When anger becomes a problem

Anger can be a healthy emotion and can help us to assert ourselves if expressed in appropriate circumstances to perceived insults, bullying or personal attacks. It becomes a problem when you act on your feelings of anger in ways that are not in your best interest or in the interest of other people.  

Anger can appear to work, in the short term, if you want people to back off in order to get what you want. Indeed, it could be viewed as a form of addiction in itself given that it is a behaviour that it is hard to shift. Angry people tend to remain angry and find it difficult to change the way they operate in the world.

The downside of this way of operating is that others begin to see you as a chronically angry and an unpleasant person who is to be avoided. Angry people will eventually lose significant things like jobs, relationships and ultimately their liberty (or life) as a result of their angry outbursts and toxic behaviour. 

Fight, flight or freeze

From an evolutionary perspective, the way people dealt with threatening situations was either to fight or run away. So, in cave times you would be okay if you could run away from a dangerous situation or could confront it. In modern times the threats have dramatically changed and there are many more complications in negotiating the daily tasks of managing space within the confines of commuting, dealing with neighbours and co-workers, and coexisting with the environment.

However, the body has not changed in how we react to threat and danger. The body’s response is still to freeze, run away or fight. The fight or flight response can be seen as the product of our evolutionary inheritance to the signals of danger received by the primitive parts of our brains. 

Take, for example, someone who regularly engages in aggressive behaviour toward other motorists on the roads. Road rage occurs when someone feels entitled to their little bit of road, their little piece of space, and the way they want to drive. If someone encroaches on their perceived piece of space, or another driver makes a decision that is not in their best interests, they can actually feel threatened in their bodies. The aggressive outburst, whether that is verbal or physical, is a failure to manage the body’s reaction to perceived threat.

Health and chronic anger 

The health implications of chronic anger are grave. The body experience may be useful for someone about to take action, such as about to run a marathon and who needs to breathe in lots of oxygen.

However, it is counter-productive when just sitting in a car in a traffic jam as angry people can go into a state of hyperventilation, with muscles becoming tense and an increase in blood pressure. This all places greater risk on the heart and the possible consequences for physical health, quite apart from the impact on psychological and emotional well-being.

Using anger to manage your life carries many dangers. The underlying agenda for your body, when caught up in this cycle, is to lash out in physical or verbal violence. You can identify the language of anger by spotting the absolutes in the thought patterns.

Angry thoughts are invariably accompanied by extreme words such as ‘shoulds’ ‘oughts’ and ‘always’. So, in the case of road rage, other drivers ‘should’ not be in the way, or ‘ought’ not to be turning where they are and other drivers are ‘always’ getting in the way.

When angry feelings are stirred the body gets itself ready for action (to fight or run) and the mind reacts by thinking what is wrong. It is important to slow down when these feelings are stirred and to correct negative thinking.

Anger management

It is helpful to note the first physical sign of arousal of anger when attempting to manage your anger. This could be tension in your shoulders, headaches, or foot tapping. When your body is getting itself ready for action it involves breathing in more than breathing out

To help to calm yourself down you need to try and breathe out more than you breathe in. Try to breathe more slowly as you concentrate on the out breath. You can also help your state of mind by avoiding the intake of alcohol or drugs, as both take away inhibitions. The absence of inhibitions can cause angry outbursts.

A regular regime of daily physical exercise is a good way of dealing with the excess tension that comes with little, or indeed major, irritations, which are part of normal life. Mindfulness or meditation can help you to slow down.

Once you get used to managing the physical manifestations of anger you can attend to the thinking part of the problem. In the case of road rage, you may indeed be the best driver on the road and life would be so much sweeter if other incompetent drivers were not on the road at the same time. However, dwelling on that will only get your body ready for action and increase your heart rate.

Shifting your thinking in those moments of irritation is ultimately a better strategy for the management of your emotions. It is far more beneficial to train yourself to think of something more pleasant in those moments of irritation.

Counselling and psychotherapy

Counselling can help you to identify your physical arousal signs and can assist in helping to manage your anger. Creating a bond with a therapist can also offer the potential to deal with excess emotional baggage from your past.

In angry situations, the problem is often having a defence system that is outdated. Talking through what makes you feel angry can help you to devise new and more robust ways of coping with irritations and stresses. Angry outbursts are invariably overreactions. Learning to devise a defence system that is relevant to your current life will enable you to be more appropriate in how you respond to threats or irritations and in building healthy boundaries.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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