Anger fuels aggression, but it doesn’t always have to cause a flare-up. When properly managed, it can actually serve a productive purpose. Here are some practical tips to help you better manage your anger.
There’s a reason why we get angry. As an adaptive response to threats, it motivates us to defend ourselves, find solutions to problems, and to identify when we’ve been wronged or taken advantage of. So anger is a perfectly normal human emotion. But sometimes it gets the better of us, leading to belligerent, combative, and even self-destructive behavior.
Think of the character Anger in the 2014 Pixar film Inside Out. Voiced by Lewis Black, Anger is well-meaning, and he helps Riley’s emotional collective by staying on top of things. But the only way he knows how to get anyone’s attention is by getting angry. He’s comfortable with his anger, and it makes him happy. But when things don’t go his way, or if pushed too far, the top of his head bursts into flames. When this happens, Anger is not just angry—he’s in a rage, and the consequences are often damaging and even frightening.
While anger often leads to aggression, they’re actually two very different things. Unlike anger, which is an emotional response, aggression describes an action, typically an intentional behavior designed to harm another person, whether it be a physical attack or a calculated scheme. Psychologists say that 90% of aggressive incidents are preceded by anger.
Clearly, anger is the first step towards aggression, but there are many practical and constructive things we can do to defuse, re-route, and express our anger when it arises.
A State of Mind
Anger is defined by the American Psychological Association as antagonism toward someone or something we feel has deliberately done us wrong. Psychologist Howard Kassinove, author of Anger Management for Everyone, defines it as “a negative feeling that is typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal and maladaptive behaviors.” He says it usually develops “in response to the unwanted actions of another person who is perceived to be disrespectful, demeaning, threatening or neglectful.”
Anger can be triggered either internally, such as recalling that time we were bullied in high school, or externally, like when the service at a restaurant was awful. As registered psychotherapist Barbara Brown explained to Gizmodo, we can recognize the signs of anger in our body. We feel it as heat in the face, we clench our teeth or fists, and our heart races. It’s often accompanied by angry thoughts, where we internally attack, blame, or criticize someone.
Know the signs: Ren never did get a grip on his anger issues. (Ren & Stimpy)
Other common gestures of anger include cursing, yelling, arguing, insulting, sarcasm, pounding fists on a table, knocking things over, and giving the middle finger. For some, anger can escalate into physical expression, including pushing, shoving, hitting.
However, both the APA and Kassinove definitions of anger describe it as an emotional state, and not by its ultimate manifestation. Anger starts to become a problem when it becomes excessive and disproportionate, and when it leads to rage and aggressive behaviors.
According to Katharine King, a Toronto-based Registered Psychotherapist who works with both individuals and couples, it’s useful to distinguish between anger and rage. “Emotionally healthy people experience anger,” King told Gizmodo. “I often tell clients that anger is a signpost; anger has a story to tell. When we are not treated with respect, or when our boundaries are violated, we understandably feel angry.”
Barbara Brown, who’s also based in Toronto, says that anger is a very human and necessary emotion, but like any emotion, it’s something that can get triggered at levels incongruent with the situation at hand. “For some folks it’s like the ‘anger switch’ is on all the time, and that is harmful to that person’s health and their relationships,” says Brown. “When anger is out of proportion, or the primary emotion we show the world, it’s likely we are triggered from past emotional wounds and/or masking other more vulnerable feelings like hurt or sadness or fear, the expression of which is necessary for building emotional intimacy.”
Why We Get Angry
Needless to say, some of us are more prone to anger than others. From a psychological perspective, people who rush to anger tend to have a low tolerance for frustration, inconvenience, and annoyance. These folks can’t take things in stride, are over-sensitive, and become infuriated when a situation seems unfair.
John McEnroe’s anger issues led to some classic moments in tennis.
King says that, in addition to the triggers that make anyone angry—such as lack of respect, support, acknowledgement, and control—some people in our society are more subject to discrimination, exclusion, and judgement. “This can be blatant, or it can be in the form of ‘micro-aggressions’ which are daily and commonplace instances of denigration,” she explains. “People who get angry more than others may have more to be angry about.”
