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Warning! Anger can seriously damage your health

When BBC2 documentary Losing It: Griff Rhys Jones On Anger was first broadcast in 2008, we finally saw anger receiving the attention is deserved.

The catalyst for this foray into the complex and misunderstood emotion was the Boiling Point report, published by the Mental Health Foundation in March 2008. In the report, Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, defined anger as a ‘major social problem’.

The study suggested that people are getting angrier, with almost one in three of us having a close friend or family member who has trouble controlling their anger. One in four worried about how anger we sometimes feel, and one in five ending relationships with people because of how they behaved when angry. This report was serving to keep the subject where it needs to be - at the forefront of public awareness.

anger management

Anger is a significant part of clinical practice, occurring in as many as one-third of all adult psychotherapy cases, overlapping with as many as 19 different psychiatric conditions, and concomitant with drug and alcohol misuse, interpersonal crime, anti-social behaviour and physical health problems.

Add to this the widespread acceptance of the effect that dysfunctional anger has on limiting an individual’s personal opportunities, as well as the negative impact it has on the wider society; on education, health and the economy - all indicators of social exclusion, in itself a complex determinant of dysfunctional anger - and we begin to see the enormous impact out-of-control anger has on all of us.

However, problem anger does not only affect your relationships - personal, social and professional - it can also affect your physical, as well as your emotional, mental and spiritual health. Anger produces the same physiological and psychological effects as stress. This means that dysfunctional or unhealthy anger can impact on every aspect of our life, in exactly the same ways: fatigue, sleep disturbance, lowered sex drive, withdrawal, lowered tolerance threshold, increased alcohol, tobacco or drug dependency and weight issues (elevated cortisol levels can cause a slower metabolism, leading to potential weight-gain).

Anger is a systemic phenomenon, with chronic anger having the potential to lead to disease and ill health in every bodily system. For example:

  • Cardiovascular: heart disease, stroke, blood pressure.
  • Musculoskeletal: general aches and pains, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia.
  • Gastrointestinal: IBS, ulcers, certain cancers.
  • Autoimmune: arthritis, lupus, diabetes.

In the workplace, unmanaged anger disrupts productivity through low morale, interpersonal conflict and a reduced ability to problem solve or retain information. Together with the associated costs of staff absences and increased staff turnover, unmanaged anger proves to be an expensive business.

Something’s got to give.

Life goes at some speed. The frustrations of contemporary culture: the trend of instant gratification through consumerism, fast food and instant credit, and the pressure of modern working practices (hot desking, long working hours and multitasking) make problem anger and stress almost impossible to avoid. More recently, social anxieties such as the ‘credit crunch’, immigration and global issues, only add to the lowering of people’s tolerance threshold.

Of course, all of this leaves its mark.

Do you have anger issues?

Problem anger is not only an issue for those who explode with rage, or those who are close to someone who explodes with rage. Anger is linked to low self-esteem and can be an equally debilitating issue for someone who finds it difficult to express their anger openly.

Do you often compromise yourself to avoid confrontation? When you argue, do you ever feel sad rather than angry, or cry with frustration? If you answered yes, then it is likely that anger is an issue for you. There is plenty of research that suggests repressed emotion causes physical blockages that can lead to health complications.

Using existential philosophy to manage anger

The existential concerns of freedom, responsibility, isolation, death and meaning are often experienced at times of major change, loss, or moral dilemma, highlighting the uncertainty of the human experience.

It is not unusual that, during these times, an individual’s sense of loneliness or emptiness may cause them to explore life’s big questions, ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is it all for?’ ‘What is my purpose?’. If dysfunctional anger is perceived as a contributing factor to these losses or dilemmas, it follows that it is at such times that clients will find their way to anger therapy.

Existential therapy considers the four dimensions of human experience: the physical, social, psychological and spiritual, within which we make sense of our world.

