Managing with Anger
One of the more common problems related to mental health is difficulty managing with anger.
Anger problems typically involve repeated verbal or physical aggression, or destructive anger outbursts that are out of proportion to the level of provocation. Such anger problems would be displayed by approximately 5% of people at some point in their lives. Anger problems are typically worse if people have alcohol or drug addictions, which often have a disinhibiting effect. Anger problems can also be worsened by untreated trauma reactions if anger reactions are triggered by reminders of previous threat or danger. In such situations, it’s best to directly address these other problems as well.
When people seek therapy for anger as opposed to other emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression, it’s often as a result of some external influence.
This might include a partner threatening to leave. Ultimately, however, it’s important that you seek help for your own benefit. That’s the only way you’re likely to remain motivated and be persistent in seeking to achieve lasting changes in your behaviour. You’ll likely gain more by recognizing the negative impact of anger on your own well-being as well as your relationships. It helps to recognize any tendency to an externalized view of blame, or tending to focus on external situations or other people’s behaviour as a cause of annoyance. It helps to notice how others’ behaviours can be influenced by your own reactions.
Anger can often be a secondary emotion, superimposed on sadness and hurt.
Anger sometimes has a payoff in disguising such underlying emotions. Many people, and men in particular, can find it hard to recognise and acknowledge underlying sadness or pain, preferring instead to express their negative emotions through anger. Expressing anger can give us a feeling of agency, boosting our energy or leading us to feel that we are able to impact on our situation. However, expressing anger in an impulsive or aggressive way will often backfire, including its negative impact on those around us. If it’s covering up feelings of hurt, sadness or helplessness, expressing anger might do little to improve the situation we are feeling hurt about, and will often only make things worse.
When people have a long history of anger problems there are two main personal motivations that can help pursue change.
The first is realising that anger problems commonly lead to you losing in the long run – losing relationships, losing jobs or losing a sense of well-being. That might be more obvious if you think about how previous relationships, jobs or friendships have ended. Secondly, when people with anger problems are honest about it, they’ll usually admit that they feel afraid of their impulsive and excessive anger reactions. It’s not a pleasant experience to feel out of control. Most people feel a sense of shame or remorse after they have acted aggressively.
What is anger?
Anger is an emotional reaction that involves physical sensations, thoughts, emotions and behavioural reactions.
Like all emotions, anger is geared to help our survival and well-being. It can energize and motivate us to deal with a perceived threat. It can sometimes be triggered by a threat or danger as part of our flight-flight-freeze responses, in-built survival reactions that we share with other animals. More generally, our anger can alert us that something might be happening in our environment that challenges our interests. It’s a signal that we feel a line has been crossed. It helps us recognise that we feel a particular situation is unfair.
Components of anger reactions
Anger reactions usually involve an increased level of tension, often reflected in tightness in our stomach or shoulders or jaw or hands.
Our heart rate may increase. We might feel hot or notice a change in our breathing. It helps to become aware of our typical physical sensations when we’re angry. These sensations can give us an early warning that we’re at risk of overreacting to any frustration.
Our thoughts when we’re angry typically include the word, “should”. We might think that someone shouldn’t have done something that they did, or they should have done something that they didn’t do.
Anger reactions may include forceful behaviour or aggression, such as yelling, teasing, throwing things or hitting.
Anger can also lead to withdrawal. Frequent overcontrolled anger that is internalised and not expressed, perhaps experienced as a lingering resentment, can lead to a range of physical health complications. When people frequently express anger outwardly, they often also have more frequent internal angry thoughts as well.
It’s especially helpful to further develop your ways of channelling your anger appropriately into actively asserting yourself in a situation where you have felt wronged, whilst also respecting the other person and their interests. It’s best to first honestly reflect on whether our anger seems justified or not. It might be out of proportion to the situation. It is our perception of unfairness rather unfairness itself that leads us to be angry. Our negative thoughts might be exaggerated.
When does anger become a problem?
As described earlier, anger can have a positive function when it motivates and energises us to improve a situation by addressing any unfairness or conflict.
This can be done in collaboration with others, also considering their interests. However, anger becomes a problem if it is too frequent, too intense or lasts too long. Anger is also a problem if it leads to aggression or overly forceful behaviour. In such situations, it is likely to impact negatively on our relationships, which in turn will harm our own well-being.
