Anger is a commonly experienced emotion which can range in intensity from mild annoyance to rage (even rage ‘black-out’). Humans have evolved through the centuries and anger remains. It must be necessary. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s understandable why it’s stuck around. Anger is a very powerful emotion, and it belongs. Anger motivates us to act. It gives us courage. It communicates to us that there has been a violation, either towards our-self, someone we know and like, or something we value. Something has violated an attitude or belief that’s linked to our values and morals. Anger is also triggered “when we feel an obstacle to meeting our needs” (Brach, 2020). It’s very hard not to get hijacked to our emotional reactivity. Guilt is considered a form of anger directed towards ourselves, although we can also feel anger toward the self.
Anger is triggered when a person believes they have been wronged by someone, that something unfair or unjust has happened, or that their well-being and social status are either not being respected or are under threat. Can you think of other reasons why you might get angry? It’s important to mention here that anger does not get transferred from one person to another, like it’s contagious. No person can really make us angry because it depends on us. Anger is influenced by our thoughts and interpretations of events. Our anger response is also influenced by our coping skills, and whether we have effective internal and external resources or support systems (APS, 2020). Resources are what mitigate an anger response. Resources and support systems can lesson the intensity, duration, and frequency of an anger response.
In modern society, we are conditioned to believe anger is harmful, immature, and even embarrassing. This is much more harmful than the emotion. Although the intention to suppress anger was – and is – to create a less hostile world, it has not been effective because anger comes out sideways if not processed and/or expressed effectively. Anger is a healthy emotional response when expressed assertively and respectfully. This is very hard to do. It’s hard to teach our children, but it must be taught from a very young age for it to be conditioned so that we learn to express anger from a place of empathy, integrity and calm compassion.
Let’s come back to reality though! Society and human consciousness has not evolved to manage, process and express anger effectively [across cultures]. Frequent, intense, and long-lasting episodes of anger can be very problematic. Angry outbursts generates fear in others (and the self). It often leads to regret and/or problems at work, in relationships, and to our health. Anger can prompt someone to use violence and even lead to loss of life. From a health perspective, anger and stress release cortisol and adrenaline (hormones) which can increase blood pressure and is linked to heart attack, insomnia, stroke, digestive issues, depression, bodily aches, and anxiety (Better Health, 2020).
It’s always helpful to get a vocabulary of words (labels) that we can use to name what we feel – “name it to tame it”. Common words associated with anger are:
- livid, and so on.
The experience of anger involves thoughts, emotions, physical responses and behaviours.
Thoughts can be irrational or exaggerated. When angry, people are more likely to blame others, and not see themselves as playing a role in the situation. Thoughts might also focus on putting the other person down, or wanting to get revenge.
Anger also involves an emotional response, related to the person’s thoughts and beliefs about a situation. It can range from mild annoyance or irritation to more extreme feelings of rage or fury.
The sympathetic nervous system is activated during anger, raising the heart rate, increasing muscle tension, and sometimes creating the sensation of feeling hot. Chemicals in the brain which help control mood, sleep, appetite, learning, and memory, are also thought to be involved in our expressions and experience of anger and, as a result, these aspects of our behaviour can be negatively affected.
What can we do about problematic anger?
Problem anger can be addressed by psychological therapy which aims to help individuals change their way of thinking or behaving in response to situations which trigger their anger. Increasing a person’s motivation to change is also an important part of treatment. The most common therapies to treat problem anger are cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation skills training, and life skills training. Family or relationship-based therapy can also improve communication and rebuild relationships affected by problem anger. Support groups may also be available in your community.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps the person to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours which can contribute to their anger, and aims to build skills to manage problem anger in an ongoing way. Cognitive reappraisal, where the person changes his or her interpretation of an event (e.g. seeing a driver who cuts them off as possibly rushing to an important appointment rather than purposefully holding them up) is particularly helpful in reducing or preventing angry responses.
Problem-solving, which helps the person identify problem situations which might trigger an angry response, and finding effective solutions can lead to lower levels of problem anger.19
Relaxation skills training helps to decrease tension in the body, which can be an important first step in addressing anger problems.
Skills training helps the person to learn and practice calmer ways of handling situations which typically trigger an angry response by using real or role-played situations. This can include communication skills training, such as compromise and negotiation, to improve conflict resolution and how to respectfully and calmly express their anger.
Family or relationship based interventions can help families, couples or others in a relationship increase their understanding of a person’s anger and its negative consequences. Family based interventions can help improve communication, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, break cycles of anger and aggression, and increase the sharing of positive emotions, rather than anger.
Mindfulness and meditation
Anger can also be addictive. It can make us feel powerful, safe, in control, and superior. When anger becomes problematic, there’s usually a very scared, vulnerable soul hiding inside the protective, untouchable exterior. I once worked with a very anxious teenager who would pick fights with people in the street because he was terrified they might pick a fight with him first, and he would be over-powered, caught off guard, and hurt. It was his mal-adaptation to years of childhood neglect and abuse. It was what was modeled to him by his caregivers. His ego was protecting him the only way it was taught how. It’s very primitive and animal-like. In many ways, he was dangerous – he was a threat. He became what he experienced during his upbringing. Life reflected back to him his belief system. Lots of love and compassion is required to support healthy adaption of new behaviours and coping mechanisms.
Below are a few videos on anger that I think are valuable and worth listening too 🙂