Anger is a natural emotion that we all experience. Mild forms of anger may include displeasure, irritation or dislike. When we react to criticism, threat or frustration we may become angry - and usually this is a healthy response. Anger may be a secondary response to feeling sad, lonely or frightened.
When anger becomes a full-blown rage our judgment and thinking can become impaired and we are more likely to do and say unreasonable and irrational things.
Contents of this article:
What is anger?
According to the American Psychological Association1, "Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion." However, when it gets out of control it can become destructive. Uncontrollable anger can lead to serious problems at work and in personal relationships, and may undermine the individual's overall quality of life.
Anger is not just a mental state of mind. It triggers an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Anger has survival benefits, and forms part of our fight or flight brain response to a perceived threat or harm.
When a human or animal decides to take action to stop or confront a threat, anger usually becomes the predominant feeling and takes over our behavior, cognition and physiology.
In many cases humans and other animals express anger by making loud sounds, baring teeth, staring and adopting postures as a warning to perceived aggressors to stop their threatening behaviors.
It is unusual for a physical attack to occur without these signs of anger appearing first. If a stranger approaches a litter of newborn puppy-dogs, the mother will most likely growl, bare her teeth and adopt a defensive or ready-to-attack posture, rather than silently attack without any warning.
If you trespass into the private land of a farmer in a remote area, his approach may be similar; his voice will be hostile, as may his body language, and posture. Instinctively, anger may surge in humans and other animals to protect territory, offspring and family members, secure mating privileges, prevent loss of possessions or food, and many other perceived threats.
The Mental Health Foundation2, a UK charity, says that anger is one of the most basic human emotions. Experts say anger is a primary, natural emotion with functional survival value, which we all experience from time to time. The raised heart rate, blood pressure, and release of hormones prepare us physically for remedial action - which is either to fight or run away at top speed (fight or flight).
What makes people angry?The most common factors that make people angry are:
- Grief - losing a loved one.
- Sexual frustration
- Withdrawal from drugs or some medications
- Some physical conditions, such as pre-menstrual syndrome
- Physical illness
- Mental illness
- Alcohol, some drugs, alcohol abuse, drug abuse
- Being teased or bullied
- Traffic jams
- Sloppy service
- Financial problems
- Being told you have a serious illness.
The Counseling Center3, California State University Bakersfield, explains that underlying anger is caused by a "perceived loss of control over factors affecting important values." The values may be related to pride, love, money, justice, etc.
How can anger make you ill?
When we are angry the body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. The heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate increase. Regular episodes of anger can eventually make people ill.
The State Government of Victoria4, Australia, explains that recurrent unmanaged anger may result in a constant flood of stress chemicals and associated metabolic changes that can eventually undermine the individual's health.
Uncontrolled or unresolved anger can lead to the following physical health problems:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Irritable bowel syndrome, or other digestive disorders
- Skin disorders
- Heart attack
- Lower pain threshold
- Weakened immune system, resulting in more infections, colds, and influenza.
Uncontrolled or unresolved anger can lead to emotional and mental problems, including:
- Eating disorders
- Alcohol abuse
- Drug abuse
- Self injury
- Low self-esteem
What is anger management?
Anger management is a procedure of acquiring the skills to recognize signs that you are becoming angry, and taking action to deal with the situation in a positive way. In no way does anger management mean holding the anger in or trying to keep from feeling anger. Anger is a normal human emotion, a healthy one when it is expressed appropriately.
West Virginia University's Student Center of Health5 describes anger management as finding ways to recognize your anger "triggers" and developing healthier ways to deal with how that anger makes the individual feel and act.
It is possible to learn how to control your frustrations by practicing anger management techniques on your own. However, seeing a mental health counselor or taking an anger management class is generally more effective.
Anger management teaches you to recognize frustrations early on and settle them in a way that allows you to express your needs, while remaining calm and in control. Coping with anger is an acquired skill which involves unlearning some of the bad behaviors that result from frustration.
Anger management helps you identify what triggers your emotions, and how to respond so that things work in your favor, instead of against you.
We all feel angry sometimes and may say or do things we regret. This is a normal part of life, and may not necessarily mean you need anger management help. If your anger is having a detrimental effect on relationships, is making you unhappy, or is leading to violent or dangerous behavior, you probably need help.
Do I need help?
The following may indicate that you need anger management help:
- You have trouble with the authorities (the law).
- You frequently feel that you have to hold in your anger.
- You have numerous arguments with people around you, especially your partner, parents, children or colleagues.
- You find yourself involved in fights.
- You hit your partner or children.
- You threaten violence to people or property.
