“Often [during the pandemic], a child was on its own the whole day with a very angry, stressed and anxious adult. Children are utterly dependent on their parents’ sense of well-being and stability for their own sense of well-being and stability. It is like their weather system. The child doesn’t have the resilience to cope on its own. Some families became war zones, and you are seeing the fallout in the schools.”
But understanding anger is not that simple. After years of research, psychologists still struggle to define it; is it a feeling or an emotion? And what is the difference between a feeling and an emotion anyway? Is anger an emotional outburst? Or a feeling of that emotion: “I feel angry”? When we are angry, it’s usually “because of” or “about” something. We believe that someone or something else is to blame for it.
As psychologists develop a greater and more nuanced understanding of anger, some have recently attempted to redefine it within a subset of emotions, as “secondary”, “full-contact” or “action” (Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart, 2021).
While defining anger seems complex, what’s clear is that it is everywhere. It’s a historically consistent thread running through our species and present in every society. Navigating our own anger and that of others is a daily operation.
But, increasingly, anger doesn’t stop at vocal outbursts. The ugly handmaiden of anger is violence; violence towards others (and oneself) rests upon anger.
Animation and understanding anger
While even experts still disagree on the definition of anger, animation can play a crucial part in helping people (especially children and young adults) understand its patterns.
Animation has the power to convey meaning through images in creative and dynamic ways, describing and explaining concepts that seem at first too big, too small, too complex or too abstract.
As with any presenting problem, understanding is the first step to change – and animation can be invaluable in helping to build an understanding. Through its use of metaphor and symbolism, animation is an expressive, relatable method of describing anger and how to control it.
My animation on understanding anger shows a character expressing anger as a self-soothing technique that pushes aside uncomfortable or difficult-to-express feelings. Using the imagery of a tree’s roots, the viewer is guided to examine the roots of their anger.
If feelings of anger have a root cause, what might those provocations be? Well, if we take the spectrum of anger from mild irritation to annoyance, fury and rage, there do seem to be some consistent “roots”… and lots of them. Fear, grief, injustice, shame, vulnerability, isolation, embarrassment, humiliation, helplessness, jealousy, confusion, rejection, stress, disappointment, guilt, righteous indignation (yes, anger can be cathartic and “fun”)… And, to complicate matters further, it’s all highly subjective. Different provocations make different people angry at different times. But what lights the short fuse depends upon context; the “pre-anger” state.
“Anger, with its poisoned root and honeyed tip.”
“For girls, preschool violent televiewing was associated with increases in emotional distress and decreases in classroom engagement, academic achievement, and academic motivation at age 12 years. For boys, preschool violent televiewing was associated with increases in emotionally distressed, inattentive, conduct disordered, and socially withdrawn behavior, as well as decreases in classroom engagement, academic achievement, and academic motivation at age 12 years.”
Linda S Pagani, Jessica Bernard &
What matters most are not the provocations themselves but how we make sense of them, via two sets of appraisals.
The primary appraisal, when something happens, is our deciding whether it is good, bad, blameworthy or punishable.
The secondary appraisal is our choice of the degree to which we ought to react, e.g., with irritation or fury. And, based upon this secondary appraisal, we respond.
Results of anger
Anger is often acted out as violence when we simply run out of cognitive bandwidth. The flight or fight response kicks in, releasing cortisol and adrenaline, and the “red mist” descends. In the absence of self-refection, we project the anger we feel onto the person, or even thing, we think caused it. Even the “missing bloody car keys” can be held responsible for provoking us. Alternatively, anger can be aimed inwards. Rather than act out on the world, we may choose to navigate our anger via eating disorders or self-harm – violence on oneself.
Mitigating anger and violence requires emotional literacy. It requires the ability to check into how we are feeling and choose to respond, not react. According to a recent study, 7500 people were asked to identify and name their emotions as they experienced them. The average was three: glad, sad or mad – or, as they were more often written, happy, sad or pissed off.
This limited vocabulary could imply that the human experience does literally revolve around only three emotions; or it could be indicative of an equally limited emotional literacy – and the foundation for a crisis.
“The mental health crisis cannot be solved with one-to-one therapy interventions. We need to build emotional literacy in a broader way.”
Dr Lakeasha Sullivan
And this crisis is all too clear, as violence in society is on daily display, from US gun violence to a rising incidence of domestic abuse and the UK’s double-digit rise in presenting mental health problems such as addiction and self-harm.
