Anger management

The problem of anger

Anger itself is an emotion that we all feel, and isn’t necessarily a problem itself. However when anger is expressed in unhelpful ways it can be a problem when it comes to maintaining healthy, loving and respectful relationships. That’s where anger management skills come in.

Anger management
Anger management skills are easy to learn ‐ The hardest part is practising them consistently.

Some operational definitions

In the most general sense, anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger is a natural response to those situations where we feel threatened, we believe harm will come to us, or we believe that another person has unnecessarily wronged us. We may also become angry when we feel another person, like a child or someone close to us, is being threatened or harmed. In addition, anger may result from frustration when our needs, desires, and goals are not being met. When we become angry, we may lose our patience and act impulsively, aggressively, or violently.

People often confuse anger with aggression.

Aggression is behaviour that is intended to cause harm to another person or damage property. This behaviour can include verbal abuse, threats, or violent acts.

Anger, on the other hand, is an emotion and does not necessarily lead to aggression. Therefore, a person can become angry without acting aggressively.

A term related to anger and aggression is hostility.

Hostility refers to a complex set of attitudes and judgements that motivate aggressive behaviours. Whereas anger is an emotion and aggression is behaviour, hostility is an attitude that involves disliking others and evaluating them negatively.

In this article, you will learn helpful strategies and techniques for anger management, to express anger in alternative ways, change hostile attitudes, and prevent aggressive acts, such as verbal abuse and violence.

How do I know when anger is a problem?

Anger becomes a problem when it is felt too intensely, is felt too frequently, or is expressed inappropriately. Feeling anger too intensely or frequently places extreme physical strain on the body. During prolonged and frequent episodes of anger, certain divisions of the nervous system become highly activated. Consequently, blood pressure and heart rate increase and stay elevated for long periods. This stress on the body may produce many different health problems, such as hypertension, heart disease, and diminished immune system efficiency. Thus, from a health standpoint, avoiding physical illness is a motivation for anger management.

Even if you don’t think anger is causing you any problems at all, anger management is still a useful skill to have.

Another compelling reason to control anger concerns the negative consequences that result from expressing anger inappropriately. In the extreme, anger may lead to violence or physical aggression, which can result in numerous negative consequences, such as being arrested or jailed, being physically injured, being retaliated against, losing loved ones, being terminated from a substance abuse treatment or social service program, or feeling guilt, shame, or regret.

Even when anger does not lead to violence, the inappropriate expression of anger, such as verbal abuse or intimidating or threatening behaviour, often results in negative consequences. For example, it is likely that others will develop fear, resentment, and lack of trust toward those who subject them to angry outbursts, which may cause alienation from individuals, such as family members, friends, and co-workers.

Then there’s also the idea that, even if you don’t think anger is causing you any problems at all, anger management is still a useful skill to have.

Pay-offs and consequences

The inappropriate expression of anger initially has many apparent pay-offs. One pay-off is being able to manipulate and control others through aggressive and intimidating behaviour. Others may comply with someone’s demands because they fear verbal threats or violence. Another pay-off is the release of tension that occurs when one loses his or her temper and acts aggressively. The individual may feel better after an angry outburst, but everyone else may feel worse.

In the long term, however, these initial pay-offs lead to negative consequences. For this reason they are called “apparent” pay-offs because the long-term negative consequences far outweigh the short-term gains.

For example: Consider a father who persuades his children to comply with his demands by using an angry tone of voice and threatening gestures. These behaviours imply to the children that they will receive physical harm if they are not obedient. The immediate pay-off for the father is that the children obey his commands. The long-term consequence, however, may be that the children learn to fear or dislike him and become emotionally detached from him. As they grow older, they may avoid contact with him or refuse to see him altogether.

