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Anger is a basic emotion that is central to the survival of our species. Feeling angry is a natural human response to certain life experiences, and it occurs particularly at times when we come under attack, feel deceived, insulted or frustrated. Anger helps to relieve built-up energy and tension.
We are programmed to express anger from birth, yet in some cases this perfectly healthy emotion can become excessive and may be a symptom of more complex issues such as mental health problems. When it gets out of control, anger can turn destructive and can significantly impact quality of life – affecting your career, your relationships and overall well-being.
Often, anger problems are due to poor management of our emotions. Anger, like all emotions, involves physiological and chemical changes in the body – affecting heart rate and adrenaline levels. For some people these surges can become addictive and destructive. There is a fine line between acknowledging anger and venting it until it is out of control.
Anger management therapy is designed to help individuals learn how to control their anger more effectively and lessen the impact their anger problems are having on their lives. This page will explore anger in more detail and how anger management therapy can help turn unhealthy anger into healthy anger.
The instinctive, natural way human beings express anger is through aggression. It is a key mechanism for survival as it triggers the ‘flight or fight’ reaction, which allows us to fight and defend ourselves when we are attacked. However, it is socially unacceptable for our anger to be unleashed every time we are annoyed or irritated.
When we express anger, we use a variety of unconscious and conscious processes to deal with angry feelings. The way in which we control these processes however is what determines whether or not our anger is unhealthy or healthy. When we express our anger assertively – in a non-aggressive, but constructive manner – we are asserting what our needs are and how we want them met without hurting others. This tends to be a less pushy or demanding approach, which shows respect for yourself and others.
If our anger is not expressed in this manner, it is more than likely being expressed unhealthily. This can take many forms, but will almost always have negative repercussions. Often we suppress, convert and redirect our anger but this can negatively affect our health and well-being – causing high blood pressure and even depression. It may even lead on to other problems such as passive-aggressive behaviour – in which angry people get back at others indirectly without confronting them head on – and hostility.
People who have failed to process their anger effectively may put others down and can be overly critical. They may be chronically irritable and grumpy and this behaviour can greatly affect their relationships and how they function in everyday life.
To summarise, below is a list of some of the different ways people express and feel anger:
- Buried anger – when people are unaware that they are angry, but are experiencing common side effects such as depression and anxiety.
- Hidden anger – when people are aware that they are angry, but choose to suppress it and hide it from others.
- Impulsive anger – explosive bursts of anger, which is common among those who have a short fuse.
- Intentional anger – people who use their anger to intimidate, hurt and bully others in order to get what they want.
- Habitual anger – people who can find anything to be angry about every day.
- Defensive anger – when anger is used as a defence to protect the person from hurtful comments or experiences.
- Righteous anger – when people consider their anger to be moral and justified in their fighting for something greater.
What makes people angry?
There are a variety of reasons why people become angry and these will differ from person to person depending on personal circumstances and individual needs. Some of the common factors that make people angry are:
- grief and bereavement
- sexual frustration
- verbal or physical assault
- suffering a blow to self-esteem
- being interrupted when pursuing a goal
- having property mistreated
- physical and mental illnesses
- hormonal imbalances
- withdrawals from certain medications and drugs
- someone going against a principle that is considered important.
Why can it be difficult to control anger?
There are many reasons why people are unable to control their anger. Often, it is a family or cultural pattern that has never been questioned. In some families individuals are discouraged from expressing anger, and in others, being angry is unacceptable and a sign or failure for all. Furthermore, individuals from families that are disruptive, chaotic and unstructured tend to be less skilled at emotional communication and thus may be more easily angered.
Additionally, it is thought that some people are just more naturally inclined to feeling angry than others. These individuals tend to get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does, and experts believe they have a lower tolerance to frustration and annoyance. Reasons for this are unknown, but experts believe genetics and physiology could play a part.
Sociocultural factors may also contribute to anger issues, especially as anger is primarily considered a negative emotion. Whilst we may be taught that expressing emotions such as anxiety is acceptable, the expression of anger is often seen as a taboo. This may impact how we learn to handle and channel it constructively.
When is anger a problem?
Fundamentally, anger becomes a problem when it starts harming you and those around you. This will depend on how you express your anger. If you are bottling it up, or expelling it at inappropriate times and in unsafe ways, you are risking damage not only to your health and well-being, but also to your relationships and other aspects of your daily life.
This can have devastating consequences in the longer term, and your aggression may escalate to the extent that your anger leads to other types of behaviour (i.e. responding in a passive aggressive way or even with physical abuse). You may also find that over time you get angry more quickly or too often, sometimes at the smallest things. If you get to the stage that you feel unable to control your anger, or let go of it constructively, that is when you need to consider professional help.
Some of the side effects of consistent uncontrolled or unresolved anger on your emotional, physical and mental health could include:
- low self-esteem
- eating disorders
- drug and/or alcohol abuse
- compulsive behaviour
- sleep problems and insomnia
- digestive problems (IBS)
- skin disorders
- weakened immune system
- heart problems
- high blood pressure.
Another sign that your anger has become a problem is when your feelings of rage lead to destructive and violent behaviour. Expressing anger through aggression and violence can be very damaging and frightening to those around you, and can affect your relationships, your career, as well as the level of respect people have for you.
Signs you have an anger problem
As well as domestic violence and uncontrolled violent behaviour, there are other signs – both emotional and physical – to look out for that can determine whether or not you have an anger problem. These can include:
- Explosive outbursts where you break things.
- Alcohol or drug dependence used to cover anger issues.
- You find yourself involved in fights.
- You have numerous arguments with people around you.
- You have trouble with the authorities.
- You lose your temper while driving.
- You rub your face frequently.
- Clenching of the jaw and grinding of teeth.
- Rocking motion whilst sitting.
A constant feeling or desire to lash out verbally or physically.
What to expect in anger management therapy
Anger management therapy is available in the form of group or one-to-one sessions – depending on the individual needs of the client(s) involved. Typically the counsellor will work to address specific types of anger issues (relationships, adolescent, parenting, work-related anger etc.) using methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness. Some clients may attend sessions on their own account, whilst others may be admitted by their doctor, the police or as part of a court-order resulting from a domestic or legal issue.
The main aims of anger management therapy are:
- Identify why a client gets angry (triggers).
- Change the way individuals respond to these triggers.
- Teach a client the skills to effectively handle anger triggers and keep calm when they feel anger surging.
- Teach clients to have their needs met in a healthy, assertive way.
- Teach clients how to transform unhealthy anger into healthy anger in order to motivate them to solve problems and find solutions.
- Teach clients how to communicate effectively to defuse anger and resolve conflicts.
Anger management classes tend to last between four and six weeks, although in some cases may take longer. Throughout sessions, clients will collaborate with the counsellor to learn specific skills and ways of thinking. These will be tailored to the individual needs of the client and their personal circumstances. Most anger management therapies also include homework projects, such as journal writing and various exercises that strengthen the techniques learned in sessions. These allow clients to practice anger management in real-life situations.
In addition, if a client has any other mental health issues – such as depression or addiction – a therapist may need to work on these at the start of therapy for anger management to be effective. As a result, the therapist may ask for information about a client’s current medical situation, as well as their medical history.