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Posted: September 19th, 2022

Controlling Anger Before It Controls You

Posted in: General

What is Anger?
We all have moments when we just blow up or lose our temper. Getting fired from a job, children screaming on an airline flight, or stubbing our toe could send us into fits of rage. Anger can run high these days with aggressive social media, political and racial division, cancel culture campaigns, and COVID-19 issues. Have you ever tried to hold the frustration in? It just builds and builds as people keep pushing our buttons, then….POP! We explode into a stream of irrational shouting and expletives. We may lose control and say or do we regret later. Check out this video about “What Makes You Angry?” to see if any of these get your blood boiling.1

Anger is a normal and basic human emotion and a natural adaptive response to threats. Anger’s purpose is to warn us of perceived danger to our physical or emotional well-being. It is an important message to us that a physical or emotional boundary has been crossed. Listening to these warning feelings can motivate us to address the threatening issues and improve our life situation. Anger inspires powerful, often aggressive feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and defend ourselves when we are attacked. Adrenaline is released, our breathing quickens, blood pressure goes up, and our heart beats faster in preparation for action.2,3,4

Like any emotion, anger exists on a continuum that ranges from a low level of frustration to a high level of violent fury.5 Minor annoyances, like a fly buzzing in our face, can build to irritation when we struggle to ignore it, but frustration builds as the fly persists. With each bothersome buzz, we start to resent this fly, attributing evil intentions and feeling personally attacked for no reason. We retaliate by swiping the air and muttering angry commands. When the fly won’t go away, our energy rises, and we look to end this madness once and for all with a fly swatter. In a violent rage, we swat the fly dead and feel justified in our actions.

Dealing With Anger
Depending on how we deal with it, anger can be helpful (constructive) or unhelpful (destructive) in our lives. Constructive anger is when we listen to the message anger is trying to tell us, then channel our energy into actions that improve the situation and keep us emotionally and physically safe. Destructive anger is just the opposite…we ignore the message of anger and react to the situation in a way that causes harm to ourselves and others. Destructive anger is usually based on automatically reacting to our nervous system’s stress response, while constructive anger usually involves pausing to make a purposeful choice.3 Learn more from Dr. Fred Luskin in this video about Constructive Anger.6

Anger expression is a learned behavior, not an inherited trait. Our nervous system responses (rise in heart rate and blood pressure) are inherited, but our behavior responses are learned. We have a choice about what we think, feel, and do. This means that we can learn healthy ways to deal with anger. We can control our anger before it controls us.7,8 What does this look like in real life? Let’s say someone bumps into you and spills hot coffee all over your new outfit. You’re on your way to a job interview and won’t have time to change. In a matter of seconds, you realize the threat – possibly losing the job opportunity because of your poor appearance. You won’t be able to pay your rent, all because of something that wasn’t your fault…and the anger builds from there. Your body reacts with sweat, a pounding heart, and a racing mind.

What will you choose next? Will you stuff your frustration and go to the interview in a silent fume or unleash your fury on the person who spilled the coffee? Maybe your first reaction is to shout and shove to defend yourself, or passive-aggressively smile to their face, then key their car when they’re not looking. Destructive choices just make the situation worse, while harming you and other people. These include avoiding, blaming, hostility, aggression, verbal/physical attacks, and withdrawal. They destroy respect, safety, and relationships.

A more constructive approach includes pausing to notice what your anger is warning you about, assessing if it’s a real threat, taking a deep breath to calm down, then choosing a response that is respectful and helpful to you and others involved. Perhaps you explain the situation to the coffee spiller, which gives them a chance to make it up to you. Maybe you reschedule the interview so you can look your best later, or you go anyway and have a good laugh with the interviewer as you explain the stain on your shirt. The aim is to improve the situation while keeping you and others safe. Learn more in this video about dealing with anger in a helpful way.9

Do I Have an Anger Problem?
While anger can positively serve us at times, we need to ask ourselves if we get overly consumed by our own frustrations in destructive ways. Key indications of a serious anger problem include the following:2,5,10

  • Your anger feels too strong to handle
  • You are angry regularly
  • You get angry over things that don’t seem to affect other people
  • Your anger hurts others at home or work, and you later regret how you treated them
  • You take out your anger on someone or something other than the person or situation that’s bothering you
  • Your anger turns to aggression or violence by lashing out physically, verbally, and/or psychologically
  • Your anger lasts long after the event has passed
  • You have lost or are in danger of losing a relationship, job, or something else important to you because of your anger
  • You use alcohol or drugs to try and calm your emotions
  • Others (friends, family, professors, academic administrators, bosses) have expressed concern about your anger.

