Anger is one of our primary emotions. As such we will all experience anger to its varying degrees over the course of our life. It is typically a very powerful and intense emotion that rapidly onsets and can leave us feeling aggressive, agitated, frustrated, tense and moved to action, such as retaliation, aggression or change.
What triggers our anger?
Typically, we feel angry due to a perceived threat, prolonged frustration, having a core value disrespected, or a boundary (such as a process, law or social norm) being broken.
Often, we experience anger because something has triggered us to feel anxious. That is, we may feel threatened by a situation, or by a person. For example, we may perceive a person or group of people as posing a physical threat to us; or we may hear them make a comment berating, judging or belittling us.
Frustration can cause us to experience anger. For instance, if we are in a situation that we can not change or influence, where our voice and opinion is not heard or considered, where we feel overwhelmed and overburdened, this frustration can lead to us feel anger.
Our values being disrespected can also lead us to experience anger. For example, when we directly experience, witness or hear of an instance that we determine to be unjust, unfair, ‘not right’, or inappropriate. This can also include the breaking of boundaries or an established process, law, social norm or relationship boundaries. Such examples may include: A friend telling another friend a secret you had told them in confidence; a customer cutting in line in a shopping queue; a teenager speak rudely to an elder; money not being refunded as per store policy.
We can certainly be more prone to anger when under stress or strain.
When we are experiencing low tolerance to frustration and stress we are more likely to experience anger. This can include a number of situations such as: Ill health, pain due to an injury, long-term chronic pain due to a medical condition, lack of sleep, competing deadlines and responsibilities, financial stress and hardship, relationship difficulties, or major life changes and adjustments.
When we experience anger, it affects our body, our thinking and our behaviour.
Physically our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes more rapid, our muscles tense and blood flow is redirected to them, and our liver releases glucose. Our body is essentially going into a ‘fight or flight’ response and is physically getting prepared for action.
We are more likely to have ‘tunnel vision’ when we are angry. That is, we can become overly focused on the stimulus that has triggered our anger rather than seeing the bigger picture. This ‘tunnel vision’ thinking inhibits our ability to problem solve, process information, access memory, and concentrate. As such our judgement and decision making is impaired.
These impacts to our body and thinking affect our behaviour. When we are angry we tend to behave more impulsively and react instead of responding. I’m sure we are all familiar with people saying, ‘I acted in the heat of the moment’.
It tends to be labelled as a negative emotion.
Anger itself is neither good or bad – it is how we feel. What I believe can make anger a positive or negative experience is how we respond to it.
Anger can be positive if we respond to it appropriately and in a goal-oriented way. Emotions in general tell us something – they indicate to us how we feel about a situation, person or item. Anger is typically telling us that we don’t like, or are not comfortable with, a situation or person. Channelled appropriately, we can use anger to motivate us, energise, and boost our confidence to make change.
Unfortunately, anger can often lead to negative consequences. As mentioned earlier, anger can put us at risk of behaving impulsively. Such behaviours can include aggressive speech and body language, verbal abuse, shouting and verbal threats, physical abuse, and destruction of property. Reacting impulsively due to anger can cause people to later feel regret, guilt and shame.
Angry outbursts, whether a one-time instance or a long-term pattern of behaviour, can have a number of long-term negative consequences. For example, such outbursts can change the way others judge and perceive us and, as a result, can cause the deterioration and loss of relationships, both personal and professional. Further to this, angry outbursts can also potentially limit career opportunities.
Repeatedly having angry outbursts or habitually ruminating on incidents where we were angry means that our body is frequently in a ‘fight or flight’ and tense state and that our minds are often in the past and not focused on the here and now and potentially not noticing the opportunities currently present. Long-term anger management problems can have a number of health implications such as anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
There are techniques that can be used to assist with reducing and managing anger.
Some strategies involve cognitive reframing, such as taking a solutions-focused or problem-solving approach. The goal of these strategies is to get the individual to slow down and respond to the situation rather than acting impulsively or reacting. To do this, the individual is encouraged to stop, think, and then act. Rather than focusing on the anger, the individual should instead ask, ‘what is my goal and what can I change in this situation to achieve or move towards that goal?’. This question can assist with identifying what variables can be controlled, what can be influenced, and what can not be controlled. Once this is identified, thoughtful decisions can be made and an appropriate action plan formulated.
There are also behavioural strategies. Research supports that regular exercise can be effective at reducing anger. Another behavioural technique is to remove yourself from the situation that is causing you to experience anger. For instance, excusing yourself and leaving, going for a walk or engaging in a unrelated task; essentially giving yourself a time-out. This can be more difficult to do if you are in a work situation and caution should be used to ensure your chosen ‘time-out’ action is appropriate. If anger occurs at work, removal from the situation may potentially include taking a bathroom break if in a meeting, telling a co-worker you will respond to their request within the next hour, or taking a coffee break before responding to an email. The aim of these short breaks is to allow the individual to reframe their thinking and slow their breathing and in turn decrease their arousal and feelings of anger before responding to their anger in a work situation.
Breathing and relaxation techniques have been shown to be effective at reducing anger. This can include techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, counted breathing, muscle relaxation, imagery, mantras, guided meditation and grounding techniques. It can be useful to try a few different breathing and relaxation techniques to determine which suits you best.
When a person’s anger becomes entrenched, a repeated pattern of behaviour is likely to negatively affecting relationships, employment and socialising. In these instances, it is recommended that a person seeks help and support by engaging with a professional such as a mental-health trained GP, Psychologist or an anger management therapy group.
Author: Jodie Riemann, Psychologist at Cause Effect Psychology