishes the unbelievers, but with this, unholy things are also fought against and destroyed in his name. For – according to the Bible – wrath is justified when it is caused by real injustice. Then it is a means of fighting evil. And as such it does not violate the Christian rule of gentleness and love.

So the mortal sin should be called wrath rather than anger? If we look at the Bible, both are obviously meant, because both smouldering anger, which makes people bitter and leads to selfish behaviour, and explosive rage are characteristics that are diametrically opposed to the Christian ideas of gentleness and love of neighbour. So let’s just leave wrath as a synonym for anger and rage as a mortal sin.

What happens in our brain when we get angry (or enraged – neuroscience does not distinguish).

In general…

Anger and rage, like any emotion, are generated in the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of our brain that is very old and present in every mammal. This part of our brain is responsible for emotion processing, learning and memory storage. We only become aware of everything that happens in this part of our brain when the information processed here finds its way into the cortex. This is why neuroscience also distinguishes between emotions and feelings.

Emotions arise when you see your neighbour starting the lawnmower during the lunch break.

What your eyes perceive at that moment goes directly to the amygdala. From there, the call to anger is sent to the brain stem and the thalamus. Your blood pressure rises and you feel hot. At the same time, information from the thalamus travels much more slowly to the cerebral cortex. There you then evaluate the situation. Only the involvement of the prefrontal cortex ensures that this emotion is placed in an overall picture, so that only then does a conscious action arise.

Depending on the genes and developmental conditions that shape you, you will only now consciously decide whether to follow the now conscious feeling of anger, go out and punch your neighbour on the nose or take a deep breath and let him do his thing.

… and using the example of people with a fear of spiders (Arachnophobia).

How little we can influence the first part of this reaction, i.e. the development of the emotions, has been found by science in patients with arachnophobia (fortunately not in me!).

People with a fear of spiders have a tonsil nucleus that screams “danger” at the sight of a spider. And then it sends the command “flee”, “attack (scream) or “play dead” to the thalamus. As soon as the information has reached the cortex, such a patient consciously chooses one of the above strategies based on his or her experience with spiders. After successfully completing behavioural therapy, the first part of the process is not changed, but the patients have learned to strengthen the prefrontal cortex and use it to re-evaluate the overall situation so that they can now deal with the spider in a relaxed manner.

Why we should learn to deal with the feeling of anger or rage.

Only conscious perception allows us to consciously process our feelings. Therefore it is important to become aware of the emotion of anger and its causes. This is particularly difficult when we react to external stimuli that are so brief that they escape our conscious awareness, but still trigger the corresponding emotions in us.

I wrote more about this in my last blog (Why you shouldn’t believe everything and why you sometimes actually do).

This is important because we perceive the world the way we feel. Numerous experiments prove this. For example, in a test people were asked to evoke the feeling of rage in themselves. Still in this feeling, they had to judge the rule-breaking and wrongdoings of others. In contrast to the comparison group, which was in a factual mood, they judged strongly from emotion. Often very harshly and even frequently under the influence of racial and social prejudices. In every case they judged the person and not the facts.

So there is some truth in the statement: “losing one’s mind in rage”. Just as the expression “jumping out of one’s skin” makes it clear that people behave differently in rage than they normally do.

Why some people get angrier than others.

Gene ….

Now there are people who clearly find it much harder to stay calm in unpleasant situations. For some, you only have to press very specific buttons and they are about to explode within a tiny moment. Often these people also find it difficult not to turn this rage into real aggressive actions towards others. You have probably been confronted with irascible people in your life and have experienced that their behaviour can seem threatening. Fortunately, very few irascible people actually become violent because they are aware of the difficulties of their temperament.

Nevertheless, the sequence of a certain gene (the MAOA gene) could also be weaker in them. This sequence is responsible for breaking down certain neuronal messenger substances. If it is altered, these messenger substances are not broken down sufficiently. That seems to promote aggression and the tendency to violence. Possibly this happens by controlling the serotonin content in this area of the brain, inhibiting the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious decisions.

This could explain why women are less likely to be violent. Because this gene is located on the X chromosome. Women therefore have the possibility to compensate a defective gene sequence on one X chromosome with a healthy one on the other.

Another gene that has to do with the predisposition to aggressive behaviour is the gene HTR4, which is located on the 5th chromosome. This gene is also related to serotonin – in this case it is responsible for coding the serotonin receptor.

However, the mere presence of these genetic prerequisites is not enough to turn people into aggressive monsters.

