There’s a common misconception that anger is bad. Actually, anger is just an emotion—like happiness or sadness. Contrary to what our culture might preach, there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry. It’s even acceptable to express anger, as long as the individual remains in control of his or her behaviour. However, some people experience a different form of anger; perhaps their anger is not fleeting, or maybe they find themselves acting out-of-control when angry—possibly even harming their loved ones. These symptoms suggest the presence of unresolved anger issues. Without professional help or conscious self-development, unchecked anger and behaviour can interrupt nearly every facet of life.
This article will examine healthy anger, acceptable ways to deal with angry feelings, anger that leads to abuse, and the most common causes of anger management problems. Please keep in mind that both men and women can struggle with anger.
What Is Anger?
Anger is a complex emotional state that can range from mild irritation to full-blown rage. It’s a normal reaction to a perceived threat to ourselves, our self-image, our identity, our loved ones, or our property. Anger, by itself, is not a bad thing; it’s a natural warning sign that something is wrong. However, if the anger spirals out of control or turns destructive, then it can cause significant problems in personal relationships or at work. Feelings of anger are okay, but impulsive behaviours carried out in anger can hurt people.
Instinctively, we express anger by responding aggressively to threats, such as fighting or defending ourselves. Thus, anger is necessary for survival and self-preservation. However, due to social norms, laws, and common sense, we cannot lash out physically every time we feel angry. How, then, can we deal with anger in a helpful way without causing harm?
Handling Anger Constructively
People naturally use both conscious and unconscious methods to deal with angry feelings, mainly expressing, suppressing, and calming.
1. Expressing anger assertively—without being overly aggressive—is healthy and constructive. This involves making your needs clear and communicating how to meet those needs without hurting anyone else. Being assertive means being respectful without appearing demanding or pushy.
2. Suppressing anger can temporarily provide relief by allowing you to redirect the energy into something positive while you stop thinking about the anger. However, consistently holding in your anger instead of expressing it outwardly can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour, result in cynicism and criticism, or even create health problems, such as high blood pressure, hypertension, or depression.
3. Calming down refers to controlling both the outward and inward responses to a perceived threat. Examples include taking specific steps to calm yourself, let the angry feeling fade away, and lowering your heart rate.
These strategies can be effective in dealing with anger in a positive way—at least in the short term—but when all three techniques fail, that’s when anger can escalate beyond your control and cause trouble.
Is Your Loved One Angry?
Sometimes, identifying an anger problem means not looking within ourselves, but recognizing that a loved one needs help dealing with his or her anger. Too often, people think that they can help their partners “control” their anger, or they feel sorry for an out-of-control family member. The intentions are good, but these individuals are trying to take responsibility for someone else’s anger problem; this only enables the angry person and allows him or her to continue lashing out in anger without serious consequences. Thus, the angry person has no incentive to change.
It’s commonly believed that only men have anger problems that lead to domestic abuse, but the reality is that women struggle with anger issues too. And if any anger within a relationship goes unchecked, it can lead to abuse—physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse—no matter which partner has lost control. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in seven adult men in the U.S. has been the victim of physical violence by an intimate partner (1). Plenty of women’s shelters offer help for abused women, but what about abused men? Why don’t more abused men reach out?
* Men are often taught to “suck it up” and avoid expressing emotions.
* The stereotypical abusive relationship is a man acting violently against a female partner; abused men may feel like there aren’t any resources or support to help them.
* The abuse of men isn’t taken seriously or is treated as a joke.
If you believe you or a loved one—whether partner, child, or parent—may be losing control to anger and behaving in an abusive manner, then you need to seek professional help immediately.
What Causes Ongoing Anger Issues?
