Everyone is familiar with anger. We’ve all been there. You feel it building. It is slow at first, like a locomotive, then faster, then stronger. Now at full speed, it seems like it cannot be stopped. Like a destructive force, controlled by an out of this world energy, we act, speak, and think in a way that just doesn’t make sense or seems out of character. What was that? Why were we angry? What can we do about it?
What is anger? At its core, anger is simply an emotion. Anger is defined as a strong feeling of displeasure, annoyance, hostility, or antagonism. Anger can be considered a secondary emotion. It is the response to other emotions having been triggered first. Anger is the emotion needed to engage the “fight” in the Fight or Flight Response System. It is a protective force utilized when dealing with a real or perceived threat.
The expression of anger tends to be primarily behavioral. The source of anger tends to be primarily emotional. However, anger can be expressed in both overt and covert ways. Not all who struggle with anger will act out in a visible manner. Not all will have a “quick temper” or be “hot-headed” as we have come to label those who display anger. Some may be passive-aggressive. Some may bottle it up and let it build and then explode visibly. Others may turn their anger inward and become withdrawn, isolated, and/or depressed.
Why do we get angry? We get angry about what is happening in the world around us. It is our internal response to external stressors. Common emotions known to trigger anger are anxiety, shame, sadness, fear, frustration, guilt, disappointment, worry, embarrassment, jealousy, and hurt. All of these emotions are experienced as negative and are perceived as threatening to our well-being. Simplifying it and breaking it down to a purely primitive sense, we get angry because we feel a need to protect ourselves. For example, a young boy receives a bad grade in the class (environmental stressor) and is feeling disappointed and embarrassed (internal trigger). He knows he will get into trouble at home (perceived threat). Later, when a classmate talks to him (also a perceived threat), he pushes him and yells “Leave me alone.” The boy’s disappointment triggered his anger and therefore an angry behavior.
What do we do? Given that anger is displayed in many ways, some of which being aggressive and unsafe behaviors, always assess for safety risks first. If there is a threat to oneself or others– do not engage but call in the proper authorities. If safety cannot be guaranteed, it may be necessary to contact emergency services. Though it’s imperative to address the emotional triggers to truly work through anger, safety must be dealt with first.
Whether there is or isn’t a safety issue, take a break and walk away. No matter the situation or scenario, it’s always best to let cooler heads prevail. Once everyone is calm, you can begin the discussion about emotional triggers and work on validation. It is imperative to validate the emotions driving the behavior. This is where true change is made. It is important to spend time listening and communicating, keeping in mind not to blame or shame those involved. When demonstrating true understanding, it builds trust and respect and can impact the outcomes of future experiences with anger. If the trigger emotions and the associated anger are not validated, then the angry behaviors will not go away. In fact, if one were to focus only on the undesired behavior, it is very likely that the anger and behavior will get worse. Remember, thought behaviors create an observable issue, anger is an emotion. You must deal with the emotions.
Consider this scenario: If a person is punished for crying then they are taught not to cry because it is a punishable offense. Now, they may have stopped crying but the sadness that caused the crying continues. Furthermore, it is likely that their sadness will become worse while they attempt to hide it in order to avoid getting punished. Their emotions and external stressors are likely to become internalized contributing to increased feelings of anxiety and depression.
This is true in anger. If all we do is punish the outburst and offer no way to calm the reason for the anger, the anger is likely to get worse. Once the emotions have been validated and worked through, address the behavioral issues that arose during the episode. Be clear and specific about boundaries and limits. “It’s ok to be angry, but it’s not ok to kick holes in the wall.” Provide consequences for undesired and inappropriate behaviors, when appropriate. Consequences can be tricky because it could be a trigger to increased anger. If there are any positives that can be taken from the interaction, they should be highlighted. “I saw that you were really angry and I noticed that you didn’t flip the furniture. I really like when you try so hard.”
The experience of anger often is an intense one for all parties involved. It is for this reason we continuously hear the phrase “anger problem.” If you feel that you or someone you love is experiencing anger so frequently and so intensely that it seems out of control, then it may be necessary to talk to a professional. A therapist can help someone struggling with anger to learn to control their anger using behavioral strategies or emotional regulation strategies. Furthermore, through individual and/or group therapy, a therapist can help identify and work to resolve the root emotional causes that contribute to anger.
Though anger is a normal emotion, it can be a dangerous emotion. It is experienced in so many ways for so many reasons. The problem lies in our outward expression, our inability to understand, and our focus on the behaviors. If the true resolution is your goal, then you must know what’s hiding behind the anger.
If you or someone you know could use help in working through their anger, a Perspectives of Troy Counselor can help. Call 248-244-8644 to schedule an appointment.