…and childhood

The researchers found the most obvious connection in the childhood of the clients studied. Experienced traumas such as maltreatment, neglect and emotional and sexual abuse are itself often the basis for self-hatred and outward violence, but together with the genetic changes they form an unholy alliance for a strong tendency towards violence and aggression.

In addition, rage usually has something to do with loss of control, with fears and insecurities. We know this from the animal kingdom – when animals are pushed into a corner, they also bite around. And exactly the same mechanism causes people in more or less difficult life situations to use aggression towards others as an way out. (It is therefore no wonder that in the context of the Corona pandemic the already increasing violence against children reached new dimensions).

How rage could become the basis for success despite social condemnation.

If you have ever been confronted with choleric people, it is very likely that you have experienced them as bosses in your job or even as aggressive drivers on the road.

Choleric people are probably still frequently found in high and top management positions in companies. Because this tendency to rage is combined with impatience in finding solutions, a willingness to take risks, decisiveness and great self-confidence. Since the purpose of any rage is basically the desire to remove the situation or obstacle posed, regardless of whether it is a problem or a person, you can imagine that such people are in demand in some companies.

To ensure that such people are also able to behave adequately, i.e. in a relaxed manner, towards their employees, Asian companies send their managers to a Zen monastery for six months. I’m sure many employees in Germany would be very happy if that were also lived practice here.

That’s why it’s no wonder that studies on traffic accidents have clearly shown a correlation between aggressive behaviour on the road and high social status.

In evolutionary terms, this trait was definitely very useful. Because aggressive, self-confident males (most of the time, anyway) secured food and mating opportunities this way. (Funny, isn’t it, how little has changed there 😊.) So recognising rage in another was also evolutionarily important.

How we perceive rage in others.

Because it was evolutionarily important, we hear rage in a person’s voice better than joy or fear. And this is even independent of the speaker’s cultural background. We are less good at seeing rage.

If you still want to see how good you are at recognising emotions, I have two links for you (sorry, both in German). The first lets you rate emotions that you can clearly see in people’s faces. The second focuses on micro-expressions, i.e. emotional expressions that appear only very briefly. (Link 1, Link 2)

And despite the fact that rage can make people successful, it is not socially accepted. This may have something to do with the fact that the facial expressions and gestures of an enraged adult look very familiar to anyone who knows small children in the defiant phase. Yet people have admitted in interviews that rage attacks are not a rare occurrence, but that they themselves have rage attacks once or twice a week. What is exciting here is that injustice suffered, especially in relation to other people, is often given as the reason. Whether this is actually always ” just anger” rather than rage may be left open here.

How you can do something about your rage.

Both mechanisms that people commonly choose to deal with rage are harmful to their health. If you let it run wild, you increase your risk of developing (and dying from) cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure and heart failure; if you constantly suppress it, you risk losing yourself in drugs (including alcohol) or depression.

don’t box or relax…

If you’ve read somewhere that it’s helpful to let out your rage (for example, by buying a punching bag and pinning your boss’s picture on it), I’m sorry to disappoint you. Studies have shown that participants who were allowed to let out their fury using exactly this method were measurably angrier afterwards than participants in a comparison group who were simply told to sit still. This doesn’t mean that you should just try to relax.

…but understand

Since our consciousness is able to evaluate the circumstances in all these situations, it is important to be aware of this evaluation. You should understand what is behind the rage. Since aggression is also based on fears, it is important to face them. It’s not always easy to find out on your own what’s underlying your rage, but that’s what people like me exist for (how you can find a life of ease and freedom).

And instead of the punching bag, it is helpful to go to a forest or park without many people, but with many trees and chirping birds (i.e. without music on your ears) and to move there in a relaxed way and consciously perceive as much of nature as possible. This is also and especially the way to go in a professional environment (even if there is little greenery around). Take your food and leave your mobile phone on your desk and just go outside for 20 minutes, walk around the block and concentrate on the sky, birds, rain and wind. This time outdoors is often good for getting yourself out of sometimes difficult situations because you realise how much more there is to life than that one difficult relationship.

Why anger and rage are (should be) still considered a sin today.

The reasons why you should do something about your rage make me think it is a pity that the seven deadly sins are no longer considered a fixed code for our society. Anyone who rages on a regular basis is harming himself first and foremost. He not only ruins his health, but often enough also his professional and social relationships. And of course he also makes life difficult for countless other people. And, hand on heart, wouldn’t it be desirable if we all treated each other a little more gently (without letting rule violations go unpunished, of course)? Just as it would be helpful for our society if we could also leave the other deadly sins behind us.

So if you want to do yourself some good, tame your rage and ignore the angry.

As always, good luck

Yours, Claudia