Related: Myths About Anger

Anger as a habitual response

Not only is the expression of anger learned, but it can become a routine, familiar, and predictable response to a variety of situations. When anger is displayed frequently and aggressively, it can become a maladaptive habit because it results in negative consequences. Habits, by definition, are performed over and over again, without thinking. People with anger management problems often resort to aggressive displays of anger to solve their problems, without thinking about the negative consequences they may suffer or the debilitating effects it may have on the people around them.

So what we need to do is Break the anger habit.

Becoming aware of anger

To break the anger habit, you must develop an awareness of the events, circumstances, and behaviours of others that trigger your anger. This awareness also involves understanding the negative consequences that result from anger.

For example: You may be in line at the supermarket and become impatient because the lines are too long. You could become angry, then boisterously demand that the checkout clerk call for more help. As your anger escalates, you may become involved in a heated exchange with the clerk or another customer. The store manager may respond by having a security officer remove you from the store. The negative consequences that result from this event are not getting the groceries that you wanted and the embarrassment and humiliation you suffer from being removed from the store.

Strategies for controlling anger

In addition to becoming aware of anger, you need to develop strategies to effectively manage it. Anger management strategies can be used to stop the escalation of anger before you lose control and experience negative consequences. An effective set of strategies for controlling anger should include both immediate and preventive strategies.

Immediate strategies include taking a time out, deep-breathing exercises, and thought stopping. Preventative strategies include developing an exercise program and changing your irrational beliefs. These strategies will be discussed in more detail.

Time out

One example of an immediate anger management strategy worth exploring at this point is the time out. The time out can be used formally or informally. For now, we will only describe the informal use of a time out. This use involves leaving a situation if you feel your anger is escalating out of control.

For example: You may be a passenger on a crowded bus and become angry because you perceive that people are deliberately bumping into you. In this situation, you can simply get off the bus and wait for a less crowded bus.

The informal use of a time out may also involve stopping yourself from engaging in a discussion or argument if you feel that you are becoming too angry. In these situations, it may be helpful to actually call a time out or to give the time out sign with your hands. This lets the other person know that you wish to immediately stop talking about the topic and are becoming frustrated, upset, or angry.

Anger meter

One technique that is helpful in increasing the awareness of anger is learning to monitor it. A simple way to monitor anger is to use the anger meter. A score of 1 on the anger meter represents a complete lack of anger or a total state of calm, whereas a 10 represents a very angry and explosive loss of control that leads to negative consequences. Points between 1 and 10 represent feelings of anger between these extremes.

The purpose of the anger meter is to monitor the escalation of anger as it moves up the scale. For example, when a person encounters an anger-provoking event, he or she does not reach a 10 immediately, although it may sometimes feel that way. In reality, a person’s anger starts at a low number and rapidly moves up the scale. There is always time, provided one has learned effective coping skills, to stop anger from escalating to a 10.

One difficulty people have when learning to use the anger meter is misunderstanding the meaning of a 10. A score of 10 is reserved for instances when an individual suffers (or could suffer) negative consequences. An example is when an individual assaults another person and is arrested by the police.

A second point to make about the anger meter is that people may interpret the numbers on the scale differently. These differences are acceptable. What may be a 5 for one person may be a 7 for someone else. It is much more important to personalize the anger meter and become comfortable and familiar with your readings of the numbers on the scale. In general, however, a 10 is reserved for instances when someone loses control and suffers (or could suffer) negative consequences.

Anger management
The anger thermometer

Events that trigger anger

When you get angry, usually an event has provoked your anger. For example, you may get angry when someone cuts you off in traffic, when you’ve spent a while ‘on hold’ on the phone, or when a neighbour plays his or her stereo too loud. Everyday events such as these can provoke your anger.

Many times, specific events touch on sensitive areas in your life. These sensitive areas or red flags usually refer to long-standing issues that can easily lead to anger. For example, some of us may have been slow readers as children and may be sensitive about our reading ability. Although we may read well now as adults, we might continue to be sensitive about this issue. This sensitivity can be revealed when someone rushes us while we are completing an application or reviewing a memorandum. This could trigger anger because we may feel that we are being criticized or judged as we were when we were children. This sensitivity may also show itself in a more direct way, such as when someone calls us “slow” or “stupid.”