Healthy anger can be triggered by situations or perceived threats, but in these cases, the individual remains in control of his or her actions. When a person loses control of the anger, or when consistent or extreme changes in behavior are caused by anger, then an unresolved anger problem can destroy relationships, lower performance at work or school, and cause significant health issues. The most common causes of anger issues among both men and women include:
* Learned behaviour
Children naturally learn how to behave in a relationship by watching their parents interact. These children often grow up to continue these behaviors within their adult lives, especially if they’ve been surrounded by physical aggression or haven’t been exposed to healthy emotional communications. After all, as far as they know, lashing out in anger is “normal.” It’s all they know, unless they are exposed to more constructive methods of handling anger and building intimacy.
Similarly, the culture of someone’s childhood also influences how he or she expresses anger. For instance, some societies teach individuals to suppress anger, valuing a calm outward appearance at the potential expense of one’s physical and mental health, while other cultures permit members to release their anger verbally or physically.
* Overall mental health
Some mental health issues can make an individual more prone to anger problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and some personality disorders. For example, untreated depression can make it hard to handle emotions, which raises the likelihood of having angry outbursts; these outbursts can cause the individual to feel alienated or guilty, which feeds the depression. Thus, depression and anger form a cycle that often can’t be broken without professional help.
* Poor self-image
Sometimes, despite having successful careers, people keep thinking, “I’m not good enough.” Or, for whatever reason, they are immersed in distressful emotions such as feeling guilty, ignored, shameful, unimportant, rejected, powerless, or unlovable. As a result, feeling angry acts as a self-soothing survival tactic. During anger arousal, the brain releases a hormone called norepinephrine. This hormone acts as a painkiller to cover up these “core hurts.” As a bonus, the anger may also invalidate whoever caused the core hurts in the first place.
Research suggests that some people are irritable and easily angered from the time they’re born (2). These individuals may have a low tolerance for frustration; it’s difficult for them to take things in stride, and they often feel that they should not have to feel frustrated, annoyed, or inconvenienced. In addition, some personalities are more likely to express anger outwardly while others tend to internalize such feelings.
Feeling continually stressed, perhaps due to financial issues, abuse, or poor familial situations, can contribute to the formation of anger, particularly when people feel overwhelmed by the constant demands on their time and energy. Depending on genetics, learned responses, and the body’s response to certain hormones, some individuals may be more prone to anger issues when they are under pressure.
Depending on drugs or alcohol can reduce a person’s ability to handle anger constructively. Some substances, such as cocaine or heroin, can worsen feelings of anger by changing the body chemistry to mask feelings of anger. If left unresolved, anger can drive an individual to use drugs or alcohol as a coping method. The result is a downward spiral fed by substance abuse and anger; breaking this destructive cycle often requires professional help for both the substance abuse and the anger.
As part of the survival instinct, anger can help people respond appropriately. However, anger can also remain long after the immediate threat is gone. This is particularly true when the traumatic event involved betrayal, such as violence or exploitation. If post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops, then the individual’s threat response may become “stuck” in “full survival mode.” As a result, any stressful situation—no matter how trivial—triggers a disproportional response of irritability, anger, and acting as if the person’s life is threatened.
Anger Issues CAN Be Resolved
People who have a problem with anger generally already know it. If someone you know is often angry, or acts in a way that seems frightening and out of control, then he or she should seek professional help. Individual counselling or group therapy can introduce specific skills and ways of thinking to help cope with anger. Anger is a healthy emotion when it’s managed properly, but sometimes we need a little help getting there. And that’s okay.
(1) Blog. (2014, July 22). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.thehotline.org/2014/07/men-can-be-victims-of-abuse-too/
(2) Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx
Anger. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/anger/what-anger
Anger and Trauma. (2014, January 3). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/anger-and-trauma.asp
Anger Symptoms, Causes and Effects. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.psychguides.com/guides/anger-symptoms-causes-and-effects/
Blog. (2014, July 22). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.thehotline.org/2014/07/men-can-be-victims-of-abuse-too/
Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx
Hurst, M. (n.d.). Anger and Substance Abuse. Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://baysidemarin.crchealth.com/substance-abuse-addiction/anger/
Namka, L. (n.d.). So You Love An Angry Person. Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.angriesout.com/family2.htm
Seltzer, L. (2008, July 11). What Your Anger May Be Hiding. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding