Rage attacks: Where do they come from?

Rage can be strong, rage can be toxic and dangerous and rage can be contagious. Rage attack as an outburst of anger is usually very hard to handle. When you are close to a person who is experiencing explosion of anger, it is extremely hard to find an appropriate way to tackle the situation.

So what do rage attacks feel like?

Feelings of anger can be very physical. It means that we can feel anger in many parts of our bodies, which enhances the perception that rage is something very ‘real’ and that we must act upon it. Strong rage attacks are usually followed by disbelief of the person who experienced them. He (and also people around that person) cannot believe what has happened. It feels like somebody else was there—almost as if it were another person. It feels like an episode of ‘temporary insanity’ after which the person came back to his or her senses.

Usually the anger which one feels is some kind of a defense mechanism. It is less obvious that rage attacks are motivated  by the need to protect ourselves from something that is even more threatening. For example, when one feels that his self-image is shaken, he can react with anger in order to protect his fragile sense of self and thereby avoid confronting the feelings of shame, rejection, loneliness, etc. This is why rage attacks might feel like self-righteous outbursts to the person who experiences them –as if they were entitled to feel that way.

Another possible source of rage attacks is suppression. There is nothing wrong with anger—it is a perfectly normal and natural emotion. It could be seen as a reaction to someone who bothers us and our need to set boundaries against this individual. It is also a signal that something is not right and we should take steps in order to ameliorate the situation, including extracting ourselves from the unpleasant situation. But anger is not a socially acceptable emotion. Because of that, we start to negate and suppress anger, trying to push it away from our consciousness. By doing that for years, we harm ourselves and it can become quite detrimental to our well-being, because the neglected feelings are still there and they want to ‘come out’ from the basement. This is perhaps the reason why rage attacks are almost by definition so strong and out of control. The feelings which were previously unconscious are now finally free in all their ‘glory,’ finding their expression in a bout of rage.

The pain of rejection is also associated with anger. In our early childhood, we learn how to deal with certain situations where our needs are not met. If this was not done properly, one can develop dysfunctional patterns of behavior when he feels rejected, reacting inappropriately in many social situations. This is a big problem in relationships, for obvious reasons: Deep intimate relationships between people are also a place of high risk for feelings of rejection and abandonment.

Now let’s delve deeper into each of the factors that trigger rage attacks:

  1. Defense. Our personal sense of identity is always on trial when we interact with other human beings. We need to validate our self-image with others all the time and so we ‘negotiate’ who we are in many interactions: Sometimes we validate our core beliefs, sometimes we do not. Other people do not have to necessarily think the same. But the point is that it is always some kind of a negotiation. People who have rage attacks usually have low tolerance for invalidation. They react impulsively with anger and do not want to understand subtle nuances in interpersonal meanings. Rage attacks protect them and their fragile sense of self, because if they were not angry, they would experience feelings which are, from their perspective, much worse than anger.
  2. Suppression. Suppression is a defense mechanism described by Freud where a person pushes down thoughts and emotions which are not pleasant or can lead to feelings of anxiety. Feelings of anger towards others are usually not socially acceptable and this is usually the reason why they must be suppressed.
  3. Rejection. If we haven’t created healthy functional patterns of interacting with others in childhood, then it becomes really difficult to deal with rejection when we become adults. When one is rejected, he will feel fear of being alone and abandoned. A rage attack is then an intense response to such feelings, where a person does not want to accept the present situation (e. g. request for divorce by one’s spouse due to marital problems and emotional distance).

Finally, what can you do about rage attacks? How can you ameliorate them?

  1. First of all, it is important to identify the external or internal triggers: Persons, situations, specific thoughts or feelings, etc. Noticing these triggers allows us to achieve more control over our anger. After a certain period of time, one can begin to learn new behavioral patterns which are healthier and more functional. In psychotherapy and counseling we are trying to get to the source of anger, for example childhood traumas, and to find new ways of relating to oneself and others. Then a person might also find new ways of dealing with anger, which is not necessarily ‘a bad thing’ by itself.
  2. One of the important distinctions is a distinction between aggressive and assertive behavior. Unlike aggressive patterns of behavior, being assertive means expressing your emotions and needs in a clear and rational way, not hurting others at the same time. Assertive also means expressing/communicating your needs in a clear fashion and knowing how your needs can be met. Finding assertive ways to express anger is a mighty antidote for rage attacks.
  3. Mindfulness and relaxation can help too. Just breathing and relaxing for a couple of minutes are a good way to calm yourself down. Deep breathing is also a good strategy to change our biological response—it affects the mind and the body at the same time. Visualization is also very helpful. Practices like yoga, tai chi chuan and chi gong are good for achieving mind-body balance.
  4. Not jumping to conclusions is a new mindset that can be developed over time. Rage attacks are impulsive and people are not aware what triggers them and why they behave that way. So, when they become aware of their unconscious thoughts, they also become more mindful about their behavior in general, leaving less space for impulsivity. They tend to react with more calm on an everyday basis as they learn new modes of interacting with people.

Rage attacks come in many forms, creating lots of problems for the person who suffers from them, as well as for his or her environment. The problem should be addressed as fast as possible, with a cautious attitude and an open mind. Psychotherapy is a process which unravels deeper layers of meaning which exist underneath the observable behavior. Sometimes progress and change may come slowly, but the outcome is worthwhile waiting for, as after a certain period of time the person who manifests rage attacks might find new ways of relating to other people.