We all feel angry at times and this can be an appropriate reaction to some situations.

Indeed anger can exert a cathartic, deeply cleansing effect: for example, by defining clear boundaries, by identifying gross violations of socially appropriate behaviour, or by empowering the individual to make difficult decisions. However we may also experience very strong feelings of anger which are unhelpful and impact negatively on relationships and work or social situations.

Is anger affecting your life in negative ways?

  • You are less content with life, have less energy
  • You have a health issue that gets worse whenever you feel stressed or annoyed
  • Relaxing is difficult, you cease to enjoy yourself or have fun. Others say you are very serious.
  • Things to be done are no longer a pleasure
  • You avoid social occasions or give up your usual sporting activities because they are too much bother
  • The thought of being with people irritates you

Physiology of anger

  • A stimulus triggers emotion
  • Tension or stress begins to build
  • Adrenaline is released contributing to growing tension
  • Breathing rate increases
  • Heartbeat accelerates
  • Blood pressure rises
  • There is now a body and mind 'Fight or Flight' response

Personal effects of feeling angry

We do ourselves and others harm by not sorting out our problems with anger. Surveys have shown that depression, acute anxiety, heart disease, ulcers are some of the ailments that are the result of unresolved and badly managed anger. We can also suffer headaches, being emotionally withdrawn from those we love and financially pressured if we need to replace things we have broken during our anger outbursts. We may lose relationships and friendships if people get tired of our hurtful and angry comments so don't invite us to be with them. The outcomes of anger are personal and different but they all leave us with negative feelings and more problems to solve.

Managing your anger

  • Learn what triggers your anger
  • Learn how to recognize it as soon as it starts to rise. This will help you prepare for potentially anger arousing situations and avoid them thus decreasing your stress levels.
  • Learn strategies to dampen it down and not let it take you over. Dampening your anger is about catching it in the early stages when you begin to feel tension etc. so that you can think about how to manage it before it gets too strong for thinking to be possible.

The four components

Anger can really prevent us from relating and performing as well as we can. When this happens we may regret our behaviour and wonder why it has actually happened. There are four components to getting angry:

  1. Triggers: There are many different anger triggers. Often things affecting us in childhood stay with us as we become adults and affect our reactions. We form expectations of others and ourselves and when they are not met we feel angry. Examples are others not acting as we do, not being acknowledged, having to wait in a queue for ages, feeling discounted or misunderstood. Finding out why we react angrily can help us to explore ways of changing our behaviour. If we can think through why we feel so angry we can begin to work through those feelings and let go of them, acknowledging that we were justified having them as children but expressing them now as adults puts us in difficult situations
    • Unrealistic Expectations - Sometimes we expect everyone else to live by our standards and when they don't we get very annoyed. How reasonable are we being? If I am on the train planning to study or hoping to concentrate on a book, am I justified in expecting everyone else in the train to be quiet? Realizing that this will not necessarily be the case I have a choice about whether I let others' talking etc. get to me or not. I may also have the option of moving my seat to a quieter carriage. Try and look for the unrealistic expectations you have of others and yourself and see what arouses your anger. If you can understand where your expectations came from, you may well be able to change some of them so that you don't become angry. The positive result of this is that you will be less stressed.
    • Unhelpful Thoughts - We can think in unhelpful ways about people and situations when our anger is triggered. What we need is to find ways of changing how we think. For example, if you are waiting for someone and they are late, you can either feel slighted, disrespected, annoyed for being left waiting, think they are doing it on purpose; all of which illicit angry feelings. Alternatively you can rationalize that they don't usually behave like this so are not being deliberately annoying, or acknowledge that something has held them up. Thinking in this way helps keep you in a sunnier frame of mind when you do finally meet so that the planned meeting does not start on the wrong foot.
    • Old Resentments - Resentments held can cause innocent remarks to trigger our anger. Becoming as self aware as possible can help us recognize why we react angrily. How we have been treated in the past can set us up for small remarks to trigger strong feelings of anger, which are out of proportion to the remark.
  2. Thoughts: Our thoughts have a major effect on how we react to situations. For example if we get up feeling negative we drain ourselves of energy and set ourselves up for having a bad day. How we perceive things like having a lot to do makes a difference to how we react. If we have a lot to do this in itself does not have the power to determine that we will have a headache, cause stress or tension. It depends much more on our attitude to having a lot to do. To change our actions we need to change our way of thinking, which takes time and practice as we challenge ourselves about how we habitually think and react. Sometimes people experience 'cognitive distortion', which is when they make a problem bigger than it actually is, reading meanings into things that aren't there. This can increase feelings of anger. If that becomes severe, cognitive behavioural therapy can be helpful.
  3. Feelings: When our security and safety are threatened we react with the 'fight or flight' mechanism. This causes a release of chemicals into the body, which we experience as fear, muscular tension, pounding heart, faster breathing. This can be very useful, but it kicks in whenever we perceive a threat and can increase our anger response if our self-talk has magnified an event. E.g. you have group work to finish, other group members are 'too slow' doing their bit, and because you fear failure you get angry with them, although you will meet the deadline.
  4. Behaviour: When we feel really angry it is hard to accept the fact that we have a choice about what we do with our anger. We do not have to take it out on other people. Read the following and see if you express your anger in any of these ways:
    • Passive/Aggressive behaviour: Becoming very quiet; withdrawing and refusing to communicate, denying anger, being uncooperative on purpose; acting in ways to upset or show the other how badly you feel.
    • Sarcasm: Insulting the other, putting them down 'humorously', facial expression or tone of voice conveying criticism or contempt.
    • Cold Anger: Withdrawing and staying silent, making people work hard to reach you, which you may secretly enjoy; punishing them emotionally for how you feel.
    • Hostility: You don't handle stress well and become loud and forceful, which makes others uncomfortable; you are vocal about your expectations not being met, expressing intrusive and stressful opinions about and to others.
    • Aggression: Exploding verbally, shouting and wanting to get your own back; intimidating the other emotionally and/or physically; this includes, holding, blocking, pushing, hitting, restraining; this type of behaviour is the most serious and may require specialist help when levels of verbal and physical abuse are harming others.

Strategies that may help you

  1. Taking time out. We can change so that anger does not affect so much in our lives by becoming as self aware as we can. This means noticing how and why we are reacting to things and reflecting on that awareness before we act. In doing this we are taking time to think about what we want to do rather than being taken over by strong feelings that can lead to actions we later regret. When a situation looks as though it may turn into an angry argument you could take time out. Say to the other person that you need a few minutes to think and if necessary leave the room and have a walk while you think things through.
  2. Deep Breathing. Another version of this is to sit down if you are standing up, sit back in your chair and take a few deep breaths while you think to yourself 'I am just going to distance myself emotionally and regain control, get hold of my rational self again'. Calming yourself down by breathing exercises does help.
  3. Humour. Generate an alternative form of physical arousal by channelling your energy into humour.
  4. Anger Diffusing Techniques. Examples include: smashing bottles into a bottle bank; tearing up a newspaper into shreds; punching pillows/cushions/mattress; throwing stones into the sea/river; screaming; crying; running/going to the gym; walking/marching/hill walking; cleaning a room; writing a letter without sending it, etc.
  5. Self-help books. There are many books on anger-management, which give many more examples of how we react to life and how we can deal with it better. If you want more in-depth strategies try reading:
    • Benson, Herbert (2000) The Relaxation Response. New York: Avon Books.
    • Nay, W. Robert (2003) Taking Charge of Your Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships and Express Yourself Without Losing Control. London: Guilford Press.
    • Paterson, Randy (2000) The Assertiveness Workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships. New York: New Harbinger Publications.
    • Williams, Redford & Virginia (1998) Anger Kills: 17 Strategies for Controlling the Hostility that can Harm your Health. New York: Mass Marketing Paperback.