Working with anger

Anger is uncomfortable. Symptoms might include sweating, tightness in the chest, and tension in the head and eyes…. From a biological point of view, anger is a call to action, a response to threat.


Despite the fact that in our culture the expression of anger is often disapproved of, it is an important signal to ourselves that something is not right. We may find ourselves wanting to lash out while also knowing that we are going too far. How real is the actual threat? Is the thing we have chosen to focus our anger on the real issue? What is actually driving the anger?

Our responses need to be appropriate but that is not straightforward. There are stereotypes about what forms of expression of anger are appropriate for men and women. The patterns of anger expression we grew up with may not be appropriate to the context we live in as adults. There is also a cultural component to anger. I once watched a violent verbal exchange between two colleagues and came to realise that while the behaviour might have been a precursor to violence in my culture, in theirs we were still within the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

Although harmony was not restored by the exchange described above, it is possible that the participants had discharged their frustration with the other. That is important and another aspect of anger. Anger charges our bodies with energy and the charge must go somewhere. People recommend a visit to the gym or a vigorous walk as ways of discharging what has built up inside.

Others propose mindfulness. Personally, I have found that mindfulness works best, not in the immediate aftermath of anger, but when some connection has been made to the underlying feelings and some capacity to objectively observe the anger established. The feeling is there, within reach, but it is not in the driving seat. Without these types of responses, anger may remain held in the body and lead to the feelings being redirected inward to the self.

When anger is presented as an issue in counselling, it can be because relationships are at risk. Sometimes, someone may have been encouraged to seek counselling by a friend or partner. An important relationship may be at breaking point. What people are looking for from counselling will differ. For some people, the issue is really about anger management.

Most of us recognise a distinction between verbal expression and physical violence. Within the scope of verbal expression, there is a world of difference between threatening someone and telling them that you feel angry because of something they did or said. The goal is to find a way to break the cycle of being triggered by anger and subsequently acting in a way that is harmful to themselves and/or others.

Physical activity, such as the trip to the gym as a distraction from the intended focus of the anger is important, but the critical thing is perhaps to create a buffer between thought and action. Simply leaving the room or situation, if that is possible, may help. For others, it may be about taking a moment to think about the consequences of acting on the anger. That might involve reflecting on the costs to relationships or the risk of intervention by the Police or other authorities. These are sticking plasters, but that does not diminish their value.

Longer-term working through anger involves looking at the sources of anger (which may be enduring aspects of an individual’s experience, as when anger has its roots in experiences of discrimination or one or pivotal childhood experiences). One writer suggested that “hostility only arises if a frustration is felt to be unfair” (1). Expressed differently, our reservoir of anger arises because our sense of ourselves in relation to others has been infringed. We are aware of a wrong being done in the world (it could be climate change; it could be forgetting a birthday) and do not act in the way we feel we should or are not treated as we think we should be.

The actions (or inaction) conflict with what we want to believe about ourselves and how we are seen by others. In this case, our anger may be a response to other more difficult emotions such as shame and humiliation.

Acceptance of the validity of our anger and acceptance of the need to manage its expression is important. “You don’t have an anger problem – something is threatening your values – ask the why”(2). The entry point to a deeper understanding of the sources of anger can be the exploration of “triggers.” Where were you when you felt the anger first? What were you or others doing? The conversation about triggers can be helpful because it provides a focus for reflection. It may be that today’s context triggers painful memories even though the connections to the past may not be immediately obvious. Our reasons for covering up the past may be well-founded. Bessel Van der Kolk (3) and others have described how distancing from our feelings of anger in the past may have been the best route to survival.

This is a difficult journey as exploring our anger can trigger more anger. We ask ourselves why we are unable to control our anger, and that in turn can lead to turning anger against ourselves.

It can be useful to try to surface the beliefs that underpin our responses. We may indeed have been slighted or disrespected, but the mark of an anger problem is when our response is disproportionate. If those beliefs can be explored, it becomes possible to challenge them and, in this way, open some space to respond assertively but appropriately to the actual situation rather than being driven by the corrosive narrative that may be taking place in our heads.


(1) Horney, Karen, Neurosis and Human Growth, pg 56

(2) Emmy Van deurzen, Weekend University

(3) Van der kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score, p278-80

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, Greater London, EC2Y
Written by Brendan Barnes
London, Greater London, EC2Y

Online and Face-to-Face Sessions It is my experience and belief that counselling works. But why consider counselling? When I talk to people, sometimes they bring a particular issue…………but sometimes it is just a sense that things aren’t right. Both the specific and the g...

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