Not looking back in anger
Of all the feelings that we can have anger can be a particularly difficult one to accept and to deal with. It is a very intense feeling and is often - if not restrained - more hurtful to the angry person than to its intended recipient.
Anger itself is a completely normal and very human feeling. As a fleeting feeling it is relatively unproblematic, but if anger starts to control your life and to affect your relationships then there may be underlying issues that will need to be further explored.
In evolutionary terms, anger has been a necessary feeling that helped our survival. In its biological function anger is a response to a perceived threat. The instinctive way to express anger is through aggression. This would allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when under attack. Physically the body responds by showing an increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Anger can, of course, take many forms from mild irritation to outbreaks of rage. It can be directed inward as much as outward. There are people who direct their anger at themselves, for example by physically hurting themselves. There are others who are more likely to express their anger in relationships with others, usually those who are closest and therefore most receptive. The immediate cause of anger can be varied; we can be angry in response to a perceived threat, the loss of a loved one, when feeling treated unfairly, when feeling stressed, sad or helpless.
Unexpressed anger can create a range of problems. It can lead to more pathological forms of anger, for example, passive-aggressive behaviour where the anger is never quite openly voiced but the other person is under attack. Continuously suppressed anger can lead to a personality that is constantly cynical and hostile.
How can counselling help?
Counselling can help clients who experience uncontrollable anger, feelings of aggression and rage by encouraging them to actually verbalise their anger in the therapy session rather than outside. It can be a relief for clients to give vent to their destructive feelings without having to worry about doing damage to the relationship with the therapist.
Many clients feel that they are too destructive and their anger is, therefore, turned inwards, finding expression for example in depression or in its more extreme form self-harm. Suppressed anger, when turned inward, can result in a number of physical symptoms too, for example, high blood pressure or hypertension.
Clients are safe in the relationship with the therapist who is trained to verbally receive anger without being damaged or destroyed by it. The counsellor can help to get to the root cause of the client’s anger by linking what is happening now to past events and by exploring whether the client’s anger is related to other, more deep-seated feelings. This may help to clarify the intensity of the anger and help clients to feel less guilty about being angry. If there is a real reason for guilt, i.e. somebody got hurt; the client may wish to work with the therapist on mending a broken relationship and to find ways to control their anger.
Contrary to popular myth clients in therapy are not encouraged to ‘let it all out’, e.g. by whacking a cushion repeatedly. A therapist will work with you at understanding your anger better as well as controlling it in a more effective way for example by getting you to relax. Breathing exercises help to address the physical symptoms of anger which will help you feel calmer and more in control.
In therapy you can explore thinking differently about your anger, replacing your angry thoughts with more rational ones. You will also have the opportunity to consider different modes of communication with other people that allow you to be assertive rather than hostile.
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