People who suffer from depression “can also have a more negative lens, and therefore be more susceptible to becoming angry,” says King, “But for the more fragmented experience of rage, then some personality disorders, trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can make people who suffer from them more prone to rage.”
King says there are effective ways to communicate anger—ways that will be heard by others and will not discredit the angry person or put them at risk. “This is assertiveness, and not aggression,” she explains. “Rage is aggressive. It is a more ungrounded, fragmented emotion, it can result in aggression towards others or ourselves, and it may be connected with past traumas. Rage can be a way of ‘shoring up’ a very insecure and fragmented self, because rage is a powerful feeling in the moment it is happening. But unfortunately rage can further contribute to feelings of deep shame and isolation afterwards.”
No doubt, excessive anger can cause problems. It can result in social alienation, and even health problems, such as elevated heart rates and increased blood pressure. When we’re angry, our psychology changes, the product of spiking neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. Anger impairs our ability to think. When we’re raging about something or someone, we’re not always thinking clearly and rationally. This can cause serious problems at home and at work, at social outings, while we’re behind the wheel, or when we’re trying to cope with difficult children.
“I’m most concerned about people who never find healthy and constructive ways of emotionally processing— like experiencing, acknowledging, validating, and sharing— their anger,” says King. “Anger is also dangerous if someone takes up harmful behaviours like smoking, or abusing alcohol or substances, instead of coping effectively with their anger.”
Brown echoes this concern. “Unfortunately, many individuals use substances or other excessive use habits to relieve their anger, creating additional layers of difficulties both physically and emotionally,” she told Gizmodo.
The inability to cope with anger in constructive or healthy ways is a problem unto itself. When anger is unexpressed, it can lead to problems like passive-aggressive behavior, unjustified cynicism and pessimism, hostility, and overly critical personalities. Generally, they’re not the most pleasant people to be around. As the APA points out, “we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far our anger can take us.”
So it’s important to be cognizant of anger when it emerges, and most importantly, be aware of how we process and deal with that anger. This requires some conscious self-examination. Though the triggers for anger can be elicited either by internal or external factors, we’re largely in control of what we do with these feelings when they arise. We may not have control over a situation that angers us, but there are many things we can do to control the way anger manifests. Here are some practical strategies.
Recognize Your Personal Anger Cues
We all have our own distinct “anger cues.” Brown describes them as the thoughts we think, the ways we act, and the way we feel when we’re angry. By recognizing these cues, we can catch our anger quickly and re-adjust.
Definitely angry (Incredible Hulk)
“Taking a moment to acknowledge the anger before acting can help a lot,” says Brown. “Slowing your body down or walking away for a while before acting can help, as long as you don’t take that time simply to ‘stew’ over the things you’re angry about.”
Brown says it’s also a good idea to redirect our thoughts. We can always ask a neutral person to help us think through the situation to evaluate if our anger is justified, and if it is, get advice on how to navigate the problem in the most effective and appropriate manner.
It’s important for us to be able to express anger, but it has to be done in a way that’s not overly aggressive. We should make our needs clear, and tell others how those needs can be met. This should be done in way that’s calm, and not hurtful or harming to others. We can still be assertive without coming across as being pushy, belligerent or demanding.
Effective communication? Peter Beale’s “Mad as Hell Speech” from The Network
For example, we have every right to get frustrated at a team member who consistently fails to hit their targets. The most effective course of action does not involve insults or snide remarks, but rather a call-to-action that addresses the situation, such as asking them if they need more time or resources.
King says that whenever we feel the need to defend ourselves or retaliate, we’re probably angry. “Unfortunately these impulses are not very helpful in dealing effectively with anger. It is more productive to address the issue at hand as soon as possible, in a calm and respectful way, and to give the offending party an opportunity to do repair,” she says. “This is non-violent communication.”
It’s helpful, says King, to avoid accusatory, blaming, and shaming language.
“Statements like, ‘When you_________, I feel _________’ may sound textbook, but are actually remarkably effective,” she says. “Owning our own feelings of anger makes it possible to talk constructively about the feelings. For couples, practicing nonviolent communication, and trying to eliminate words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ when talking through a conflict, are very helpful. I often tell couples I work with that everyone has conflict; it is a matter of ‘doing’ conflict in a healthy way.”
