One of the five basic emotions– anger, is a feeling everyone has experience with. As humans, when we feel our sense of self or ego being attacked, it’s a natural gut reaction to feel provoked, aggravated, or on high alert. However, living with persistent and uncontrollable anger can be highly distressing and disruptive to a person’s day-to-day experience, and to the people in their lives.
Why thresholds for anger and the ability to calm explosiveness vary from person to person, is a complicated question to explore. What we do know is that anger doesn’t happen in a vacuum outside of other emotional issues, it’s entangled with complex chemical reactions occurring in the science labs of our different neural systems.
In this article we’ll explore the profound changes that psychedelic mushroom therapy– a groundbreaking approach to redrawing the map of our mental circuitry, can produce in people affected by chronic anger issues.
The Clinical Manifestations of Anger
When we talk about anger issues, we can understand it from two different perspectives: an inherent internal deficit, or a maladaptive response to extraordinary life circumstances like extreme stress, adversity, or trauma.
Anger can also manifest itself in two ways: internal and external. Internalized anger can look a lot like guilt, shame, self-doubt– feelings implicated in everyday mood states and in debilitating mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Externalized anger resulting in aggressive behavior can be the precursor to behavior conduct disorders or more severe antisocial personality disorders (ASPD). “Reactive aggression” has been endorsed in scientific literature as the “ultimate” measurable expression of anger, and therefore the best lens we can use to understand it.
Conduct disorder (CD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) are both diagnostically-recognized psychological disorders with anger and aggression as the key criteria for diagnosis.
Conduct Disorder is defined by the DSM-5 as “A repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms are violated” and ODD is similarly categorized as “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness.” (APA, 2013).
ODD, which is more specific to verbal or emotional aggression than physical aggression, is often diagnosed comorbidly with other internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression– disorders in which antagonistic behaviors are often present in the face of perceived overwhelming demands (Boylan et al., 2007).
Anger, whether or not it’s expressed through physical aggression, seems to be rooted in difficulty coping with perceived threat. This could be due to a biological, genetic, or inherited trait or to a cumulative stress load that compromises an individual’s sense of coping.
Current Treatments For Anger Disorders
Etiologically, the models for ODD and CD show that disorderly behavior is likely due to a combination of inherent temperament and a hostile or turbulent social environment. Like most complex psychological disorders, unregulated aggression is a bitter-tasting cocktail of multiple ingredients.
Because anger is understood and addressed through reactive aggression, psychoeducation used for treatment of CD and ODD targets that aggression through the teaching of social skills, conflict resolution, and anger management.
However, there is no single intervention that has emerged as “the best” for treatment of disruptive disorders. Multisystemic therapy (MST) is often used as a multicomponent approach, combining CBT and other behavior therapies, along with parent-child and family therapies.
From a pharmaceutical standpoint, medication alone has thus far been proven insufficient for CD, but may be promising in conjunction with other psychosocial interventions that specifically target the symptom of aggression in these disorders (Eyberg, 2008).
How Psychedelics Can Help Reduce Anger
Anger issues are produced by an interaction of factors in the brain and in the environment that result in a tumultuous relationship between the two. So can psychedelics break up that interaction? Let’s review what we know about psychedelics’ mechanisms of action.
We know from modern scientific research that psychedelics produce significant antidepressant and anxiolytic effects, and are generally really well-tolerated by people seeking relief from those symptoms (Muttoni et al., 2019).
Psychedelic compounds are serotonin 5-HT receptor agonists, in the same way that common SSRIs and antidepressants are, meaning they bind to the receptors of serotonin neurotransmitters. Serotonin is our body’s natural “feel good” chemical.
One way that activation of serotonin receptors has been shown to have therapeutic “feel good” benefits is by producing an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain (Flanagan & Nichols, 2018). The mental state of being angry relates to neural systems that pertain to threat, vigilance, and reaction, and occurs when these systems are in high gear, overdrive, or highly “inflamed”.
