“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Mark Twain
Do you have problems managing anger? Have you ever done anything while mad that you regret? Do you stress about your impatience or irritation with others? Ever experience severe consequences for your outbursts (e.g., divorce or separation, work reprimand, or an arrest)? Or, maybe you know someone who struggles to control their hostility. Maybe you have been the victim of their fury or resentment. This blog post helps provide some practical understanding of anger. Whether you need to learn ways to prevent violence or simply want to increase the amount of control you have over yourself, this blog includes strategies for making changes so that you can learn to control your anger before it controls you.
Anger is a basic human emotion and therefore a normal part of life. We all experience anger (including the variations from mild displeasure to all consuming wrath), and expression of anger can come in many forms. Anger is usually a signal of an unmet need which may lead to positive changes when expressed in healthy ways for an individual, couple, family, or work team. Unhealthy expressions of anger, however, can lead to hostility or violence and often have a negative impact on relationships.
So, anger management is not as much about whether we experience anger or not. As much as we might want to we are not allowed to prevent anger. Anger management is more about how we recognize our feelings and express them. What we do behaviorally when we are miffed and whether this is healthy or not. Both intensity and frequency of unhealthy expression of anger matter. Low levels of resentment expressed every day can be as damaging to a relationship as a one-time blow-up at a dinner party.
Understanding and recognizing anger is key. Start by paying attention to situations in which your temper is likely to erupt. From there, notice your process of anger including cues and signals. Consider additional, underlying feelings that might accompany your outrage. Finally, change your behavioral expression of anger to healthy (or healthier) forms. Role modelling from others might help with this last step.
1. Look out for anger triggers
What situations or experiences create anger for you? Look back on some of your more recent moments of frustration, irritation, annoyance, etc. What do these circumstances have in common? Sometimes, keeping a journal of anger can shed light on the commonalities between anger experiences because it can be difficult to pay attention in the heat of the moment. For each example, consider the time of day, the location, other people involved, the activity, and your emotional state. As you analyze various anger experiences, is there a common thread among these factors? The answers to these questions can go a long way to helping you understand your angry tendencies.
Some of the more common situational triggers for most people include:
· Situations outside of your control (especially ones that have a negative impact on you or loved ones)
· Feeling threatened or hurt (or similar experiences to loved ones)
· Not having many options (or lacking good options)
· Losses or separations
· Something not turning out like you had hoped or expected it to turn out
· A long wait (either in-person, on the phone, or online)
· Other people breaking the rules/laws (especially while driving)
· Crowded situations
· Disrespect from someone (including seemingly harmless joking)
· Financial limitations or limited resources
· Misinformation or being intentionally mislead or lied to
· Doing someone else’s job, chores, errands for them
· A limited amount of time or being in a hurry
· Lack of advanced notice for a task that you are expected to complete
· Lack of or delayed relaxation time
· Substance intoxication
Often, our anger occurs when we have an unmet need. From the examples above, our need might be for less stress, more control, increased safety, more resources (money, time, power), or something more basic and physical like hunger or sleep. This is how our brain attempts to get our attention to fight for something we need or to make a change. This is healthy as long as the expression of the anger occurs in appropriate ways. If you know your unmet need, you might be able to deal with that rather than getting caught up in the emotionality of being upset.
2. Recognize the process of anger early on
Anger is an experience that tends to build over time, but we tend to only pay attention to the latter part of the cycle. This is often because the consequences of more intense anger (e.g., punching a wall, yelling) are more noticeable than the more subtle signs. If you first become aware of your anger when it is at a 7 or 8 (on a 10-point scale), what keeps you from recognizing it when it is a 4, 5, or 6? With intention this can be done, but it takes effort. Pay attention to the following physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive indications of distress. These could signal an angry emotion or represent anxiety and/or other types of distress.
Some physical signs of anger include:
· Increased heart rate
· Feeling hot/warm; sweating
· Face flushed
· Tunnel vision
· Chest tightness or pain
· Muscle tension
· Clenched teeth
Some emotional signs of anger include:
· Mood swings
· Feeling disrespected
Some behavioral signs of anger include:
· Clenched fists
· Moving more quickly
· Raised voice
· Intense stare at others
· Not paying attention
Some cognitive signs of anger include:
· Memory problems
· Concentration difficulties
· Hostile self-talk
· Violent images
· Problems talking clearly
As you begin to pay more attention to your anger process, notice what triggers your anger and how your body and mind respond. Try to catch it as early as you can. This will empower you to make different decisions about how the anger is expressed, which is the next part of the process. How do you express anger typically? Does this change depending on the location, situation, other people involved, etc.? Other options for expressing anger or taking a break from it are mentioned below.
The last part of the anger cycle, but not one to be overlooked, is the consequences. We learn best by the results of our actions. When you express anger, what are your consequences? If you express anger in a ‘healthier’ manner, do you benefit from it? What about the times that you regret having raged? While it can be tension relieving to do something physical, the interpersonal or psychological damage could be greater. Would it be worthwhile to learn different strategies for expression of your irritations?
3. What else are you feeling?
Anger is an emotion that masks a more vulnerable, underlying feeling such as sadness or guilt. Anger is more comfortable for many people partly because it involves a power and energy to it. Many times boys are socialized in such a way as to be rewarded for expressing anger, but not other feelings whereas girls are often given the opposite message that other feelings can be expressed as long as it is not anger.
Road Rage is
an example of fear turned to anger.
Most often, anger accompanies fear. For example, road rage involves the underlying fear of an automobile collision which could include injury, expensive repairs, police intervention, and the hassle of the situation. Fear is our most basic emotion as it is associated with survival. If we do not have fear, we do not survive long enough to reproduce and perpetuate the species. Healthy fear and the brain mechanisms to deal with it are at the core of our lives. When we encounter a threat (to us or a member of our ‘tribe’), we experience epinephrine, a hormone more commonly known as adrenaline, which prepares our body to deal with the threat in few ways. It redirects blood circulation, changes blood sugar metabolism, and increases the heart rate so that the individual can either ‘fight’ or ‘flee’. This is the biological energy that is associated with anger when fear is the underlying emotion. This is also the explanation for why anger will, at times, lead to physical violence against people, animals, or objects.
Pay attention to what other feelings accompany your anger. First, check in with yourself to see if you are feeling afraid of something. Is there a situation in your life that feels threatening to you or loved ones? Do you have an urge to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’? Has an important resource been taken away from you or is otherwise limited in some way? Second, if there is no fear, ask yourself if you are feeling a sadness about a loss or an undesirable outcome. Maybe there is a guilty feeling when your behavior or decision did not exactly align with your value system. Once you have identified the other feeling(s) associated with your anger, it could be helpful to express them in ways that feel safe to you. See prior blog post on Stress and Coping for more information on emotion-focused coping.
People often ask about the expression of anger. I find, both personally and professionally, that expression of underlying feelings of fear, guilt/shame, or sadness tends to be much more productive. Expressing anger tends to perpetuate the anger and can lead to some other undesirable consequences. Once you have identified and expressed the underlying feelings associated with anger or as an intermediary step to avoid unhealthy anger expressions, strategies for calming down are an anger management must.
4. Strategies for calming down
· Stretching muscles
· Progressive muscle relaxation
· Regular exercise
· Talking it out with a friend
· Comfort food/drink
· Watching television/movies
· Listening to relaxing music (avoid the heavy metal thrashing for now)
· Taking a walk
· Hot showers
· Comfortable clothing
· Video games
· Deep breathing
· Take a timeout-several of the above strategies involve distracting yourself from the anger trigger by focusing on something entertaining. A timeout, however, involves removing yourself from the physical location of the trigger while keeping in mind your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This is the time to ask yourself some of the questions in this blog and discover if there is a fear (or other feeling) driving your anger. This will allow you to have more insight about your anger process in general and maybe help you deal with the specific situation causing the anger currently.
Some of these strategies are easy. Others are more challenging, but can be practiced. Also, there is no rule against combining strategies. Want to use deep breathing while meditating? Go for it. Need some comfort food while journaling your feelings? Nothing wrong with that. Start with the strategies that are most familiar to you. Maybe you are already using some of these strategies for self-care in other (non-angry) situations. Or, you may recognize some methods of managing anger that you have used in the past, but have stopped for some reason. If they helped you before, why not try them again? As you expand and try new strategies, pay attention to which ones are most helpful and keep them. Other strategies might not help. Feel free to discard them and move on. What matters is finding the right strategies that work for you. One direction to look for new calming strategies is in other people.
5. Role models
Who do you know that never appears to get ruffled? Do you have a role model for anger management that you can consider as an influence? What does this person tend to do when they are in a situation that would drive others to rage? How do they calm themselves down or keep themselves calm? Thinking about a specific person and how they would handle a particular situation and then doing what they would do can be a great strategy for making changes whether it is for anger management or something else.
As effective as a positive role model may be, negative role models can also help. Many people learn bad habits from their family (e.g., a parent or older sibling) and anger is no exception. If you know of someone who handled their frustrations poorly, you might consider attempting to be different from them. Do not allow yourself to fall into the same behavior patterns without thought. Consciously work towards the goal of being different in ways that you value.
I hope you have found this information helpful. If you would like additional assistance dealing with your anger, give me a call at 405-614-2846 for a consultation.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2005). Anger management for substance abuse and mental health clients. Rockville, MD: Author.