Anger is a natural and appropriate response to the perception that something is wrong, unfair or unjust, causing us to feel wronged, offended or endangered.
When angry we may withdraw, lose our temper or become aggressive. When anger is prolonged or particularly intense it can drain our energy, cause hours of pointless rumination, impair our concentration and interfere with our ability to have good relationships and be happy.
Anger can be adaptive and beneficial in certain circumstances. The high level of energy created by the fight-or-flight response, can give us the courage to confront a situation or the motivation to solve a problem. Anger can also make us feel powerful, and thus act more assertively to ensure our rights. Short periods of anger that are proportionate to the situation, and do not result in aggressive/unreasonable behaviour, are usually not problematic.
When Anger Becomes a Problem
Anger becomes a problem however when it is frequent, intense or prolonged. In this case it has the capacity to negatively impact our thoughts, behaviours and physiology.
Thoughts: Anger interferes with our ability to think clearly and rationally, by diverting our attention away from things that matter. Instead our minds focus on perceived violations, injustices and misdemeanours. Constantly ruminating on these issues sustains and intensifies anger, keeping people distracted and agitated for extended periods of time.
Behaviours: Anger triggers people to behave aggressively – arguing, attacking, abusing, hitting, blaming or withdrawing. Unless we are in a situation where there is an actual physical threat, these behaviours usually make matters worse, leading to poor decision making and alienating people.
Physiology: Anger creates physical arousal through the fight-or-flight response. If our experience of anger is only brief, our physiological state returns to normal after a short period of time. However, a persistent state of anger keeps the body in a chronic state of tension and arousal, putting stress on the body’s systems, with potential poor outcomes for long term health, such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
The following strategies can help with anger management.
For Sudden Angry Outbursts:
- Notice the physical symptoms that let you know you are at risk of an angry outburst eg tension, heat, pounding heart, trembling etc, and label them as you feel them such as, “there are my warning signs”.
- Take in a few slow deep breaths.
- Physically remove yourself from the situation.
- Do some exercise.
For Sustained Anger:
- Problem solve – Ask yourself, “What is the best action I can take to resolve this problem?”.
- Letting it go – If there is nothing you can do to change a situation, acceptance may be the best option. Fighting an un-winnable battle may not be worth the time, effort, energy, stress or financial cost involved.
- Giving yourself “stewing time” – Giving yourself permission to be a bit angry and stew about a situation for a period of time when initially angry can prevent impulsive and regrettable actions. For example you can say to yourself, “This has made me really angry, I am going to stew about this for 2 days before I do anything about it”. During this period of time it may be helpful to exercise, talk about it or write a letter.
- Talk about it – Sometimes all we need to diffuse our anger is to be heard and validated by a caring individual.
If you find you have difficulty getting your anger under control, it may be because of the way you think about, and what you believe about anger.
How our Thinking Affects our Anger
When we are angry we can usual identify the person or thing that has made us angry, however, the truth is people, objects or situations merely provide the stimulus for an emotional reaction.
Whether or not we get angry, how angry we get and how long we stay angry for, depends on our thoughts and beliefs. Some beliefs about anger that can cause people to have problems with anger include:
- Staying angry gives me power – letting go means surrendering my power;
- My anger punishes the other person;
- Releasing my anger means that “they” win and I lose;
- My anger keeps the other person at a distance so that they cannot harm me.
Recognising the self-defeating effects of staying angry can increase our motivation to let it go. There are a number of cognitive and behavioural strategies that can be used to challenge beliefs about anger and deal with provoking situations more effectively. A psychotherapist can coach you in these skills.
If you are interested in finding out more about this, and how a therapist may help, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Greta Neilsen is a Loganholme psychologist, specialising in the treatment of depression and anxiety in adults of all ages, and endeavours to provide her clients with a safe space to understand the challenges they face, as they develop ways to overcome their difficulties.
Please note: Greta Neilsen is no longer practising at M1 Psychology.
- Endelman, S. (2013). Change Your Thinking, 3rd Edition. Sydney: Harper Collins.