In the most general sense, anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger is a natural response to those situations where we feel threatened, we believe harm will come to us, or we believe that another person has unnecessarily wronged us.
We may also become angry when we feel another person, like a child or someone close to us, is being threatened or harmed. Anger can be a positive emotion—a moral response to injustice or a rational response to a threat—and it can be expressed in assertive and productive ways. In addition, anger may result from frustration when our needs, desires, and goals are not being met. When we become angry, we may lose our patience and act impulsively, aggressively, or violently.
People often confuse anger with aggression. Aggression is behavior that is intended to cause harm to another person or damage property. This behavior can include verbal abuse, threats, or violent acts. Anger, on the other hand, is an emotion and does not necessarily lead to aggression. Therefore, a person can become angry without acting aggressively.
A term related to anger and aggression is hostility. Hostility refers to a complex set of attitudes and judgments that motivate aggressive behaviors. Whereas anger is an emotion and aggression is a behavior, hostility is an attitude that involves disliking others and evaluating them negatively.
When is Anger a problem?
Anger becomes a problem when it is felt too intensely, is felt too frequently, or is expressed inappropriately. Feeling anger too intensely or frequently places extreme physical strain on the body. During prolonged and frequent episodes of anger, certain parts of the nervous system become highly activated. Consequently, blood pressure and heart rate increase and stay elevated for long periods. This stress on the body may produce many different health problems, such as hypertension, heart disease, and diminished immune system efficiency. Thus, from a health standpoint, avoiding physical illness is a motivation for controlling anger.
Another compelling reason to control anger concerns the negative consequences that result from expressing anger inappropriately. In the extreme, anger may lead to violence or physical aggression, which can result in numerous negative consequences, such as being arrested or jailed, losing your job, being physically injured, being retaliated against, alienating loved ones, being terminated from a substance use disorder treatment or social service program, or feeling guilt, shame, or regret.
Even when anger does not lead to violence, the inappropriate expression of anger, such as verbal abuse or intimidating or threatening behavior, often results in negative consequences. For example, it is likely that others will develop fear, resentment, and lack of trust toward those who subject them to angry outbursts, which may cause alienation from individuals, such as family members, friends, and co-workers.
Payoffs and consequences
The inappropriate expression of anger initially has many apparent payoffs. One payoff is being able to manipulate and control others through aggressive and intimidating behavior; others may comply with someone’s demands because they fear verbal threats or violence. Another payoff is the release of tension that occurs when you lose your temper and act aggressively. You may feel better after an angry outburst, but everyone else may feel worse.
In the long term, however, these initial payoffs lead to negative consequences. For this reason they are called “apparent” payoffs because the long-term negative consequences far outweigh the short-term gains. For example, consider a father who persuades his children to comply with his demands by using an angry tone of voice and threatening gestures. These behaviors imply to the children that they will receive physical harm if they are not obedient. The immediate payoff for the father is that the children obey his commands. The long-term consequence, however, may be that the children learn to fear or dislike him and become emotionally detached from him. As they grow older, they may avoid contact with him or refuse to see him altogether.
Myths about anger
One misconception or myth about anger is that the way we behaviourally express anger is inherited and cannot be changed. Our facial expressions and our nervous system’s response when we become angry are inherited, but what we do next, our behavior, is learned. Sometimes, we may hear someone say, “I inherited my anger from my father; that’s just the way I am.” This statement implies that the behavioral expression of anger is fixed and cannot be changed. Although to some extent a person’s proneness toward anger has a genetic basis, psychological traits, like proneness toward anger, are not fixed. A person’s childhood environment plays a major role in determining how a person expresses anger (Buades – Rotger & Gallardo, 2014). Because people are not born with set, specific ways of expressing anger it is possible to learn more appropriate ways of expressing anger. Similarly, it is possible to change the way your nervous system reacts after you get angry. You can learn to calm down more quickly with practice.
