Sound Familiar?

Shana, a 42-year-old mother of three children recently lost her job due to budget cuts. She is irritable most of the time and feels easily frustrated. Her children say she snaps at them for small things, and her partner reported that she needs to get away on weekends to rein in her temper.  Her normal go-to in this kind of situation is to hit the Carlsbad beaches, but lately it doesn’t make much difference. She recognizes that something is amiss and wonders whether she should seek help for her anger issues.

Rick, a 28-year-old construction worker, struggles with anger issues. He recently punched a co-worker at work leading to his dismissal from his job. He is in and out of relationships because he finds himself getting angry fast and hard.  It’s never lead to any kind of physical violence, and in fact his verbal aggressiveness is often somehow experienced as a defense mechanism rather than an attack — he’s trying to prevent the possibility of being vulnerable and harmed by being so outwardly reactive.  It doesn’t work very well, but there is a certain logic to it.  At any rate, he recognizes that he needs help.  He wants peace.

Lilliana, a 16-year-old teenager, gets angry easily with her parents. She reports that her parents do not understand her, and they judge her every move. She is often grounded and feels constrained. She often gets into arguments with her parents, and sometimes this leads to physical altercation. She recognizes that she hates that she is always angry, and wonders if she can change that.

Anger: The Age Old Problem

Anger is a natural emotion that we experience from time to time. It is a response to perceived threats to our wellbeing, boundaries or values.  In that sense, it is good to recognize that anger is essentially a healthy emotion, just like sadness, happiness, and others.  However, it’s equally worth recognizing that anger can have a particular sharp edge —  it can become problematic when it becomes too frequent, too intense or results in harmful consequences for oneself or others. In this article, we will explore the topic of managing and overcoming anger, starting with three vignettes illustrating people who are struggling with problematic patterns of anger. We will then discuss what anger is and differentiate it from other emotional states, examine common challenges that people encounter while trying to manage their anger, explore strategies that can be used to manage anger, and define steps that people who wish to overcome anger problems should take. We will also provide research on anger and mental health to support our discussion.

Anger: Definition and Differentiation from other Emotional States
Anger is an emotional response to a perceived threat or injustice. It is a complex emotion that can include a broad range of positive or negative emotions from annoyance, frustration, and irritation to rage, fury, and hostility. Anger also involves physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure and changes in facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture.

It is important to differentiate between anger and other emotional states such as frustration, irritation, and sadness, which people often mistake for anger. Frustration refers to a feeling of being blocked from achieving a goal or desire, while irritation refers to a low-level annoyance caused by something unpleasant or annoying. Sadness, on the other hand, is a feeling of loss or despair, and it is not associated with physiological changes often seen in anger.  Functionally, anger may feel similarly to these emotions, and/or be interwined with them.  But as with most emotional states, having precise language to name and explore our experiences is crucial.

How to Know When You’re Feeling Anger:

Understanding our own emotions can sometimes be a complex and challenging task. Often, we may experience a range of different emotions simultaneously, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what we are feeling at any given moment. This confusion can be particularly true when it comes to differentiating anger from other emotions. In this article, we will discuss some common signs that can help you identify when you are experiencing anger, as well as distinguishing it from other emotions.

Physical Manifestations:

  1. Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: When you’re feeling angry, you may notice that your heart rate accelerates, and you may feel a heightened sense of tension throughout your body. Increased blood pressure can also occur, leading to sensations of heat or flushing in the face or neck area.
  2. Muscle Tension: Anger often leads to the tightening of muscles, particularly in areas such as the shoulders, jaw, or fists. You may find yourself clenching your jaw, balling your fists, or tensing your muscles as a result of anger.
  3. Rapid or Shallow Breathing: Anger can cause quick and shallow breathing, which may feel as if you’re gasping for air or struggling to breathe deeply. This rapid breathing is a natural physical response to feeling anger, as the body prepares for potential confrontation.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Behavior:

  1. Aggressive or Hostile Language: When experiencing anger, your choice of words and tone of voice may become confrontational, aggressive, or even hostile. You may find yourself speaking loudly, using harsh language, or engaging in yelling or shouting matches.
  2. Facial Expressions: Anger is commonly associated with specific facial expressions, such as furrowed brows, a tensed jaw, or a piercing gaze. These expressions can convey intensity, frustration, or even aggression to those around you.
  3. Body Language: Your body language can also provide clues about your emotional state. When angry, you might adopt defensive postures, such as crossing your arms, standing tall and stiff, or leaning forward. Alternatively, you might exhibit threatening gestures, like pointing your finger or making a fist.