This is because exposure to (both perceived or real) extreme threat increases the responsiveness and reactivity of these neural systems, a process which is associated with increased anger (Blair, 2012).
In other words, these systems may become biologically “inflamed”, translating to those easily aroused mood states characteristic of anger issues. Inflammatory reactions can sometimes be useful in situations of real danger, but constantly being in a state of high alert is not amenable to emotional well-being.
One of the most widely-accepted and widely-adopted therapeutic uses for psychedelics is for treatment of PTSD, a condition which involves negatively altered cognitions about the world, higher sensitivity to threat, and more inflammatory reactions (Flanagan & Nichols, 2018).
Extreme life-threatening situations may trigger activation of stress-response systems, but adaptability and plasticity is also required to cope with adversity. As we know, the experience of disordered anger is likely a result of not only biological factors, but of an inability to adapt to adverse life experiences.
Psilocybin has been empirically shown to enhance brain plasticity, or in other words, increase cognitive “flexibility”. Modern research has shown that psychedelic experiences induce “ego dissolution” meaning they successfully break down the networks of cognitive patterns that make up who we are in our brain– think: habits and biases (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017).
Research also shows that this altered network connectivity induced by psilocybin has enduring effects. In contrast, psychological changes as a result of SSRIs have only been shown to take effect while the drug is being taken (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017).
Additionally, a core component of what we know as “anger issues” relates to the external reaction to anger– the inability to control or regulate unpleasant or distressing feelings.
You’ve likely heard that your brain isn’t done developing until the age of 25, that’s because 25 years of age is around the time our prefrontal cortex matures– the part of the brain associated with impulse control and executive decision making.
Psychological perspectives on anger strongly support the involvement of dysregulated frontal cortex regions, such that an anger issue is a chemically impaired ability to regulate or control behavioral reactions (Blair, 2011).
New research is showing us that the serotonergic effects of psychedelics also translates to the frontal cortex of the brain, improving our ability to be clear-minded (Shao et al., 2021). This means that psychedelics rapidly induce stress relief and increased sense of control over our own emotional experiences.
This makes a lot of sense as psychedelic trips are often heavily intertwined with mindfulness, meditation, and manifestation. Coined by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmon in the 1950s, the term “psychedelic” itself comes from the Greek word for “mind-manifesting” (Nichols, 2016).
Mindfulness, meditation, and manifestation all relate to another ‘M’ word: modulation. Brain modulation– the relaxing or reversing of rigid beliefs, and changes in the way we perceive events and process information– a core therapeutic ingredient for positively changing behavior.
The power of psychedelics as we know it is to make the nervous system less nervous. Across clinical trials and anecdotal reports, people experience transformative shifts in perspective and disposition after psychedelic trips (Schenberg, 2018).
While more research is needed to confirm the therapeutic effect of psychedelic mushrooms on anger issues, it’s reasonable to conclude that the anti-inflammatory and rigidity-breaking properties of psilocybin, can help bring more self-awareness and emotional control to people who experience chronic anger.
As “anger” is too complex a notion to target with one specific method, we can look to the underlying and overlapping symptoms of anger such as high arousal and hypervigilance, high irritability, and hostility to hint at what we should be targeting in treatment.
Psychedelic treatment has been proven effective for reprogramming hardwired nervous system responses, which can alter both the internal sensation and external expression of anger. That’s a powerful thing – not only for treating psychological diagnoses, but for creating a greater sense of control and autonomy over your life, and for increasing your overall subjective well-being.
Setting intentions before your psychedelic experience is crucial for focusing your attention on what you want to let go of and what change you want to see during and after your psychedelic journey.
If you’re curious about the potential psychedelic may hold for you, we’re here to help you navigate the journey. To get connected with our pre-vetted network of psychedelic facilitators, we empower you to book a consultation with us.
For more information, head on over to our resources page! We’re here to help you make informed decisions, take the steps toward self-growth, and remind you that it’s always a good day to be kind to yourself.