Anger management strategies
Anger management therapy helps people regulate their anger reactions so that they are not so frequent or intense and don’t last as long.
It helps curb aggression. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) highlights how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours all interact with each other. To change our feelings and behaviours, it can greatly help to change our attitudes and habitual thinking patterns that give rise to angry thoughts.
CBT includes strategies to calm oneself when highly aroused or tense, including a shift to more helpful thinking patterns. It encourages alternative behaviours when angry, such as leaving a situation and coming back later, problem-solving approaches and communicating your thoughts, feelings and wishes more effectively. More specifically, CBT includes strategies to assertively deal with conflict, learning to express what you think, feel and want whilst respecting the other person’s views and preferences. You don’t have to give up the right
to express yourself or pursue your interests – it’s mainly about learning to do so in a way that works better in your relationships.
Recognising your level of anger
It helps to recognise your level of anger and to express this on a 0 to 10 scale, where 10 is the most angry you have ever felt and zero is no anger at all.
This acts like a temperature gauge. Recognizing your level of anger helps to notice any build-up sooner rather than later. You can then more easily choose how you’ll respond rather than just reacting. Sometimes it is effective to simply try to reduce one’s anger level from an 8 to a 6, or a 7 to a 4. This might be enough to help curb aggressive behaviour and feel sufficient control to make more constructive choices in a conflict situation. You don’t have to get your anger to a zero. The more success you have in curbing the intensity of your anger, the easier it becomes to do.
Lowering tension and arousal.
When you are angry you generally have a higher level of arousal.
Typically, your muscles around your eyes, mouth, shoulders, stomach and/or hands will be more tense. In general, the angrier we feel, the more tense we are. That means that anything that we can do to reduce our muscle tension will tend to reduce our level of anger. A good strategy for reducing tension is to slow our breathing. We might also relax our shoulders and hands, perhaps letting our arms go floppy like a rag doll. You might first tense your hands into fists for ten seconds before letting go the tension to relax your hands further.
It especially helps to regularly practice a stress-reducing technique, such as relaxation techniques, meditation, mindfulness or yoga.
Such practices help to develop a healthy detachment from your reactions, being able to observe them without simply having to react to them. Other everyday ways of lowering tension levels might include physical exercise, having a cup of tea, catching up with a friend or watching a favourite TV program.
It helps to take a distance from our thoughts and reactions when angry. Allowing ourselves to cool down will help us reflect more objectively on our thoughts and feelings, considering whether they seem in balance to the situation and what they might tell us. It might even help us to consider other thoughts or viewpoints, or choose to deliberately take a different perspective.
There are two important brain regions which influence how we respond to anger.
Our reactions depend strongly on which is activated more. One region is our limbic system, responsible for the fight-flight survival response. There is an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system called the amygdala, which can be quickly triggered when we perceived threat or danger. When our amygdala is triggered by a sense of danger our frontal lobes tend to switch off, or be much less active. Our frontal lobes help plan and regulate our behaviour. When we deliberately switch on or activate our frontal lobes by acting with intent, this reduces activity in the amygdala. We then feel more self-control, making it easier to act more effectively. Slow breathing and calming self-talk can also settle our limbic system and help our frontal lobes stay switched on.
Dealing with angry thoughts
Angry thoughts often relate to the word “should”.
Rather than merely thinking we would like or prefer our partner to act in a certain way, we might think that they should act a certain way. This increases our frustration if they don’t. We might also have rigid expectations of ourselves, such as being unforgiving about a minor mistake.
Another thinking problem is having a win-lose approach to conflict.
People might think in any conflict situation that there tends to be a winner and a loser, and they certainly don’t want to end up as the loser! This can lead to overly forceful reactions in conflict situations and interferes with finding collaborative or win-win solutions.
An especially practical way of addressing unhelpful thinking patterns is to develop some calming or coping self-statements to help counter habitual anger-related thoughts.
Angry thoughts might include, “How dare they do that to me”, “They shouldn’t have done that”, I’m not going to let them get away with that, or “They’re always treating me with no respect!” Such thoughts have more of an ego focus than a task focus, meaning that they focus on a perceived slight or offence rather than focusing on our own intentions or desired outcome in any particular situation.