Cognitive and Emotional Indicators:

  1. Feeling Intense Irritation or Frustration: Anger often arises from a sense of annoyance, irritation, or frustration. You may find yourself feeling impatient, easily annoyed by minor inconveniences, or overwhelmed by a sense of unfairness or injustice.
  2. Heightened Agitation: When experiencing anger, you may notice an increased level of restlessness or agitation. You might struggle to focus on tasks, find yourself easily distracted, or feel an intense urge to react or retaliate.
  3. Thoughts of Retaliation or Revenge: Another strong indicator of anger is the presence of thoughts or fantasies related to retaliation or revenge. Your mind may be preoccupied with thoughts of getting even or seeking retribution against the person or situation that has triggered your anger.

It is essential to note that these signs of anger can vary from person to person, and not everyone will exhibit these indicators in the same way or to the same extent. Additionally, it is possible to experience anger alongside other emotions simultaneously, making it even more challenging to identify. If you find yourself frequently struggling to differentiate between anger and other emotions, it may be helpful to discuss your experiences with a mental health professional or counselor, who can provide guidance and support.

Common Difficulties Encountered with Anger

One difficulty that people often face when trying to manage their anger is societal expectations around anger. Anger is sometimes misconstrued as a sign of weakness or a taboo emotion, especially for men. However, people are beginning to recognize the importance of acknowledging and addressing anger, as research shows that suppressing anger can have negative health consequences, both physical and psychological.

Additionally, genetic and personality factors, such as family history of anger problems, impulsiveness, and a tendency towards negative emotionality, may increase susceptibility to anger management issues. Environmental factors such as traumatic events, neglectful or abusive upbringing, and low socio-economic status, may also contribute to the development or exacerbation of problematic patterns of anger.

Common Strategies to Manage Anger
Several strategies can be used to manage and control anger. Individuals can use physical release, such as hitting a punching bag, or exercise to help reduce the intensity of the emotion. Others may benefit from calming techniques, including deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety levels, which can exacerbate feelings of anger.

Therapy is another effective platform to scrutinize and address underlying issues that contribute to problematic and chronic patterns of anger. Professional counseling provides a safe and supportive environment to examine the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that may contribute to anger management difficulties.

Moreover, lifestyle changes such as avoiding alcohol and drugs, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and exercise, and managing stress can also help individuals better manage their anger over the long term.

Research on Anger and Mental Health
Research indicates that anger has a direct impact on mental health outcomes. Individuals who experience problematic anger are at greater risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems. Studies also suggest that anger may be an underlying factor in suicidal ideation and aggression.

For example, Karimi et al. (2020) examined the relationship between anger and quality of life in nurses. The results showed that nurses who reported frequent episodes of anger had poorer quality of life than those with fewer episodes of anger. A systematic review and meta-analysis by Tavakoly Sany et al. (2020) also revealed a high prevalence of anger among Iranian students.

Is there help?

In popular culture, the 2003 movie “Anger Management” starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler illustrates the impact of unresolved anger issues on daily life. The main character, Dave, is court-ordered to undergo anger management therapy after an incident on the airplane. The movie humorously drives the message of the importance of seeking professional help for anger problems.

So, we understand that people who experience problematic anger may be feeling vulnerable or stigmatized. It is essential for you to remember — anger is a normal emotion.  It is also essential for you to remember — most people need help learning to manage it.  It takes courage to seek help, but there is hope in experiencing and managing anger.  Perhaps ironically, the things our anger point us to may actually be the pathways (rather than obstacles) to a peaceful life.   Effective management and successful overcoming of anger requires a concerted effort involving lifestyle changes, self-help strategies, and professional help such as mental health counseling. 

There’s nothing else you need to do to prepare.  There’s no reason to wait any longer.


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