All the rage

Male aggression can be violent and dangerous. If we understand it, can we diffuse it?

28th September 2018

It’s a common misconception that men are angrier than women. Studies show that men and women are equally angry — occasionally they show that women are actually angrier — and who can blame them? Women have to deal with things like sexism. The idea of men as the angrier sex stems from our inability to control our aggression and there is a subtle but important difference between anger and aggression.

Anger is simply an emotion. We all feel angry, and it’s healthy for us to do so in certain situations, like when confronted with injustice or danger. Aggression, however, is the inability to contain our anger and deal with it in a healthy way. Aggression can manifest itself as shouting, tantrums and violence against yourself and others.

Two men — John and Paul* — tell The Overtake how they who sought help, in one form or another, after having problems with anger.

I was proud to be aggressive

John, 34, explains he regrets how angry he was in his youth. “But, ask 20-year-old me, I was proud to be aggressive. I was a man, and I was, most definitely, in charge; people respected my authority, for good and bad.”

For men, there is a dark appeal to the release of aggression. Slamming a door or punching a wall isn’t necessarily meant as a threat, but a method of venting frustration. Of course, to people around you, it’s a much more terrifying experience. To someone nearby, punching a wall can be the same as saying: “I want to punch you.” Losing control can mean exerting control over others. We might tell ourselves that we could never hurt someone we love, but it happens on a day-to-day basis, in appalling and heartbreaking numbers.

Children aren’t born aggressive — it’s learned behaviour

“At the point of losing my temper, it sort of feels good to let out everything that’s bothering me,” says Paul. “Afterwards, I feel terrible. I feel angry and disappointed at myself. I feel ashamed that I’ve dealt with things in that way.”

The sad irony is that physically lashing out actually causes more aggression, rather than helping it to subside. While a physical activity like exercise can help reduce high levels of energy, aggressive behaviour has the opposite effect. Getting our aggression out, even if we think we’re angry at ourselves, creates a feedback loop. The release and pleasure we get from lashing out conditions us to think that such behaviour is good, and we’re more likely to adopt it as standard or start using it on impulse.

Add to that fact that when we are angry, we are less able to pick up on facial and social clues — men struggle with this more than women, in general, anyway — and instead our heightened senses look and find more potential threats. We don’t so much become blinded by anger, but that becomes all we can see.

I blacked out while the attack was happening, but I remember, perfectly, the events leading up to and after

John speaks of an instance that demonstrates the level with which people can disconnect themselves from their aggression: “[I was] leaving a nightclub, when I was approached by a group of men that accused me of trying to contact an ex-girlfriend of mine, and was informed that she had a new boyfriend. I was warned not to contact her, and this didn’t sit right with me, so I attacked the two men immediately to my front. I blacked out while the attack was happening, however, remember, perfectly, the events leading up to and after.”

As much as we claim to be holding ourselves inline, we’re actually indulging ourselves, and that’s an awful and impossible situation for our loved ones to be around. John has come to terms with this, to an extent, but that at the time, he didn’t feel like that was really him in that fight.

In an internal struggle against rage, lashing out an at inanimate object in an effort to keep anger under control may feel noble at the time but our physical prescience and demeanour can be incredibly intimidating to others. After all, being in the same room as a gun can be worrying, even without the gun being pointed at you.

This might be why it’s hard to consider that aggression may be a mental disorder in a similar vein to depression or anxiety. It seems semantically wrong to say someone is suffering from their own aggression. Its manifestations are outwardly destructive, rather that inwardly limiting. But, that’s exactly what Dr Ronald Kessler of Harvard University has been trying to prove.

He has diagnosed a disorder called Intermittent Explosive Disorder — unfortunately shortened to IED, an abbreviation familiar to military types and anyone who keeps up with global affairs as Improvised Explosive Device.

IED sufferers have bouts of anger which are disproportionate to situations, and lose their temper at the slightest problem. Of course, it’s hard to fully distinguish when aggressive acts are disproportionate responses because of the distinction between anger and aggression, but it’s certain that they are more frequent among men.

It’s accepted that anger can be a side effect of other mental health disorders, but it’s harder to claim that aggression, itself, is a disorder

“Anger attacks, which can occur in conjunction with a number of mental disorders, are much more common among men than women,” explains Dr Kessler. “Intermittent Explosive Disorder, the only disorder where anger attacks are the core feature, are twice as common among men as women.”

In psychiatry, it is accepted that anger can be a side effect of other mental health disorders, but it’s harder to claim that aggression is, in and of itself, a disorder. Many psychiatrists have resisted the concept of IED as a condition for two reasons. The first is that anger is a healthy emotion, and instances of aggression are moments of mismanagement; the second is that IED would be a convenient way of disregarding an individual’s responsibility for their actions.

This may be part of society’s inability to understand aggression. As reductive as this counterclaim is, it has some worth: it’s healthy to feel upset, while depression is unmanageable. It can be helpful to be nervous, but anxiety is an unmanageable form nervousness can take. Likewise, the idea that someone suffering from aggression wouldn’t take responsibility for their actions, instead choosing to hide behind a diagnosis, ignores human guilt. In particular, it ignores the intense and immediate guilt that characterises IED sufferers.

