Healthy Adulting • Coping With Anger
15 November 2020
Overblown anger usually indicates a larger underlying problem in life. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are associated with many magnified negative feelings, some common culprits being worthlessness, shame, and disappointment, all of which can translate into anger. Addiction is also a common source of anger, showing up when we get frustrated with ourselves for not being able to stop our compulsions, or to get the fix that would soothe us temporarily.
What is happening?
There are two sets of structures in the brain that govern us: the cortex thinks, while the limbic system takes care of the more ancient aspects such as emotions and memories. External triggers, particularly fears, are sent to a deep, central part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala decides whether to send the incoming data to the cortex for rational processing, or straight to the limbic system that generates quick knee-jerk reactions.
Childhood maltreatment, poor social adaptation, and unchecked habits sometimes lead to an overactive amygdala, causing us to react too strongly and out of proportion to the actual gravity of the triggering event. Anger becomes an undesirable response when we keep getting uncontrollably irritated against a perceived threat, no matter how small or unfounded it is.
What makes us angry?
Anger makes everything seem worse or more important than it actually is. It also makes us feel sure that the things that offend us are true even though we cannot know absolutely whether they are. We feel the urge to exert our will, and we feel justified to let our ego overcome others' rights.
Having said that, anger is nevertheless a normal response experienced by everyone in the face of unfairness. Some events in life make us feel deliberately harmed, even when on a deeper level we know that that is not true. Such events can cause unforgiving feelings that manifest themselves in anger:
- Frustration — Feeling victimised when things are not going the way we want them to.
- Injury — Feeling the need to revenge after being attacked.
- Exploitation — Feeling the need to set things straight after being taken advantage of.
- Lack of attention — Feeling small as a result of being ignored or dismissed.
- Envy / jealousy — Feeling obsessed when someone else has something that we desire.
- Lack of conformity — Feeling irritated when other people do not obey the rules that we obey or believe to be important.
- Sympathy — Feeling troubled when seeing someone else suffer a harm that should not be allowed to happen.
Everyone expresses anger differently.
Even though anger is completely normal, it becomes a problem when we feel it too frequently, too overwhelmingly, or when we express it in ways that can hurt other people or ourselves.
Noticing our own physical signs of anger is the best way to catch the beast before it overcomes us. Because physical signs tend to show up even when we are trying to suppress our feelings, they are highly useful for those who are used to restraining themselves, but nevertheless suffer from deep-seated and unresolved rages. Some of these signs include:
- Clenched fists
- Fast and shallow breathing
- Stomach in knots
- Shaking or trembling
- Pounding heart
- Reddened face
Apart from classical displays of anger such as verbal abuse and physical violence, many people have learned to express their anger in subtler forms due to social conditioning and habitual inhibition. These are not better or worse than other kinds of aggression, whether self-directed or interpersonal, and should also be monitored mindfully with consistent practice:
- Passive aggression — “I want to control your emotions or behaviour but I don’t want you to notice it.”
- Sarcasm — “I want to hurt you verbally and I will force you to take it as a joke."
- Contempt and disdain — “I am better than you and you are lesser than me.”
- Disgust — “You contaminate me or the things I care about.”
- Coldness — “I refuse to acknowledge you, and I take pleasure in your misfortune.”
- Hostility — “I am ready to fight you if I have to.”
How to cope?
Unbridled anger can form a vicious cycle that becomes more aggressive at every outburst and harder to break. The understanding that anger is usually fuelled by an overblown emotional threat is essential to rebuilding a response mechanism that is not based on defensiveness and flight-or-fight reaction, but compassion and rationality.
Anger can be caused by real problems in our lives that need to be solved, but our ability for problem solving is weakened if we continuously fail to provide ourselves a suitable framework in which to assess life that is based on reality instead of drama. Many established anger management techniques are not only meant for emotional de-escalation, but also for helping us to restructure our attitudes and rebuild our empathy, so as to restrain our ego from taking centre stage on every ocassion:
- Maintain a diary to record the thinking patterns and common triggers that have led to your angry outbursts.
- Recognise the moment anger starts appearing in your body.
- Observe whether the angry feeling is taking over your logical mind.
- Do not feel guilty about your anger, but accept that you need ample personal space to avoid lashing out (even though you really want to), and to let the urge flow through you.
- Practise switching attention to your breathing until the anger feels less urgent.
- When things have calmed, retrace and revisit the train of thought that you have experienced during the provoking situation.
- Do not blame yourself.
- Visualise giving yourself a pat on the shoulder or hugging yourself like a parent would to a child.
Exploring our inner thoughts.
Therapy and counselling help us understand our anger and learn how to manage it, so that we can limit its negative impact on our lives in scientifically proven ways.
To gain more insight into our anger, it is useful to ask, “in what ways had this situation hurt me?” and, “am I overestimating the damage that can be done to me?” The answers to these might put things into perspective as we realise that our anger has more to do with our flawed beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world, than the actual severity of the situation itself.
After an angry episode has subsided, ask yourself the following questions, and remember your answers when the next tantrum begins to simmer:
- Do I talk to myself in an overtly emotional language that tends to describe situations as catastrophes, exaggerated dramas, or black-and-white scenarios?
- Was the situation worth getting angry over?
- Did I really need to be angry at that moment? Did it solve my problems?
- Did the pleasure of lashing out justify the harm done (or could potentially do)?
- How did the effects of my anger impact people on the receiving end?
We often either use anger as a tool to avoid feeling hurt, or hurt ourselves by directing the rage inwards. Neither pattern is necessarily our fault, but both can lead to bigger mental health problems and social issues. Learning how to control anger does not mean denying ourselves the freedom of expression, but that it happens to be a vital step towards gaining more inner peace and overall contentment in life.
Seek the help of a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist if you often feel unsure, overwhelmed, or out of your depth when confronting difficult feelings.
Gilbert, Paul. Overcoming Depression. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Davies, William. Overcoming Anger and Irritability. Robinson, 2009.Back