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Our Earliest Feelings: Distress and Anger

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We are continuing with our exploration of feelings, the first of the three keys to Infant and Child Development (Feelings, Language, and Cognition).

Have fun!

Dr. Holinger

In our November 2013 newsletter, we began looking at our earliest feelings and how they work. We discussed surprise, fear, and interest. This month we examine distress and anger.

A Brief Review
Here’s one way of thinking about our earliest feelings…which then become our complex emotional life.


  • Interest
  • Enjoyment


  • Surprise (resets the nervous system, to prepare for the next stimulus)


  • Distress
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Disgust [a reaction to noxious tastes]
  • Dissmell [a reaction to noxious odors]

Last time we showed how Surprise, Fear, and Interest depend on the speed of the incoming stimuli. Let’s turn now to two of the most important negative feelings, distress and anger.

Distress and Anger

How about distress and anger? How might they work? Whereas surprise, fear, and interest seem to depend upon the speed of the stimulus, the feelings of distress and anger appear to depend on the quantity of the stimulus

Any sustained increase in the level of neural firing, such as a continuing loud noise, innately activates the cry of distress. If it were sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the anger response.

For example, any sustained increase of a stimulus such as a continuing loud noise will innately activate the distress signal and the cry and facial manifestations of the distress feelings. And—this is important, and we will refer to this understanding of anger time and again—if the noise is sustained and still louder, it would innately activate the anger response.

Distress, then, is “too much” of something. Anger is excessive distress… really too much. Think of how we express this in everyday language. People are stressed out; they are under stress; there is too much going on, too much bombarding them, disorganizing them. They get irritable. Even more comes down upon them. They get more irritable. They get angry.

Distress is initially triggered, and then excessive distress turns into anger. Practically any stimuli can create this sequence – memories, hurtful words, even other affects, such as too much fear or shame.

Distress and Anger in Parenting

Distress and anger are SOS signals.

Key #1:
Try to figure out what is causing the distress and then attend to that.

Key #2:
Yes, the expressions of distress and anger (whining, screaming, temper tantrums, etc.) can be upsetting. However, try to remember Key #1. And then address the expressions and behaviors associated with distress and anger: Help the child put the feelings and problems into words. “I can see you are distressed and angry…try to tell me with words what the problem is and I will try to fix it.”

Always: “Words instead of actions!” Try to keep the decibels down – i.e. avoid yelling…that will simply cause more chaos, distress, and anger.

Of course, all this is not so easy! Anger is called a contagious affect—an angry child (or adult!) can readily make a parent angry.

The two inborn feelings of distress and anger are fascinating. How we deal with them can make a huge difference in the child’s development as well as in interpersonal relationships.

References for Interested Readers:

  • Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Izard C (1977). Human Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.
  • Nathanson DL (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: WW Norton.
  • Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins SS (1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume II): The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
  • Tomkins SS (1992). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume IV): Cognition: Duplication and Transformation of Information. New York: Springer.


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