When our anger reactions are often excessive, it helps to develop some coping self-statements that we can draw on like a mantra.
Such self- statements might include, “Take it easy”, “it’s not worth it”, or “Breathe”. When we have repeatedly practised such statements over several months, they might start to spontaneously pop in our mind when our anger is rising, and help us stop and think. They can act like a pause button. This gives us a little more time to figure out how we’d prefer to approach the situation. We’ll often choose a more effective response.
It makes a big difference where we focus our thoughts.
If we pay extra attention to our disappointments and frustrations, we’re only likely to feel worse. We’ll often do better saving our energy and redirecting our attention to focus on things that are more enjoyable, satisfying or productive.
Dealing with angry behaviours
Anger commonly follows frustration. Sometimes when frustrated it’s best at first to “press the pause button” and just do nothing.
After we have allowed the frustration to be there for a while a potential solution might present itself, or the situation might at least not seem so bad. We might even come to accept it if it’s only a mild problem, or it’s a situation we can’t do much about. Frustrating or difficult situations that seem impossible at first might not seem so bad in an hour, or in a day or in a month’s time. We’ll often find a way of solving a problem in time, including seeking help from others.
It will typically only add to tension, conflict and distress if we yell, criticise or lash out in any way.
It’s best to de-escalate tensions early if we notice them building. If you’re having a difficult conversation with a partner that is leading to an argument or not getting anywhere it is usually worth discontinuing the conversation fairly quickly, and perhaps coming back to it at a more settled time. Sometimes it’s worth leaving a heated situation and going to another room to help things settle more quickly and coming back to a discussion later on.
In the long run, it usually helps to develop assertiveness skills.
These skills may include expressing yourself by constructively talking through any ongoing concerns and listening to others’ views rather than refusing to talk about any conflict indefinitely. It helps to learn to express yourself in a calm way, resisting using judgmental or blaming statements such as “You always …”, or “You never …” By contrast, it helps to describe your own feelings and thoughts, using “I-statements” such as “I think…”, “I feel…” , or “I would like it if…” Such comments sound more like a statement of fact about how you see things rather than blaming others.
What does anger management therapy involve?
The first few sessions would often be held a week apart to establish a therapy direction and gain momentum, typically then reducing to two every 2 or three weeks before follow-ups every month or so over a period of 8 to 12 months.
This varies according to client preferences and therapist recommendations.
The initial assessment might best check whether you are experiencing other difficulties, such as depression or trauma reactions, that may impact on our anger reactions. Such additional problems might be best to address first. More specific assessment will identify the kinds of situations in which you get angry, the people with whom you get most often angry and the ways you tend to express anger.
Therapy techniques will focus on the anger management strategies described earlier.
Sessions often involve discussing recent challenging situations and considering how you’d prefer to act in those situations. It can help to write down any thoughts or understanding that you gained from the therapy session in a notebook to review later.
Our typical anger reactions are largely learned behaviours, and can, therefore, be unlearned.
When working on changing anger reactions, as with shifting any habit, 90% of relapses to old habits occur within four months after a change. After having consistently shifted your behaviour for four months, it’s much more likely to be a lasting shift.
In summary, key helpful strategies to manage anger may include to:
- Recognize how you have been losing out as a result of anger
- Notice when you are thinking someone or something “should” be different.
- Gauge your level of anger by your physical sensations and feelings
- Slow your breathing when you notice you are tense or angry
- Practice using a coping self-statement so that it becomes automatic, such as “It’s not worth it”, or “Breathe”.
- Develop a regular stress reduction practice such as relaxation techniques
- Take a pause when feeling frustrated or angry rather than acting immediately
- Reflect on recent incidents and think if what you’d like to do the same or differently
- Express your thoughts, feelings and wishes using “I-statements”
- Give yourself a pat on the back when you have successfully curbed your anger
- Keep changes going for at least six months before relaxing your efforts. Once you have curbed unwanted outbursts for four months, you are well on your way.
Episode 11 ‘Interpreting Anger’ of the Practice’s Podcast also explores these themes.
Click play below to listen to the episode!