Anger is a common emotion that can help individuals relieve stress, motivate them to solve problems, and provide a way, through healthy expression, for people to discuss their negative feelings.
It is normal to experience anger, and at times, anger is the appropriate response to the actions of others. When managed correctly and kept in check, anger can be an important ally to a healthy adult. But anger has risks, perhaps more than any other emotion, as it can alienate people from others and lead individuals to do things they later regret.
Anger may also arise, not due to a present situation, but because the present situation reminds one unconsciously of a past experience. It can also be a habitual defense against feelings of sadness or fear. Individuals who find they are experiencing lasting, extreme anger may find it helpful to explore its causes with a therapist.
While news reports often focus on the damaging effects of anger, anger does not always lead to negative consequences or behavior. Anger is an emotion, and experiencing it is normal. Managing reactions to anger can decrease the likelihood that it will become a problem.
Anger also sometimes serves as a mask for other emotions that an individual may be less comfortable with. Some people experience anger when they are fearful, sad, or lonely, and manifesting these emotions in the form of anger instead may work as a protective mechanism to avoid feelings that may be more uncomfortable than anger. However, anger can hide the actual issue that an individual may need to work through, particularly in individuals who have difficulty expressing emotion, who have been taught to refrain from emotional outbursts, or who believe that the expression of a particular emotion, such as fear or sadness, is unacceptable.
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A powerful emotion that can influence people's thought patterns and behavior choices, anger can contribute to aggression and violence, intentional or unintentional acts of self-harm, and social or legal problems. Anger can also be a sign of psychological conditions such as major depression or bipolar. Drugs and alcohol may help mask anger temporarily, but they may also have the effect of worsening one's anger, as drugs and alcohol can reduce self-control and tend to increase impulsivity.
If an individual has an anger problem, he or she may be aware of it but not know what to do. That individual may also not be aware of his or her anger; the nature of anger may lead those experiencing extreme anger to deny they have any responsibility for the problems to which they contribute.
Potential signs of anger issues include:
- Persistent feelings of frustration toward oneself or others.
- An inability to enjoy life or the company of others.
- A hot temper or a tendency to yell or argue with others.
- Physical signs such as headaches, rapid breathing, or a pounding heart.
Because frequent anger can become intolerable for some and may come to affect daily actions and relationships negatively, an individual experiencing intense, frequent anger may wish to take steps to reduce it. Therapy can help people learn to manage their emotions, but an individual can also take steps independently to control both emotions and their behavioral effects. These steps include:
- Meditation and mindfulness, such as considering actions carefully or contemplating why one feels a certain way.
- Considering that anger might be masking another emotion.
- Talking to a loved one about one’s feelings.
- Writing in a journal.
- Using physical activity, such as running or bicycling, as an outlet for anger.
- Taking time each day to do something enjoyable.
- Finding techniques, such as time management and advanced planning, that may help reduce stress before it becomes intolerable.
Anger control can be difficult for people at times. Emotional outbursts, physical aggression, and violence are just some of the results of anger problems: Individuals who experience chronic anger tend to be more susceptible to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, and depression. Psychotherapy may be of help to people who wish to work on controlling their anger.
With the help of a therapist, a person who has anger issues may be able to discover what lies at the root of his or her frustration and rage and can potentially identify his or her anger triggers and learn healthy ways to avoid or cope with those situations. Emotional regulation is a key component of effective anger therapy, and this technique empowers an individual to be able to face uncertain and stressful circumstances with control and an emotional balance that benefits the individual's mental and physical health and the well-being of those around them.
A therapist might use techniques such as progressive relaxation, cognitive therapy, and skill development to help individuals manage anger. Research shows that a combination of the three tends to provide the most success in treating anger.
- Anger and domestic violence: Claude, 43, is referred to therapy for anger issues by a court after being arrested for beating up his girlfriend and her teenage son. Claude feels regret for his actions, which signifies to the therapist that he may be successful in treatment. Therapy quickly reveals that Claude has a tremendous, irrational fear that his girlfriend will leave him. Claude realizes that it is his angry behavior and violence that may in fact lead her to leave, but, with the help of his therapist, he discovers that his fears actually stem from childhood, when his mother, for reasons Claude denies knowing, left his father to care for Claude and his four siblings. Claude realizes he still feels great anger toward both his parents for this event. Later, in a couples session, he reveals this about himself to his girlfriend, establishing a level of intimacy and trust he has never achieved with anyone else. Claude still finds himself angry more often than he would like, but he becomes able to express his emotions more readily and avoid violence or aggression.
- Depression manifesting as anger: Luisa, 23, seeks treatment for depression, and is soon angry with her therapist because her mood does not quickly improve. She is demanding in treatment and has poor insight into her actions, blaming others and their shortcomings for everything wrong in her life. Her therapist reframes her disclosures, focusing not on her complaints but on what Luisa wants and needs, but lacks: intimacy, a sense of purpose in her life, and self-forgiveness for past mistakes. The therapist also identifies some biological tendencies toward mood swings. Luisa is able to express her sadness and fear, and she gains insight into the ways she causes herself to be isolated from others by always criticizing or arguing with them. She soon begins to work on communicating more assertively and less aggressively, rediscovers her childhood love of painting and music, enrolls in college, and begins apologizing to friends for her past actions. Her anger, while still sometimes a challenge for her, is under control.
- Anger. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/index.aspx.
- Controlling anger -- before it controls you. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx.
- Holloway, J. (2003). Advances in Anger Management. Monitor on Psychology, 34(3), 54.
- Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2015, February 1). Anger Management: Tips and Techniques for Getting Anger Under Control. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/emotional-health/anger-management.htm.
Last updated: 07-03-2015