Reframe the Situation
Our perception of a situation has a profound impact on how we think, so it’s vital that we frame an experience proportionately and accurately. To paraphrase the old adage, there’s no use getting angry over spilt milk. Indeed, we should recognize situations that are beyond our control, and govern our intra- and inter-personal expectations accordingly.
For example, it’s not unreasonable to get angry at someone when they cancel on us at the last minute. A good way of reframing the situation is to remember that disappointment is the overriding factor, and that there are other positive things we can now do in place of getting together. Similarly, when a three-year-old child is being unreasonable or offensive, we need to acknowledge that we’re not dealing with a rational adult, and that we shouldn’t take things personally from someone so young.
Go to your happy place (Credit: Chris Gin/CC)
We can also work to suppress and convert the anger. Once we recognize that anger is brewing within us, we can stop and think about it, and then focus our attention elsewhere. Alternately, the anger can be converted into constructive, problem-solving behavior.
Refraining from exaggerated and absolutist language can also prevent escalation. Try not to use words like “never” and “always,” and cut back on phrases such as “this is the worst thing that has ever happened,” and “everything’s ruined.” Easing off on curse words will also help; it’s a myth that venting in this way has cathartic effects. It can actually backfire.
Lastly, remind yourself that anger on its own (it’s just an emotion, after all) is not the solution to a problem or situation, and in fact it may make things worse.
Get silly, particularly when dealing with children, a friend or partner who’s getting on your nerves. Humor can be a powerful tool to diffuse a stressful or annoying situation, and it can do wonders in alleviating negative feelings in our own minds.
Next time you feel the anger swelling, and instead of hurling an insult, go ahead and crack a harmless or self-deprecating joke.
Revisit and Deconstruct Your Anger Response
The U.S. National Institutes of Health offers a simple intervention tool to help people gain control over their anger in response to repeated provocative events. The tool is basically a list of five questions:
- First sign that I was angry
- What triggered it?
- How did I respond to this event?
- What did I do well this time?
- What will I do better the next time this event occurs?
Each time an anger-inducing event is experienced, you should answer the questions. “As time goes by,” writes the NIH, “you may experience diminishing anger responses to the event.”
Here’s a sample response:
- My mood shifted dramatically and I started to clench my jaws
- My partner’s dirty laundry was strewn all around the bedroom
- I started to stew and think of all the things my partner does that bothers me, and then I got all silent and withdrawn
- I told my partner how I felt about it and why it bothered me
- Remind myself to not get so bothered by the little annoyances in life. Maybe I’ll crack a joke next time to diffuse my negative feelings
Reduce the Stress in Your Life
Easier said than done, for sure. But it’s something we should all be striving for.
“Someone who finds themselves uncharacteristically short tempered all the time may want to look at the stress level in their life, whether they have adequate social support, whether they could be depressed, whether feelings like grief and shame are contributing to their anger, and so on,” says King. “Feeling socially connected, having adequate social support, and feeling heard and validated are all good antidotes to anger. Mindfulness meditation can also be very helpful—there are community meditation groups and classes galore, and even apps that provide daily guided meditation.”
Anger, on its own, causes stress. As Brown points out, the release of adrenal and cortisol strengthens the “anger tape” in our minds.
Get Professional Help
Colorado State University psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher says anger that “disrupts or interferes with sense of self or normal routines” could warrant therapy.
Professional help is always an option when things feel particularly out of control (Office Space)
For those who feel they need mental health assessment and diagnosis, King advises that people should refer to mental health resources such as a general practitioner (GP), psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists. “Working with a psychotherapist can help people who struggle with anger to identify underlying causes and work through trauma,” she says. “Therapy can help clients to become emotionally stronger and feel more effective in their life, and also to have better and healthier relationships. Genuine self-confidence and healthy self-regard are excellent for reducing reactivity and defensiveness.”
Finally, anger and irritability can sometimes be a sign of depression or anxiety. If you feel that anger is an ongoing problem for you, and that it’s occurring alongside other symptoms, you should probably mention it to your doctor or mental health professional.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Tara Jacoby