- You have outbursts where you break things.
- You lose your temper when driving and become reckless.
- You think that perhaps you do need help.
Anger management therapy may be done in group sessions, often called anger management classes or one-on-one (UK/Ireland: one-to-one) with a counselor or psychotherapist, often referred to as psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy is treatment by psychological means. Psychotherapy may utilize persuasion, suggestion, reassurance, insight (perceptiveness, self-awareness), and instruction so that the person can see himself/herself and their problems in a more realistic way and wish to overcome and/or cope with them effectively. There are many types of psychotherapy, including cognitive therapy, interpersonal therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and family therapy.
Depending on your circumstances and needs, sessions may go on for a few weeks or months, and sometimes longer. If you have any mental health conditions, such as depression, an addiction, or Asperger's syndrome, for example, it is important that anger management sessions complement any other treatment you are having. It is vital that the psychotherapist or whoever is running the anger management classes knows about your current medical situation, as well as your medical history.
Anger management classes and/or anger management counseling has the following aims:
- Help you identify your anger triggers - things that make you angry.
- Help you respond in a non-aggressive way to these triggers before you lose your temper.
- Learn how to acquire and utilize specific skills for handling your anger triggers.
- Learn to effectively identify moments when your thought processes are not leading to logical and rational conclusions, and to correct your thinking.
- Learn how to bring yourself back to a state of calm and peace when you feel the anger surging.
- Learn how to express your feelings and needs assertively in situations that make you feel angry or frustrated. Doing so in a non-aggressive way. Assertiveness has nothing to do with aggressiveness. Assertiveness includes respect for yourself, and respect for others.
- Learning how to redirect your energies and resources into problem solving rather than fury in situations which may trigger anger and frustration.
Most therapists say that it is important for the person to learn to recognize their anger. This may take time. The following questions may help:
- "How do I know when I am angry?"
- "What type of people, situations, events, places, triggers make me angry?"
- "How do I respond when I am angry? What do I do?"
- "What impact does my angry reaction have on other people?"
Most people are able to answer these questions straight away with several examples. However, it is only after some time that these questions can be answered comprehensively. The initial answers are a good step forward; a good first step. Many counselors ask their clients (patients) to continually ask themselves these questions before being satisfied that they are fully knowledgeable about their personal anger.
Many people find it helps when they realize that anger and calmness are not black-or-white emotions. There are varying degrees of anger, ranging from mild irritation to full rage. Our experience of anger moves around within the continuum between rage and calm. Those who see anger as black-or-white may have lost the ability to recognize when they are experiencing lower states of anger - they may be irritated but think they are furious, or even think they are calm.
Most people are able to identify signs and symptoms of emerging anger which indicate where in the anger-calm continuum they are. These may include:
Emotional symptoms (typically, listed from irritation to rage):
- A desire to escape from the situation
- Sadness or depression
- Desire to lash out verbally
- Desire to lash out physically.
The following may also occur (possibly in order, sometimes not):
- You start rubbing your face with your hand
- You may fidget or clasp one hand with the other
- You start pacing around
- You become cynical and/or sarcastic
- Your sense of humor starts to go
- You become rude and abusive
- You crave substances that you think relax you, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs
- Your voice starts getting louder
- You start screaming or crying.
Some people are able to identify the onset of these physical symptoms when they are getting angry:
- Grinding teeth
- Clenching their jaw
- Stomach upset
- Accelerated heart rate
- Breathlessness (rapid shallow breathing)
- Hot flashes in the face and/or neck
- Trembling hands, and sometimes lips or jaw
- Tingling at the back of the neck.
Rating your anger
Being able to identify what happens when you are angry, and at which point in the continuum between mild irritation and fury/rage the anger components listed above occur, makes it easier for you to rate your anger. When you are able to do this, it then becomes possible to use effective anger management techniques.
Remember that anger is not a leap from calm to fury, there are many levels in between - if you are aware of this, as well as some other factors, it is easier to be in control, to think things through in a logical way.
There are many ways of rating your anger - some people devise a scale from 1 to 100, with 100 being fury/rage.
Having an anger plan
Being able to rate your anger helps you know where you are in the anger scale - that alone will not get rid of the anger; it is a step. The next step is to devise an anger plan. Anger plans may vary and depend on certain aspects of the person, as well as his/her circumstances. An anger plan may include:
- Taking time out - remove yourself from the situation that is triggering the anger so that you have space to gather your thoughts and calm down. The Australian Psychological Society6 advises people with anger management difficulties to take time out from a situation, argument or confrontation. "Try stepping out of the room, or going for a walk. Before you go, remember to make a time to talk about the situation later when everyone involved has calmed down." Also spend some of that time out planning how you are going to remain calm when you are back in that situation again.