Anger as a habitual response
Not only is the behavioral expression of anger learned, but it can become a routine, familiar, and predictable response to a variety of situations. In the short term, people expressing anger often get their way, so they may keep using anger. When anger is displayed frequently and aggressively, it can become a maladaptive habit because it results in negative consequences. Habits, by definition, are performed over and over again, without thinking. People with anger management problems often resort to aggressive displays of anger to solve their problems, without thinking about the negative consequences they may suffer or the effects it may have on the people around them
Breaking the Anger Habit
Becoming Aware of Anger. To change the anger habit, you must develop an awareness of the circumstances and behaviors of others that trigger your anger. It’s also important to be aware of events or situations that can result in anger, even when others aren’t involved—when your car won’t start or when your computer malfunctions. This awareness also involves understanding the negative consequences that result from anger. For example, you may be in line at the supermarket and become impatient because the lines are too long. In this case, perhaps your anger is triggered by having your time wasted or by being made late for an appointment. You could become angry and then demand that the checkout clerk call for more help. As your anger escalates, you may become involved in a heated exchange with the clerk or another customer. The store manager may respond by having a security officer remove you from the store. The negative consequences that result from this event are not getting the groceries that you wanted and the embarrassment and humiliation you suffer from being removed from the store.
Strategies for Controlling Anger
In addition to becoming aware of anger, you need to develop skills and strategies to effectively manage it. These strategies can be used to stop the escalation of anger before you experience negative consequences. An effective set of strategies for controlling anger should include immediate, interpersonal, and preventive strategies. Immediate strategies include taking a timeout, deep-breathing exercises, and thought stopping. Interpersonal strategies include strengthening assertive communication and problem-solving. Preventive strategies include developing an exercise program and changing your maladaptive beliefs.
One example of an anger management strategy you can use right now is the timeout. A timeout involves leaving a situation if you feel your anger is escalating out of control. For example, you may be a passenger on a crowded bus and become angry because you perceive that people are deliberately bumping into you. In this situation, you can simply get off the bus and wait for a less crowded bus.
The informal use of a timeout may involve stopping yourself from engaging in a discussion or argument if you feel that you are becoming too angry.
Events Associated With Anger
When you get angry, it is because your interpretation of an event has provoked your anger. For example, you may get angry when the bus is late, when you have to wait in line at the grocery store, or when a neighbour plays his music too loud. Everyday events such as these can provoke your anger.
Many times, specific events touch on sensitive areas in your life. These sensitive areas, sometimes called “red flags,” usually refer to longstanding issues that can easily lead to anger.
Cues to Anger
An aspect of anger monitoring is to increase awareness of the cues that occur in response to the anger-related event. These cues serve as warning signs that you have become angry and that your anger is continuing to escalate. They can be broken down into four cue categories: physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive (or thought) cues.
Physical Cues. Physical cues involve the way our bodies respond when we become angry. For example, our heart rates may increase, we may feel tightness in our chests, or we may feel hot and flushed. We can learn to identify these cues when they occur in response to an anger-related event.
Can you identify some physical cues that you have experienced when you have become angry?
Behavioral Cues. Behavioral cues involve the behaviors we display when we get angry, which are observed by other people around us. For example, we may clench our fists, pace back and forth, slam a door, or raise our voices. These behavioral responses are the second cue of our anger.
What behavioral cues have you experienced when you have become angry?
Emotional Cues. Emotional cues involve other feelings that may occur along with our anger.
For example, we may become angry when we feel abandoned, afraid, discounted, disrespected, guilty, humiliated, impatient, insecure, jealous, or rejected. These kinds of feelings are the core or primary feelings that underlie our anger. It is easy to discount these primary feelings because they often make us feel vulnerable. An important component of anger management is to become aware of, and to recognize, the primary feelings that underlie our anger. We should view anger as a secondary emotion to these more primary feelings.
Can you identify some primary feelings that you have experienced during an episode of anger?