In addition to events experienced in the here-and-now, you may also recall an event from your past that made you angry. You might remember, for example, how the bus always seemed to be late before you left home for an important appointment. Just thinking about how late this made you in the past can make you angry in the present. Another example may be when you recall a situation involving a family member who betrayed or hurt you in some way. Remembering this situation, or this family member, can raise your number on the anger meter. Here are examples of events or issues that can trigger anger:

  • Long waits to see your doctor.
  • Traffic congestion.
  • A friend joking about a sensitive topic.
  • A friend not paying back money owed to you.
  • Being wrongly accused.
  • Having to clean up someone else’s mess.
  • Having an untidy house-mate.
  • A waiter getting your order wrong… twice.
  • Being given incorrect directions.
  • Rumours being spread about you.
  • Something being stolen from you.

Cues to anger

A second important aspect of anger monitoring is to identify the cues that occur in response to the anger-provoking event. These cues serve as warning signs that you have become angry, and that your anger is continuing to escalate. They can be broken down into four cue categories: physical, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive (thought) cues.

Physical cues

Physical cues involve the way our bodies respond when we become angry. For example, our heart rates may increase, we may feel tightness in our chests, or we may feel hot and flushed. These physical cues can also warn us that our anger is escalating out of control or approaching a 10 on the anger meter. We can learn to identify these cues when they occur in response to an anger-provoking event.

Can you identify some of the physical cues that you have experienced when you have become angry?

Behavioural cues

Behavioural cues involve the behaviours we display when we get angry, which are observed by other people around us. For example, we may clench our fists, pace back and forth, slam a door, or raise our voices. These behavioural responses are the second cue of our anger. As with physical cues, they are warning signs that we may be approaching a 10 on the anger meter.

What are some of the behavioural cues that you have experienced when you have become angry?

Emotional cues

Emotional cues involve other feelings that may occur concurrently with our anger. For example, we may become angry when we feel abandoned, afraid, discounted, disrespected, guilty, humiliated, impatient, insecure, jealous, or rejected. These kinds of feelings are the core or primary feelings that underlie our anger. It is easy to discount these primary feelings because they often make us feel vulnerable. An important component of anger management is to become aware of, and to recognize, the primary feelings that underlie our anger. In these articles, we will view anger as a secondary emotion to these more primary feelings.

Can you identify some of the primary feelings that you have experienced during an episode of anger?

Cognitive cues

Cognitive cues refer to the thoughts that occur in response to the anger-provoking event. When people become angry, they may interpret events in certain ways. For example, we may interpret a friend’s comments as criticism, or we may interpret the actions of others as demeaning, humiliating, or controlling. Some people call these thoughts “self-talk” because they resemble a conversation we are having with ourselves. For people with anger issues, this self-talk is usually very critical and hostile in tone and content. It can reflect beliefs about the way we think the world should be; beliefs about people, places, and things.

Closely related to thoughts and self-talk are fantasies and images. We view fantasies and images as other types of cognitive cues that can indicate an escalation of anger. For example, we might fantasize about seeking revenge on a perceived enemy, or imagine or visualize our spouse having an affair. When we have these fantasies and images, our anger can escalate even more rapidly.

Can you think of other examples of cognitive or thought cues?

Cues to anger: The four cue categories

  1. Physical (examples: rapid heartbeat, tightness in chest, feeling hot or flushed).
  2. Behavioural (examples: pacing, clenching fists, raising voice, staring).
  3. Emotional (examples: fear, hurt, jealousy, guilt).
  4. Cognitive/Thoughts (examples: hostile self-talk, images of aggression and revenge).

Still need help?

Access the Anglicare SQ Family Support Service (Brisbane) or the Living Without Violence program (Brisbane) if you think you would benefit from some counselling or support around this issue.

Continue reading the articles below for more information on anger management.

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