Perhaps no emotion is more dysregulating and potentially damaging than anger, yet many of us receive very little education about how to understand and manage it effectively! Sure, we’ve all been told to take a breath, count to 10 and walk away, but these strategies don’t always work without a deeper personal understanding of our anger patterns.
Like other emotions, anger is a normal, healthy human feeling that is neither good nor bad and in fact, has adaptive properties. Anger helps us handle emergency situations by providing a quick burst of energy and strength, so we can react to threats of danger. Anger pushes us to reach goals by creating motivation through frustration. In relationships, anger encourages us to address outstanding issues, which facilitates intimacy and growth. When not managed properly, anger can cause serious damage. Unresolved, recurrent anger can lead to health problems (hypertension, cardiovascular disease), interpersonal issues (damaged/terminated relationships, problems at work, isolation), decreased life satisfaction, and physical and emotional harm to self and others.
Why is anger so overpowering and compelling? Our brains are actually wired to get us to act before we can properly consider the consequences of our actions! The emotion center of the brain, the amygdale, responsible for alarming us to possible threats gets us reacting before the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thinking, is able to check if our reaction is reasonable. The hormonal arousal from anger can last many hours and even days, leaving us vulnerable to ongoing irritation and new angry episodes. In addition, anger brings secondary gain. It helps release pent up stress, acts as a shield by covering up painful emotions (i.e. fear, loss, guilt, shame), gets attention, pushes people to act, and feels righteous. Though it’s tough to disengage it, indulging in anger leads to more anger, leaves others defensive and distant, and sets up possible harm – emotional, physical or both, creating a cycle of defensiveness and resentment that’s hard to break.
Managing anger properly is not an instinct, but a skill that has to be learned. The good news is that bad anger habits can be un-learned, with proper self-understanding, monitoring and behavioral change. If you’d like to change how you manage your anger, it’s important to increase your personal anger awareness. You will need to become your own investigator. First, see if you can learn your personal “early warning” signs. These could include body sensations: heart rate increase, tightness in your jaw, shallow breathing, a wrinkle in your brow, closing fists, headache or stomach ache, forming early on in the process. You can also look for early stage angry feelings, like annoyance or irritation. Interrupting anger in its early stages is exponentially easier than when your frustration has grown into ballistic rage.
Situations that set us off tend to repeat, and it’s helpful to keep track of them in an effort to identify your recurring personal anger triggers. Do you get angry when your needs aren’t being met? Basic needs could be: tired, hungry, hot/cold, or sick. For example, you might notice that you are getting into arguments when you skip a meal or in the evening, before bed, when you are tired. Emotional needs might include: feeling rushed or overwhelmed, lack of attention or being heard, experiencing loss, loneliness, not feeling loved. An example would be losing control of anger when you are in a rush to get to work or right before a separation through travel or when your partner seems to need alone time. Perhaps you are triggered when your expectations are unmet (i.e. people running late, driving slowly, not responding to your outreach) or when you feel “out of control” (i.e. overwhelmed with responsibilities, not in charge of a task, ignored/superseded in terms of your needs). May be your triggers include being treated unjustly or threatened in some way? Make a mental or written note about your specific recurring patterns.
Take a moment to reflect on where some of your anger patterns may come from. Since anger management is learned, consider some of your role models, for better or for worse. How did the significant people in your life manage anger? Are there any anger habits that you may have picked up? Do any of your fights resemble those that you’ve witnessed? Perhaps your parents argued about money or leaving the house late. Do these same themes set you off? Next time you get angry in a way that feels familiar, try to reflect on any triggers or grudges from the long-ago past that may have followed you into the present.
Finally take a look at your cognition. If the thoughts swirling in your mind are focused on: feeling threatened, not getting your way, predicting the negative, seeking revenge or blaming, the more you engage them, the more fuel you will provide your anger to grow. Interpretation plays an important role as well. When we are angry, we typically make an assessment involving three components: 1) that we are being harmed or victimized, 2) that this situation or person is causing us harm deliberately, and 3) that the provoking situation or person is wrong to harm us and should behave differently. The problem with these trigger thoughts is that they are often inaccurate. Since sociopaths make up a miniscule percentage of the population, take solace in the fact that most people act the way they act for a variety of complicated personal reasons, some of which are not under their conscious control. Most people are truly doing their best based on their needs, fears, prior history, what they know and what they don’t know. If they are stuck, do you have to be, too?
McKay, M., & Rogers, P. D. (2000). The anger control workbook. Oakland, CA, US: New Harbinger Publications.