- Change the subject - if a particular conversation includes an anger trigger, start talking about something else.
- Relaxation techniques - If you can find a physical therapist who specializes in management anger relaxation techniques, do a few sessions with him/her. It will be worth it. Effective relaxation needs to be done properly and requires some practice to be really effective.
- Delay your responses - some people find that counting to ten, or using some strategy to slow the pace of a conversation that is starting to bother them helps. Delaying responses may be used even if the situation is not a conversation, such as a feeling of growing frustration during a traffic jam. Taking steps to slow down the accumulation of factors that heighten your anger gives you time to recover your logical thought processes.
Have an anger diary
Some people find that writing down what happened, how they felt, what was occurring before-during-after their episode of anger, helps them anticipate anger triggers as well as coping during and after episodes. Being able to read about what happened, what worked, what didn't work, etc., helps achieve a more effective anger management plan.
Other useful tips
- Slow things down - count to ten; devise strategies to slow things down. As your pace slows down try to visualize a relaxing or pleasant experience - take your mind there.
- Express your anger - make sure you do this when you have calmed down. Do this in an assertive non-aggressive way.
- Cognitive restructuring - according to the American Psychological Association7, this means changing the way you think. An angry person may have overly-dramatic thinking.
When things go wrong, change such thoughts as "Everything's ruined" to, for example, "This is frustrating, but it is not the end of the world.
Try to avoid "absolute" words like "always" or "never", they tend to make the angry person think there is no solution. They also humiliate and/or alienate people who could become useful allies in anger management.
- Exercise regularly - many of the hormones we release when we are angry are produced to help us get out of danger. This was great hundreds and thousands of years ago when we had to run away from bears and predators. Exercise uses up those chemicals and hormones.
If you exercise regularly not only will your body better regulate your adrenaline and cortisol levels, but as you become fitter you well have better levels of endorphins - natural feel-good hormones. You will also sleep better; a crucial factor for good mental health.
- Plan what you want to say - if something is bothering you, remember that you are more likely to get sidetracked when discussing an issue if you are angry. Taking notes before the conversation may help you steer the course of the conversation.
- Focus on the solution, not just the problem - it is fine and useful to identify what made you angry. However, it is much more important to focus on ways to resolve the problem.
- The word "I" is more constructive than the word "You" - when giving praise, the word "You" is great. However, when you are angry or resentful the word "I" tends to achieve better results. For example:
"I find this subject upsetting. Could we talk about something else, please?"
is better than
"Why did you bring that up....?"
- Don't hold on to resentment - holding a grudge against somebody can only fuel your anger and make it harder to control it. It is important to be realistic and accept that people are the way they are, rather than how you want them to be. Many of the strategies mentioned here, such as expressing your anger, are more likely to help resolve your anger, compared to holding a grudge.
- Humor - don't give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that's just another form of unhealthy anger expression. Good humor can sometimes dissolve anger and resentment faster than anything else. Humor is a fantastic weapon and also a gift. Even if it means just laughing - as long as there is no risk of misinterpretation - your mood can change for the better rapidly. Some people find that just remembering a funny joke, or imagining themselves or the other person in a silly situation gets their mind away from the anger.
- Timing - if you and your partner find your evening discussions tend to turn into rows, possibly because you or both of you are tired or distracted, change the times when you talk about important matters. In some cases the fights at that time of day initially started because you were tired or distracted, and over time simply became a habit.
- Proper breathing - just as anger can increase your breathing and heart rates and tenses up your muscles, you can learn to reverse this by deliberately slowing your breathing and systematically relaxing and loosening your muscles.
As soon as you feel those shallow rapid breaths coming on, which tend to aggravate anger, take action to redirect your breathing. If you can, spend 15 minutes focusing on relaxation - it can work wonders.
- Take several slow and long deep breaths in a row.
- Spend twice as long exhaling as inhaling.
- Count slowly to four as you inhale.
- Then breathe out slowly as you count to eight.
- Make each breath deep and slow, and focus on where the air is going.
- Your inhalation should start from your belly, then your lower chest, and finally your upper chest. Feel your ribs open up when you fill your lungs.
- When you slowly exhale feel your ribs coming back to the original positions - exhale completely.
If at any time you feel odd or slightly dizzy go back to normal breathing for a couple of minutes.
- Sleep - try to get at least 7 hours good quality sleep every night. Sleep is crucial for good mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation has been linked in many studies to mental, physical and emotional health problems - including anger.