Given that self-reflection does require an element of emotional literacy, it’s no surprise that children and young adults in particular are increasingly unable to understand the roots of their anger. And it’s children who most need to be reached – there is a high correlation between aggression in school and major challenges later in life, including addiction, mental and physical health problems and involvement with the criminal justice system (Ioakim Boutakidis).
“A five-year-old who cannot play happily or speak properly is more likely to grow into a nine-year-old bully. Then the 13-year-old with poor school attendance, the 15-year-old who joins a gang and, finally, the 19-year-old behind bars. Unless serious remedial steps are taken to bring back the ghost children and to stop their number growing that will be their future. It’s a disaster for our society.”
The post pandemic absence of children in education (so called “ghost children”1) is testimony to children’s anger and their frustration at the school system. As is classroom violence – a 2016 Unison survey found that 53 per cent of teaching assistants had experienced violence from pupils in the previous year.
“For the first time there’s an understanding of the ferocity of attacks on teaching assistants and their devastating physical and mental toll. This raises big questions about the expectation of schools, and in some cases insistence, that teaching assistants should be the first line of defence against pupils who display violent or aggressive behaviour.”
Dr Amanda Holt
(Shockingly, in the UK there are currently 250,000 children with mental health problems classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders waiting more than six months for mental health treatment and support.)
Treatment of anger
Given the prevalence of anger, and its associated violence, what help is there for us to understand and mitigate it? Perhaps because there is still much expert debate around the roots of anger (is it an emotion or a feeling? Is it a primary or secondary emotion?), it’s not officially seen as a presenting problem but as a symptom of an underlying cause. There is very little help until the anger boils over / manifests as violence and the criminal justice system gets involved.
Although anger is a component part of many presenting problems, treatment of ‘anger’ itself takes a back seat, unless it’s treated within the context of, for example, self-harm.
If, however, a person is seen by a therapist for their anger, there are several different psychotherapeutic interventions. Cognitive behavioural therapy can look at and unlock the anatomy of anger, helping a patient navigate it through understanding. The roots of their anger can be identified, and options considered for how to reframe situations and express anger appropriately. Often, just by feeling heard, a person is less likely to act their anger out as violence.
Other therapeutic approaches include realistic problem solving, avoiding triggers, exercise (to get rid of cortisol and adrenaline), mindfulness (basically self-reflection)… and avoiding alcohol.
And, of course, in the face of waiting times to see healthcare professionals, there is animation, which can be used as an adjunct to traditional therapeutic treatment.
The power of animation can help us explore anger prior to any long-awaited psychological intervention. A child’s anger issues can be explored and worked through with parents or teachers – animation is especially useful for children with special educational needs and disability or who are neurodivergent. Character animation in particular can illustrate scenarios which provide the essential information clearly and immediately.
Its immediacy and accessibility (costing nothing via social media) can help us understand the roots and dynamics of anger in the time and place of our choosing; and animation can be cheaply and easily edited to include local contact information and resources for support.
It provides a safe space for us to explore and process our anger and the reasons for it. Animation:
- Improves understanding
- Provides support and connection
- Is accessible
- Is easy to absorb
- Is non-judgemental
- Is non-threatening
- Provides practical information and advice.
Benefits of animation
- Animation is accessible, especially via social media, and completely free to air for people who require it (via mobile phones).
- Animation can reach cohorts who struggle to read and write, eg those with a neurodivergence (20% of the population) and/or SEND (15% of the population).
- Animation can be translated to reach people for whom English is not the first language.
- Waiting times for CAMHS and community mental health services is typically months – from script to screen, an animation can be created in two weeks, making it ideal for ‘disaster’ work.
- Animation voiceovers can be quickly translated and revoiced in any language at a rough cost of only £1000.
- While the initial animation can cost about £10k, subsequent digital copies are completely free (unlike print). Small amendments to ‘end slates’ to, for example, localise helpline numbers cost very little, so one trauma video can be used 10,000 times nationally at pretty much no extra cost.
- Animation works brilliantly across all social media channels so it’s instantly and freely accessible and provides a ‘language’ for the person and their caregivers to understand what’s going on.
- Still images can be taken from the animation and used within other collateral. For example, a dozen still images can be laid out in front of a child, enabling them to choose which image from the animation spoke to them (a good way to introduce tricky subjects, eg sexual abuse).