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Anger’s Bad Reputation

Yelling, cursing, pacing, headaches, throwing things, punching walls, hurling insults, and hitting others are some of the ways people express anger. These expressions have an explosive or hostile quality that often yield negative consequences. Aristotle is widely quoted as commenting on the challenge of anger: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” We may be reprimanded, insulted, ignored, lose relationships, or even face legal trouble when anger is expressed in an aggressive way. In other cases, cultural norms, such as those related to age or gender roles, may dictate the people, places, and times in which anger can be expressed. Anger tends to be viewed as a negative emotion, one that should be avoided or suppressed. This perspective ignores the function of anger.

The Role of Anger

It is important, and often necessary, to limit aggressive expressions of anger that contribute to violence, abuse, and harm to others. That said, anger and aggression are not the same. Anger is an emotion. Aggression describes behaviors meant to harm others. Just as sadness does not always involve crying so too can anger exist without aggressive behavior.

Emotions are neutral. They serve an important function in communicating information to us. Joy, for example, can tell us that we are experiencing pleasure, feeling satisfied, or have achieved our goals. Anger’s function is to communicate information about potential or actual threats and about injustices committed against us, our loved ones, or other things we hold dear. Anger can be a protective emotion. It can move us to act, to defend ourselves or loved ones against an injustice or a threat.

Anger belongs to a category of emotions called primary emotions. Primary emotions are understood to be instinctual and automatic. They are immediate reactions to an event or stimulus. Primary emotions tend to be short-term, lasting until the stimulus goes away. Other examples of primary emotions include happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, and surprise. Secondary emotions are reactions to primary emotions. They are typically learned and involve thoughts that include words like “should,” “ought,” or “must.” Secondary emotions tend to last for a longer time than primary emotions. Secondary emotions can be other primary emotions, or they can be a combination of two or more primary emotions. Examples of secondary emotions are resentment, shame, pride, or confusion.

What do I do about my anger?

Now that we have described the differences between anger and aggression, what do we do about frequent, intense, or problematic anger? An important first step is to begin to notice the signs of anger. You might ask yourself, “What sets off my anger?” or “Where am I when I feel angry?” or “What do I find myself doing or feeling as my anger rises? Do I clench my jaw?  Does the blood rush to my head? Am I pacing back and forth?” or even “What kinds of thoughts do I have when I feel angry? Do I blame others? Do I blame myself?” By identifying the timing, location, behaviors, and thoughts that accompany our anger, we can better direct efforts to manage it. Recognizing the people, places, and situations that tend to provoke our anger can give us insight into the information communicated by our anger.

With the knowledge of our anger triggers, we can better direct our efforts to manage anger. An effective strategy for anger management involves using relaxation skills, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to lower the intensity of anger. Anger is an emotion that floods the body with adrenaline, activating the body’s fight-or-flight response. Relaxation skills tend to slow breathing and heart rate. The idea here is not to switch off our anger like a light switch but to lower its intensity. Another option for anger management is to redirect the energy in anger. Anger primes our bodies to act. We can use this energy in activities like exercise, dance, painting, hiking, or playing a sport. The idea here is to use the intensity of anger in a way that aligns with our goals or values.

Another option for anger management, one that I used in my personal life and continue to use in my professional practice, is to examine the emotions related to anger. Anger rarely occurs in a vacuum. Many cases where anger becomes problematic involve anger happening at high frequency, lingering for an extended period of time, or occurring at an intensity that does not match its trigger. These cases may signal that anger functions as a secondary emotion.

When counseling clients who have concerns about their anger, I typically work with clients to use a combination of these approaches. I begin by helping my client to identify the triggers for their anger. We then brainstorm and practice ways to lower the intensity of anger or to redirect it in a way that is useful for them. I will often ask that clients practice their anger management skills every day at home. I also include an exploration of emotions related to my client’s anger. Oftentimes, anger is a symptom of an unmet need or emotion. We work together to treat the root of the anger.