We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it: whether as a fleeting
annoyance or as full-fledged rage.
Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it
gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems - problems
at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your
life. And it can make you feel as though you're at the mercy of an
unpredictable and powerful emotion.
What is Anger?
Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to
intense fury and rage. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by
physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate
and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones,
adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry
at a specific person (Such as a coworker or supervisor) or event (a traffic
jam, a canceled flight), or your anger could be caused by worrying or
brooding about your personal problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging
events can also trigger angry feelings.
The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively.
Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful,
often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to
defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore,
is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, 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.
People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal
with their angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing,
suppressing, and calming. Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive, not
aggressive, manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you
have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them
met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean being pushy or
demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when
you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something
positive. The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into
more constructive behavior. The danger in this type of response is that if
it isn't allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward, on yourself.
Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or
Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological
expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at
people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them
head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile. People
who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making
cynical comments haven't learned how to constructively express their anger.
Not surprisingly, they aren't likely to have many successful relationships.
Finally, you can calm down inside. This means not just controlling your
outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps
to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.
The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and
the physiological arousal that anger causes. You can't get rid of, or avoid,
the things or the people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you
can learn to control your reactions.
Are You Too Angry?
There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry feelings,
how prone to anger you are, and how well you handle it. But chances are good
that if you do have a problem with anger, you already know it. If you find
yourself acting in ways that seem out of control and frightening, you might
need help finding better ways to deal with this emotion.
Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?
According to Jerry Deffenbacher, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in
anger management, some people really are more "hotheaded" than others are;
they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does.
There are also those who don't show their anger in loud spectacular ways but
are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered people don't always
curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get
People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a
low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they
should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance.
They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the
situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor
What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause may be
genetic or physiological: There is evidence that some children are born
irritable, touchy, and easily angered, and that these signs are present from
a very early age. Another may be sociocultural. Anger is often regarded as
negative; we're taught that it's all right to express anxiety, depression,
or other emotions but not to express anger. As a result, we don't learn how
to handle it or channel it constructively.
Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically,
people who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive,
chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications.
Strategies To Keep Anger At Bay
Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can
help calm down angry feelings. There are books and courses that can teach
you relaxation techniques, and once you learn the techniques, you can call
upon them in any situation. If you are involved in a relationship where both
partners are hot-tempered, it might be a good idea for both of you to learn
Some simple steps you can try:
Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest won't relax
you. Picture your breath coming up from your "gut."
Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as "relax," "take it easy." Repeat
it to yourself while breathing deeply.
Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience, from either your memory or
Nonstrenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles and make you
feel much calmer.
Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically when you're
in a tense situation.
Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry people tend to
curse or speak in highly colorful terms that reflect their inner thoughts.
When you're angry, your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly
dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts with more rational ones. For
instance, instead of telling yourself, "oh, it's awful, it's terrible,
everything's ruined," tell yourself, "it's frustrating, and it's
understandable that I'm upset about it, but it's not the end of the world
and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow."
Be careful of words like "never" or "always" when talking about yourself or
someone else. "This !&*%@ machine never works," or "you're always forgetting
things" are not just inaccurate, they also serve to make you feel that your
anger is justified and that there's no way to solve the problem. They also
alienate and humiliate people who might otherwise be willing to work with
you on a solution.
Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything, that it
won't make you feel better (and may actually make you feel worse).
Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it's justified, can quickly
become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that
the world is "not out to get you," you're just experiencing some of the
rough spots of daily life. Do this each time you feel anger getting the best
of you, and it'll help you get a more balanced perspective. Angry people
tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement, willingness to do
things their way. Everyone wants these things, and we are all hurt and
disappointed when we don't get them, but angry people demand them, and when
their demands aren't met, their disappointment becomes anger. As part of
their cognitive restructuring, angry people need to become aware of their
demanding nature and translate their expectations into desires. In other
words, saying, "I would like" something is healthier than saying, "I demand"
or "I must have" something. When you're unable to get what you want, you
will experience the normal reactions, frustration, disappointment, hurt, but
not anger. Some angry people use this anger as a way to avoid feeling hurt,
but that doesn't mean the hurt goes away.
Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable
problems in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced, and often it's a healthy,
natural response to these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that
every problem has a solution, and it adds to our frustration to find out
that this isn't always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a
situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how
you handle and face the problem.
Make a plan, and check your progress along the way. Resolve to give it your
best, but also not to punish yourself if an answer doesn't come right away.
If you can approach it with your best intentions and efforts and make a
serious attempt to face it head-on, you will be less likely to lose patience
and fall into all-or-nothing thinking, even if the problem does not get
solved right away.
Angry people tend to jump to, and act on, conclusions, and some of those
conclusions can be very inaccurate. The first thing to do if you're in a
heated discussion is slow down and think through your responses. Don't say
the first thing that comes into your head, but slow down and think carefully
about what you want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the
other person is saying and take your time before answering.
It's natural to get defensive when you're criticized, but don't fight back.
Instead, listen to what's underlying the words: the message that this person
might feel neglected and unloved. It may take a lot of patient questioning
on your part, and it may require some breathing space, but don't let your
anger, or a partner's, let a discussion spin out of control. Keeping your cool
can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.
Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it's our immediate surroundings that give us cause for irritation
and fury. Problems and responsibilities can weigh on you and make you feel
angry at the "trap" you seem to have fallen into and all the people and
things that form that trap.
Give yourself a break. Make sure you have some "personal time" scheduled for
times of the day that you know are particularly stressful.
Do You Need Counseling?
If you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it is having an
impact on your relationships and on important parts of your life, you might
consider counseling to learn how to handle it better. A psychologist or
other mental health professional can work with you in developing a range of
techniques for changing your thinking and your behavior.
When you talk to a psychologist, tell her that you have problems with anger
that you want to work on, and ask about his or her approach to anger
management. Make sure this isn't only a course of action designed to "put
you in touch with your feelings and express them" that may be precisely what
your problem is.
Anger work-out refers to a healthy and full expression of anger on inanimate
objects; not on people so as to rid yourself of hostility and aggression
aroused by anger. Each of the following techniques could be used alone or
in any combination.
� beating on pillows
� beating on a mattress
� stomping on floor
� beating a bed with tennis or racquetball racket
� hitting a weight bag or punching bag
� physical exertion, i.e., playing racquetball, running, hand ball
� yelling in a car with windows closed
� yelling in a paper bag
� hammering nails in a board or building something
� games in an amusement park that require pounding
� throwing soft objects
� beating a pillow or bed with a foam or plastic bat
� karate or judo practice
� beating drums
� screaming at a concert or sports event
� screaming in a vacant field or park
� using a shovel to dig holes in the dirt
� hitting balls with a baseball bat
� hitting a ball against a wall with racket or hand
� bowling to hit all the pins down
� writing a letter of anger, but ripping it up the next day
� expressing feelings by writing in a journal
� wringing a wet towel
� kneading bread or play dough
Adapted from the American Psychological Association at www.apa.org