Boys’ toys often encourage them to be violent and aggressive

The origins of men’s aggressions are hard to find pin down, as it’s a combination of biological and sociological theories. Psychiatrist Leonard Berkowitz argues that the traditional social roles of men and women set men up to be more aggressive. Boy’s toys are conflict-based, while girls are home-keeping based, for example. Society wants men to be more aggressive, and women more submissive. It seems eminently plausible, but one limitation of this theory is that as women have become more emancipated, their levels of aggression haven’t increased.

Paul and John both talk about their difficulties starting in their teen years. Specifically, John suspects his anger comes from a childhood speech impediment which caused him to mumble “as a deaf or drunk person”. He found communication extremely difficult until he joined the military. At this point, he realised, “I didn’t have to verbally show my emotions. I could push them on people with a stern look or a threat of violence.”

Biology and evolution would suggest that men’s aggression comes from a slower developing and ultimately smaller prefrontal cortex — the section of the brain that moderates aggression — in comparison to women’s. This makes men more prone to stupid, violent and risky behaviour. This plays into evolutionary theory, in which men play the roles of guardians and warriors who protect the family. Our aggression made us more able to spot and defend against tribal threats.

In a poll of 2,500 mental health sufferers, 28% of men admitted to not seeking help, compared with 19% of women

Neither theory alone tells the whole story, and it’s far too easy for men to try to condone their behaviour by saying we’re built to function that way. We’re post-evolution creatures and we need to rewrite the rulebook on our inbuilt tribal reactions, to account for a 21st-century life.

Though, one thing that’s for sure is that society places a lot of pressure on men to keep their problems to themselves.

Failing to tackle rage issues can leave men isolated

Both John and Paul are uncertain about the true natures of their aggression. They both say that it’s not their anger that they struggle with but anxiety and/or depression. Anger is just a side effect. However, John at the same time, says he has anger issues. Perhaps this indicates just how powerful a side-affect anger is that it is his central concern.

Its classification aside, perhaps it’s time that we take anger and aggression seriously as a factor in men’s mental health. People rarely take themselves to psychiatrists to help deal with anger until it’s too late, and even then, it can be easily misdiagnosed. Men, in particular, are terrible at seeking help. In a 2016 poll by YouGov, of 2,500 mental health sufferers, 28% of men admitted to not seeking help, compared with only 19% of women.

On top of that, only a quarter of men told friends or family that they were suffering from a mental health issue, compared with one third of women. claims that women are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with a common mental health issue as men. Anxiety disorder, for instance, is diagnosed in almost twice as many women as men.

What’s particularly telling is that also points out that men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide. In fact, it’s the number one cause of death amongst men aged 20-49. It’s clear that the statistics — and men — aren’t telling the entire story.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that thoughts of suicide are a sign of a mind in need of some support. Even the most callous reasoning — that these men decide logically, not emotionally, to take their own lives — belays a mental disconnect between thoughts and actions.

Angry men are more likely to be divorced, have few friends and be less successful

In fact, psychiatrists have discovered there is a direct correlation between anger and impulse control, and suicidal tendencies. The greater the anger and lack of impulse control, the higher the chance of suicide. Further, angry men are three times more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke and six times more likely to have an early heart attack. To top all that off, angry men are more likely to be divorced, have few friends and be less successful. Meaning if our anger doesn’t force us to take our own lives, it damages us and our relationships enough that we end up in a coffin at a poorly attended and cheap funeral.

Anger spills out of us as aggression, and aggression, when mishandled, replicates itself with more anger. Regardless of whether aggression and IED are, in and of themselves, mental conditions, it’s clear that the conversation about the effects of anger on the male psyche, and how we deal with aggression, need to become more open. Our fear of accepting anger as a common and healthy emotion hinders our ability to deal with aggression.

For John, his journey to dealing with anger has been difficult.

“I constantly feel dread and guilt. It sometimes keeps me awake at night, just thinking over and over again the situation. Sometimes, it goes bigger than that, and I start to think that my kids, when they’re older, will be disgusted by my actions and eventually stop loving me.”

I feel embarrassed and ashamed about the times that I’ve been aggressive

John has also had friends cut him off because they know about his problem. Something that Paul has been wary of. “At first, being open about it was tough. It’s hard not to assume that friends won’t understand. I’ve been fearful that they’ll think I’m crazy, and I feel embarrassed and ashamed about the times I’ve been aggressive.”

The first step we can take is to be open about these problems and try to understand that aggression is self-destructive, dangerous and isolating — both to those around it and suffering from it. Society moves as majority, though. Discussion around aggression won’t get better, unless we take responsibility for it and work towards dealing with it in a more responsible way.

If you do struggle with anger and aggression, you can contact a number of charities, like Mind or Calm, for help. In the meantime, Councillor Natasha Clewley from Counselling Directory has provided us with a few tips for managing your anger.

*Names have been changed.

28th September 2018