Learn more about your ability to manage anger by taking the Anger Quiz, designed to evaluate your approach during anger-inducing situations. Honestly select the answers you would mostly likely choose to receive the most accurate results. At the end, you’ll receive an overall anger score and a brief interpretation.11

The Negative Effects of Anger
In these challenging times, anger has reached an all-time high. Screenings from Mental Health America indicated that in 2020, 71% felt easily annoyed or irritable at least half of the time or nearly every day and 82% reported being so irritable that they shouted at people or started fights or arguments. About 91% said that they feel people are more likely to express their anger on social media than they are face-to-face.12 Dr. David Rosmarin, a professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and a clinician at McLean Hospital, has observed rising levels of anger – and its expression in aggression and domestic abuse – in his practice.1

Destructive anger can damage important relationships at home, work, and school, increasing our likelihood of social isolation. Anger can also weaken our immune systems. The stress hormone associated with anger can cause negative changes to our brains, translating angry emotions into physical illness and shaving off years of our life.3,14 The theory that it’s healthy to express all of our anger is a dangerous myth and can be used as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.3,4

Repressing our anger can also be destructive. Dr. Ernest Harburg and his team at the University of Michigan School of Public Health spent several decades tracking the same adults in a longitudinal study of anger. They found that men and women who hid the anger they felt in response to an unjust attack subsequently found themselves more likely to get bronchitis and heart attacks. They were also more likely to die earlier than peers who let their anger be known when other people were annoying.15

Making Anger Work for You
So how can we harness the power of anger to improve our lives? How can we control anger before it controls us? In the short term, anger can be effective at getting what we want; however, the long-term consequences of uncontrolled anger include high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, and social disharmony with family, friends, and coworkers.16 Here are some effective strategies to make anger work for you in the short-term and long-term.

  1. A trained mental health professional with experience treating anger can help you learn how to resolve conflicts in a constructive way and rebuild relationships that have been damaged by anger.16
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Approximately 75% of people receiving anger management therapy improved as a result. CBT helps patients learn to identify unhelpful thought patterns and change inaccurate beliefs. One CBT treatment, known as Stress Inoculation, exposes the patient to anger-inducing scenarios, while providing opportunities to practice healthy anger management tools.
  • Psychodynamic Therapy. This type of psychotherapy helps people use self-reflection to focus on the psychological roots of their emotional distress.
  • Family Therapy. This type of psychotherapy helps family members resolve conflict and improve communication. It can address specific anger problems directed at partners and children.

 

