Understanding and Managing Anger

28 - May - 2022

The experience of having anger is naturally unpleasant, and yet it is alerting us that something is not right for us and needs our attention. When we can understand the message contained in our anger, we can make changes so that the angry feelings will either lessen or disappear.

A pattern of distress and often an escalation of anger results leaving the sufferer and often those around them in worsening distress. At its’ root anger is about trying to stay safe, the feelings will be completely understandable given the uniqueness of the individual even when the resulting behaviour appears completely incomprehensible.

“Anger management” is a very popular therapy search term and it is something clients often bring to therapy. Treatment can start when someone has started to wonder whether they have a problem with anger. This sounds obvious but, in my experience, this is not always so simple. Whilst people think they know what anger looks like - probably more than many other emotions - the reality is that anger can be hidden in a number of ways, examples being by silence and withdrawal or passive aggressive behaviour. Meanwhile some people can appear to be angry when they are more excited or desperate to be understood.

Treatment can helpfully be seen as having a two-pronged focus - the first is to work on identifying anger and putting in place strategies for de-escalating the anger, the second is to look at the situations which lead to anger; so, it's about treatment and prevention.

 So, let's look first at identifying anger. Anger can make itself known through a number of physical, emotional, and behavioural signs. Physically you might have an increased heart rate, start to sweat, have stomach pain or a headache, clench your jaw, shake, or feel dizzy whilst emotionally it is common to feel a number of emotions for example like running away, wanting to strike out, anxious, guilty. Behaviourally, things that are common are things like pacing, being sarcastic, speaking loudly, doing things that you know are not healthy, but you find change how you feel for example drinking, smoking, or taking drugs.

Another keyway to know if you struggle with anger is to think about your interactions with other people. Does anyone ever make any comments about your behaviour? Do you come away from situations with others where the outcome has left a conflict outstanding? Ask your friends and family whether they experience you as being angry?

If you have concluded that you do have a problem with anger, then it's time to put in place some strategies to deal with it. Neuroscience is showing that a part of the brain called the amygdala is responsible for triggering our emotions and this trigger happens anything up to six seconds before the rational / thinking part of the brain steps in. This means you can be angry before you know why - so if you are now better able to identify feeling angry you can now manage it. One very useful tool is to count to 10 - it sounds like just one of those things people often say but given the neuroscience, what you are in fact doing is allowing the thinking part of your brain to catch up! Another very useful tool, and something to do at the same time is to focus on breathing slowly. Combine the two and count each breath - use 1001, 1002, 1003 etc.

With these tools in place, it will now be possible to start to look at understanding the situations and feelings that are generating your anger. Take time to reflect on the times when you became angry. Exactly when did it happen, where were you, who were you with, how did you act, why did you react and what were the thoughts and feelings in the moments before you became angry? You will also find it useful to start keeping a diary so that you can start to identify patterns.

What you may find is that you get angry in certain circumstances - in other words you have ended up with an automatic response and this needs to be challenged as it is no longer useful. Let’s take a very simple example just for illustration, imagine you realise you always get angry when you hold open a door for someone and they do not say thank you and you think “that person has no respect, why did I bother?”. Ask yourself what are the other reasons why they might not have said thank you? If nothing comes easily to mind think about a time when you didn’t say thank you - what was happening for you? Once you have found one possible alternative others are likely to follow. Secondly, ask yourself what makes you hold open doors for others and the thoughts and feeling that surface when you challenge yourself to stop doing it? In my experience people often realise that they are reacting to an assumption and an interpretation that may well be unfounded and secondly, they are more upset with themselves for having expectations than what happened.

In finishing though it is important to be kind to yourself, if you struggle with anger and the thought of attempting what I’ve written here brings up difficult feelings, maybe even anger then consider talking to someone. And of course, if your anger is already at levels where you are putting your safety or the safety of others, (which of course is one and the same thing), then don’t hesitate to seek help, anger can be managed!