The THREAT programme for anger and stress

In a respectful and accepting environment, through a mix of group discussion, Socratic questioning and expressive techniques, an existentially-oriented approach helps clients to come to terms with the problems of living. It raises awareness of how current anger behaviour is the result of a maladaptive coping strategy, a strategy used to deal with those very human, natural and normal problems experienced by all of us.

THREAT psycho-educational anger therapy is a preventative intervention linked to good general health and well-being, as well as a treatment method for those coping with problem anger, either as the protagonist, or the one to whom anger is directed.

Threat to both physical well-being and self-esteem are the two components to the anger reaction, while the concept of anger is viewed as a product of threat perception - and so ‘THREAT’ seems an appropriate two-fold title, also being the acronym for Tailored Holistic Responsive Expressive Anger Therapy, reflecting its adaptability to suit a wide range of client groups in a variety of settings.

THREAT leans on the cognitive behavioural techniques of stress inoculation training, as well as relaxation, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive restructuring, social skills training, assertiveness and problem-solving which many studies suggest help clients develop effective anger management coping strategies.

Within a holistic existentialist environment, THREAT explores:

The client’s freedom to make choices, to consider the consequences of those choices and to identify any areas of resistance.

Resistance as a result of fear, perhaps due to previous failures, or even the fear of success (which also brings inevitable change): a major block to personal growth. Facing the possibility of losing an important relationship - even a dysfunctional one - is a powerful motivator for standing still.

With freedom and rights comes responsibility, and clients are encouraged to develop a critical awareness of their responsibilities to themselves and others.

Group discussion reflecting on existential isolation, aloneness and the meaninglessness of life leads to the development of coping strategies to manage these very human anxieties that we all face as part of the human experience.

A further existentialist principle is that, however many actions are determined by circumstances, human nature is intrinsically flexible and individuals have the ability to determine how they will respond, within the boundaries of human existence (e.g. physical or biological principles such as growing old, gravity and bodily needs). Whether they sink or swim, rise above their present difficulties or go under from the pressure is down to the individual, and the need to accept personal responsibility is fundamental to a successful outcome.

A common concept in existential counselling and psychotherapy is that people determine the way in which they respond to a situation based on their perception of that situation. There is no single objective reality: we each determine our own reality based on personal rules learnt within a social context. Therefore, it is important to explore an individual’s values to help identify and challenge any self-limiting anger beliefs and attitudes.

The 12 guiding principles

The 12 guiding principles summarise these existential values. The principles were initially inspired by the philosophy of 12 step programmes that consider the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of the individual in a non-judgmental, unconditionally supportive environment. Developed through the observation of group dynamics, the principles were originally produced as a time-conscious way of addressing the issues common in new groups: uncertainty, lack of trust and confusion.

Designed to address orientation issues so that clients understand from the outset the direction the work may take, to foster an environment of trust and acceptance, and to encourage active participation, the 12 guiding principles are introduced as soon as possible at the start of the course and explored through group discussion.

In brief, the 12 guiding principles are as follows:

  • Anger is not evil
  • We are not mad or bad
  • Anger and stress affect our physical health (including emotional, mental and spiritual)
  • Acceptance of personal responsibility
  • There is nothing new
  • Do you want to be right or happy?
  • Personal commitment
  • Positive attitude
  • Mutual respect and acceptance
  • Keep safe
  • Expectations and change
  • Have fun!

Further Reading

Mental Health Foundation (2008). Boiling Point Report: Problem Anger and what we can do about it. London: MHF (www.mentalhealth.org.uk)

Duerden, E. van (2002). Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice, 2nd Ed. Sage: London

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Linda Wolfenden, MA, MBACP

Hi,I've been helping individuals, couples and groups to build self-esteem and to manage physical and psychological life changes since 2002.
What a lot of the areas of counselling have in common is low self-worth or self-esteem issues. Feelings of guilt or repressed anger that lead to depression and anxiety. If you've said 'I want to get back to being me' or 'I've forgotten who 'me' is', cou… Read more

Written by Linda Wolfenden, MA, MBACP

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