  1. Anger Management Skills. Just like any other skill, anger management can be developed and strengthened. Watch this short introduction video about Anger Management Techniques17, then read about more the 4 R’s of becoming better at making anger work for you.
  • When we’re angry, our nervous system is on high alert, which means we’re feeling irrationally and not thinking rationally. Taking a time-out to relax and breathe deeply will calm your nervous system down enough to shift from the irrational to the rational. Choose a comfortable place to relax, then fully inhale air, hold your breath for a few seconds, and slowly exhale through your nose. Repeat this until you feel your muscles and nervous system relax. Exercise, yoga, and muscle relaxation can also go a long to help your body let go of pent-up frustration.4,5,7,8
  • Reflect and Rethink. Listen to the message of your anger. Feelings of anger are not caused by the events themselves, but by our interpretation of threat from the situation. Anger is a message that a physical or emotional boundary has been crossed. Grab a notebook and write down your answer to the question: “What boundary must be restored or protected?” Practice the ABCDE Model to reflect on and rethink a good solution: 4,18
    • Activating Event. What happened during the anger-inducing event?
    • B What beliefs or meaning did I assign to the experience? What are the negative thoughts that came about myself, the world, other people, and the future?
    • C What are the consequences of the beliefs or meaning I’m experiencing? What are the internal and external behaviors that came as a result?
    • D Are the beliefs and angry thoughts I formed about the situation rational and consistent with reality, or did I jump to the worst possible conclusion?
    • E How can I change my irrational beliefs to rational solutions? What is your final interpretation of the situation when you apply information from sections A, B, C, and D?
  • Make a plan to address the situation with the maximum benefit for you and others. Aim to positively resolve conflicts before they become scars. It might include becoming more assertive to stand up for yourself or just letting inconsequential issues go. Remember, we’re looking for a solution that improves the situation and keep you and those involved emotionally and physically safe. Applying some valuable conflict resolution skills will increase understanding, build trust, and reinforce strong relationship bonds. Learn more about Conflict Resolution Skills.19

When to See a Professional
If you find yourself arguing often, becoming violent or breaking things, threatening others, or getting arrested because of incidents related to your anger, you may need to seek professional help. Look for a trained mental health professional who specializes in this form of treatment. Mind Spa recommends our mental health treatment for individuals who need help with anger management. Our licensed therapists and medical professionals are dedicated to providing patients with safe and effective mental health treatment that teaches them how to heal and thrive. Contact Mind Spa today for personalized treatment options.

 

References

1 BBC Learning English. (2020, February 22). British chat – what makes you angry? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cnm4PSvGWY

2 Villanova University. (n.d.). Anger management. https://www1.villanova.edu/university/student-life/health-services/health-wellness-resources/anger-management.html

3 The Jed Foundation. (n.d.). Understanding anger. https://jedfoundation.org/resource/understanding-anger/

4 American Psychological Association. (2005). Controlling anger before it controls you. https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control

5 Cadence Psychology. (n.d.). Anger management treatment in Sydney. https://www.cadencepsychology.com.au/anger-management-treatment-sydney/

6 Greater Good Science Center (2010, August 11). Fred Luskin: Constructive anger [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL51zvhrMiw

7 Al Ubaidi, B. A. (2018) Control excessive anger before it controls your life. Journal of Family Medicine and Disease Prevention, 4: 088. https://www.clinmedjournals.org/articles/jfmdp/journal-of-family-medicine-and-disease-prevention-jfmdp-4-088.php?jid=jfmdp

8 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Anger management for substance abuse disorder and mental health clients. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/anger_management_workbook_508_compliant.pdf

9 Six Seconds, The Emotional Intelligence Network. (2020, October 15). Angry about everything | Why am I so angry all the time? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVi_nDnIHmg

10 Sutton, J. (2022, September 2). Your anger management guide: Best techniques and exercises. https://positivepsychology.com/anger-management-techniques/

11 Psychology Today. (n.d.). Anger management test-abridged. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/personality/anger-management-test-abridged

12 Mental Health America (2020). Dealing with anger and frustration. https://mhanational.org/dealing-anger-and-frustration

13 Powell, A. (2020, August 14). Soothing advice for mad America. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/08/a-closer-look-at-americas-pandemic-fueled-anger/

14 Dougherty, E. (2021). Anger management, when emotional brakes fail. Harvard Medicine. https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/science-emotion/anger-management

15 Kashdan, T., Biswas-Diener, R. (2014, October 14). The right way to get angry. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_right_way_to_get_angry

16 American Psychological Association. (2019, December 30). Understanding anger: How psychologists help with anger problems. https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/understanding

17 Watchwellcast. (2012, September 26). Anger management techniques. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsVq5R_F6RA

18 Lewis Psychology. (2021, September 27). ABCDE Model. Change negative thoughts and beliefs. CBT and REBT. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJnZBm6Y51Y

19 Edmonds College. (n.d.). Conflict resolution skills. https://www.edmonds.edu/counseling/documents/Conflict.pdf

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