Written By Philippa Walsh
Anger is a perfectly normal emotion. We have a vast emotional repertoire and this is just one of many default responses we have when faced with a person or situation we perceive to be threatening to our status quo.
When someone behaves in a way that we feel is undermining us, it’s easy to get caught up in an internal dialogue of angry thoughts and a desire to retaliate in order to defend ourselves. At its most basic level, anger is part of our survival mechanism - it prepares us for attack.
It is important to understand that anger is often referred to as a 'secondary' emotion, as it usually results from feeling other emotions first. These may be loss, rejection or betrayal. It is natural to feel angry when we are hurting inside.
Anger can become problematic when a situation or person triggers an anger response that is disproportionate to the event. We’ve all said things in the heat of the moment, but what if those moments are becoming more frequent and the level of anger you feel has intensified to the extent that you no longer feel able to control it?
Intense anger is often described as a ‘red mist’ descending upon us. If this is something you can relate to, it is likely that your anger has already impacted upon you negatively. When anger is uncontrolled, it can impair your relationships and damage your health. A 2014 study showed that anger can put people at risk of high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack (Buckley, et al,.). Your behaviour may even find you at odds with the justice system.
Learning to manage your anger requires self-examination. This can be tricky if you’d prefer not to think about it.
How Not To Manage Your Anger!
Avoidance is a strategy that is very tempting to adopt. Unfortunately this usually results in one of two outcomes and both prove the strategy ineffective. Firstly, in an attempt to avoid your anger, you may choose to suppress it. Unvented anger becomes like a poison pulsating through your core. Having no outlet to let it go, can lead to internalized resentment, the bearing of grudges, an unhealthy preoccupation with feeling wronged and passive-aggressive behaviour.
In a nutshell, suppression doesn’t work. Imagine your anger is an inflated beach ball that you’re trying to push under water. It’ll just keep on popping back up.
Alternatively, avoidance may take the form of blaming others after you've vented your anger. This is usually to divert attention away from behaviour that we don't want to take responsibility for. The outcome of venting and diverting is just as negative as suppression: It simply won’t stop you from repeating your behaviour the next time your buttons are pushed. It can also provoke further difficult feelings of guilt and shame afterwards.
Effective Anger Management Strategies
Firstly you need to acknowledge your anger and own it. Identify your triggers, what or who provoked your response? Ask yourself if your response was proportionate and if not, how would you have preferred to handle the situation? Do you tend to have an “all or nothing” thinking style? Rather than think “Everything is ruined” reframe it and redress the balance, tell yourself “I’ve been let down, but it’s not the end of the world”.
It is only through acknowledgement and self-scrutiny that you can start to deconstruct your anger and begin to take preventative action. New insight means new strategies that can prevent you from getting caught in the anger trap.
Try keeping an anger diary to help you identify your triggers, this can be retrospective or current if you are still finding yourself getting angry. Note down anger episodes and pay attention to what time of day they occurred, where you were and what you were doing in the hours leading up to them. What sort of mood were you already in that day? Had you been drinking more or less than usual? Were you feeling unwell?
You may start to see a pattern emerging – exactly who or what makes you lose your temper? Do you tend to get into confrontations at work or at home? Are these when you’re tired and feeling more irritable such as late at night? Or does this happen in the morning when you’re feeling under pressure from the day ahead?
Once you have identified your triggers, you will then feel more able to manage them. Is there an unresolved issue that acts as a frequent trigger? This is where problem solving skills can be used to try and rectify something you’re unhappy with. If it’s overwork, can you negotiate a reduced workload? If its relationship difficulties, can you discuss them calmly and openly with the person concerned?
Confronting Your Triggers
When going into problem solving mode, you will be deliberately confronting your triggers. This calls for self-control while your buttons are being pressed.
- Breathe….and I mean properly! In through the nose for 3, hold for 2, out through the mouth for 4 and repeat! This sounds fairly obvious, but when we’re irritated or anxious, it’s the first thing we forget to do.
- Confront the issue at the best time of day you can. If you’re tired, it may be difficult not to become irritable.
- Listen to the other person as well as saying what you need to. No-one appreciates being talked over and this can make emotions run high.
- Speak calmly and quietly to avoid your discussion becoming heated.
- If you find yourself getting angry, take a few seconds and think before you respond. If you need to, walk away for a few minutes and collect yourself. It’s better to pause and take time out if you don’t feel able to control yourself.
- Focus your discussion on the solution not the problem. Avoid blaming others even if you feel aggrieved. Blame has a tendency to inspire hurt not resolution.
- Use I statements and take responsibility for the part you play in this. You might be angry, but is what you think true? Are other people always responsible for how you feel? Your anger diary should start to show you whether or not you are placing too much responsibility on others for your own happiness.
Using your self-awareness to overcome anger is often enough to help you start making positive changes. Learning to voice your feelings and communicate how you feel calmly can be challenging if you’re not used to dealing with your emotions in this way. It is also empowering and can end the cycle of anger, avoidance and guilt.
Maintaining Your Gains
Once you have got your anger in control, remember to congratulate yourself on your achievement. You will have worked hard at this and deserve to feel good about it. Reward yourself through self-care. Try and remember what it was that got you so stressed in the first place and make a vow not to allow yourself to get drawn back into those situations again.
If you are physically able: stay active. Regular exercise will not only serve as a mood enhancer, but as a healthy outlet for any future frustration.
If you feel that you are still struggling with anger and would like to learn more about how counselling and psychotherapy in Manchester can help reach out to me and tell me your story.
Buckley, T, et al., (2015) Triggering of Acute Coronary Occlusion by Episodes of Anger, European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, DOI: 10.1177/2048872615568969, published online 23 February 2015.