Cognitive Cues. Cognitive cues refer to the thoughts that occur in response to the anger-related event. When people become angry, they may interpret events in certain ways. For example, we may interpret a friend’s comments as criticism, or we may interpret the actions of others as demeaning, humiliating, or controlling. Some people call these thoughts “self-talk” because they resemble a conversation we are having with ourselves. For people with anger problems, this self- talk is usually very critical and hostile in tone and content. It reflects beliefs about the way they think the world should be—beliefs about people, places, and things. As the self-talk continues to spiral, the person can become more and more angry.
Closely related to thoughts and self-talk are fantasies and images. Fantasies and images are other types of cognitive cues that can indicate an escalation of anger. For example, we might fantasize about seeking revenge on a perceived enemy or imagine or visualize our spouse having an affair. When we have these fantasies and images, our anger can escalate even more rapidly.
Can you think of other examples of cognitive or thought cues?
Checking in with where you are at in terms of ANGER
- What was the event that led to your anger?
- What cues were associated with the anger-related event? For example, what were the physical, behavioral, emotional, or cognitive cues?
- Were there negative consequences from your anger?
- What strategies did you use and how did they help you manage your anger?
Cues to Anger: Four Cue Categories
- Physical (examples: rapid heartbeat, tightness in chest, feeling hot or flushed)
- Behavioral (examples: pacing, clenching fists, raising voice, staring)
- Emotional (examples: fear, hurt, jealousy, guilt)
- Cognitive/Thoughts (examples: hostile self-talk, images of aggression and revenge)
Anger Control Plans
The basic idea in developing an anger control plan is to try many different strategies and find the anger control techniques that work best for you. Once you identify these strategies, you can add them to your anger control plans and use them when you start to get angry. Some people refer to their anger control plans as their toolbox and the specific strategies they use to control their anger as their tools. This analogy may be very helpful. Again, it is important to identify the specific anger control strategies that work best for you. These strategies should be written down in a formal anger control plan that you can refer to when you encounter an anger-related event.
An effective strategy that many people use, for example, is to talk about their feelings with a supportive friend who was not involved with the event that led to their anger. By discussing anger, you can begin to identify the primary emotions that underlie it and determine whether you’re thinking and expectations in response to the anger-related event are rational. Often, a friend whom you trust can provide a different perspective on what is going on in your life. Even if your friend just listens, expressing your feelings can make you feel better. It is a good idea to make a plan ahead of time for social support. Whom will you talk to when you need some perspective on your anger?
Examples of Anger control plans:
Talk about it talk to someone you trust
Take a timeout
Journal about the event that triggered the anger.
Get comfortable in your chair. If you like, close your eyes; or just gaze at the floor.
Take a few moments to settle yourself. Now make yourself aware of your body. Check your body for tension, beginning with your feet, and scan upward to your head. Notice any tension you might have in your legs, your stomach, your hands and arms, your shoulders, your neck, and your face. Try to let go of the tension you are feeling.
Now, make yourself aware of your breathing. Pay attention to your breath as it enters and leaves your body. This can be very relaxing. Take a deep breath. Notice your lungs and chest expanding. Now slowly exhale. Again, take a deep breath. Fill your lungs and chest. Notice how much air you can take in. Hold it for a second. Now release it and slowly exhale. One more time, inhale slowly and fully. Hold it for a second, and release. Continue breathing in this way for another couple of minutes. Continue to focus on your breathing. With each inhalation and exhalation, feel your body becoming more and more relaxed. Use your breathing to wash away any remaining tension. Now let’s take another deep breath. Inhale fully, hold it for a second, and release. Inhale again, hold, and release. Continue to be aware of your breath as it fills your lungs. Once more, inhale fully, hold it for a second, and release. When you feel ready, open your eyes. How was that? Did you notice any new sensations while you were breathing? How do you feel now? This breathing exercise can be shortened to just three deep inhalations and exhalations. Even that much can be effective in helping you relax when your anger is escalating. You can practice this at home, at work, on the bus, while waiting for an appointment, or even while walking. The key to making deep breathing an effective relaxation technique is to practice it frequently and to apply it in a variety of situations.
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