We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it: whether as a
fleeting annoyance or as a full-fledged rage.
Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion.
But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can
lead to problems: problems at work, in your personal relationships
and in the overall quality of your life. And it can make you feel
as though you're at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful
emotion. This brochure is meant to help you to understand and
get a handle on handling anger.
What is Anger?
The Nature of Anger
Anger is 'an emotional state that varies in intensity
from mild irritation to intense fury and rage,' according
to Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes
in the study of anger. Like other emotions, it is accompanied
by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your
heart rate and blood pressure go up, as does the level of your
energy hormones, adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You
could be angry at a specific person (Such as a coworker or supervisor)
or event (a traffic jam, a canceled flight), or your anger could
be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems.
Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry
The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond
aggressively. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats;
it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors,
which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked.
A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, we can't physically lash out at every person
or object that irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms and
common sense place limits on how far our anger can take us.
People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes
to deal with their angry feelings. The three main approaches are
expressing, suppressing, and calming.
Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive --not aggressive
-- manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this,
you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how
to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't
mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself
Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This
happens when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it and
focus on something positive. The aim is to inhibit or suppress
your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior. The
danger in this type of response is that if it isn't allowed outward
expression, your anger can turn inward -- on yourself. Anger turned
inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure or depression.
Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological
expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting
back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than
confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually
cynical and hostile. People who are constantly putting others
down, criticizing everything and making cynical comments haven't
learned how to constructively express their anger. Not surprisingly,
they aren't likely to have many successful relationships.
Finally, you can calm yourself down inside. This means not just
controlling your outward behavior but also controlling your internal
responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself
down and let the feelings subside.
As Dr. Spielberger notes, 'when none of these three techniques
work, that's when someone - or something -- is going to get hurt.'
The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional
feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You
can't get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people that enrage
you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your
Are You Too Angry?
There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry
feelings, how prone to anger you are and how well you handle it.
But chances are good that if you do have a problem with anger,
you already know it. If you find yourself acting in ways that
seem out of control and frightening, you might need help finding
better ways to deal with this emotion.
Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?
According to Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes
in anger management, some people are really more 'hotheaded'
than others; they get angry more easily and more intensely than
the average person. There are also those who don't show their
anger in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and
grumpy. Easily angered people don't always curse an throw things;
sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk or get physically ill.
People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists
call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they
feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration,
inconvenience or annoyance. They can't take things in stride,
and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow
unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.
What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause
may be genetic or physiological; there is evidence that some children
are born irritable, touchy and easily angered, and that these
signs are present from a very early age. Another may be sociocultural.
Anger is often regarded as negative; we've taught that it's all
right to express anxiety, depression or other emotions but not
to express anger. As a result, we don't learn how to handle it
or channel it constructively.
Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically,
people who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive,
chaotic and not skilled at emotional communications.
Is It Good to 'Let it All Hang Out'?
Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people
use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found
that 'letting it rip' with anger actually escalates
anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person
you're angry with) resolve the situation.
It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and
then to develop strategies to deep those triggers from topping
you over the edge.
What Strategies Can You Use to Keep Anger at Bay?
Simple relaxation tools such as deep breathing and relaxing
imagery can help calm down angry feelings. There are books and
courses that can teach you relaxation techniques, and once you
learn them you can call upon them in any situation. If you are
involved in a relationship where both partners are hot-tempered,
it might be a good idea for both of you to learn these techniques.
Some simple steps you can try:
- Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest
won't relax you. Picture your breath coming up from your 'gut.'
- Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as 'relax',
'take it easy'. Repeat it to yourself while breathing
- Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience, from either
your memory or your imagination.
- Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles
and make you feel much calmer.
Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically
when you're in a tense situation.
Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry people
tend to curse, swear or speak in highly colorful terns that reflect
their inner thoughts. When you're angry, your thinking can get
very exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts
with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling yourself,
'oh, it's awful, it's terrible, everything's ruined,'
tell yourself, 'it's frustrating, and it's understandable
that I'm upset about it, but it's not the end of the world and
getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.'
Be careful of words like 'never' or 'always'
when talking about yourself or someone else. 'This machine
never works,' or 'you're always forgetting things'
are not just inaccurate, they also serve to make you feel that
your anger is justified and that there's no way to solve the problem.
They also alienate and humiliate people who might otherwise be
willing to work with you on a solution.
For example, you have a friend who is constantly late when you
make plans to meet. Don't go on the attack; think instead about
the goal you want to accomplish (that is, getting you and your
friend there at about the same time). So avoid saying things like,
'You're always late! You're the most irresponsible, inconsiderate
person I have ever met!' The only goal that accomplishes
is hurting and angering your friend.
State what the problem is, and try to find a solution that works
for both of you; or take matters into your won hands by, for instance,
setting your meeting time a half-hour earlier so that your friend
will, in fact, get there on time, even if you have to trick him
or her into doing it! Either way, the problem is solved and the
friendship isn't damaged.
Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything,
that it won't make you feel better (and may actually make you
Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it's justified,
can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself.
Remind yourself that the world is 'not out to get you,'
you're just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life.
Do this each time you feel anger getting the best of you, and
it'll help you get a more balanced perspective.
Angry people tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement,
willingness to do things their way. Everyone wants these things,
and we are all hurt and disappointed when we don't get them, but
angry people demand them, and when their demands aren't met their
disappointment becomes anger. As part of their cognitive restructuring,
angry people need to become aware of their demanding nature and
translate their expectations into desires. In other words, saying
'I would like' something is healthier than saying 'I
demand' or 'I must have' something. When you're
unable to get what you want, you will experience the normal reactions
--frustration, disappointment, hurt -- but not anger. Some angry
people use this anger as a way to avoid feeling hurt, but that
doesn't mean the hurt goes away.
Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real
and inescapable problems in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced,
and often it's a healthy, natural response to these difficulties.
There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution,
and it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn't always
the case. The best attitude to bring such a situation, then, is
not to focus on finding the solution but rather on how you handle
and face the problem.
Make a plan, and check your progress along the way. (People who
have trouble with planning might find a good guide to organizing
or time management helpful.) Resolve to give it your best, but
also not to punish yourself if an answer doesn't come right away.
If you can approach it with your best intentions and efforts,
and make a serious attempt to face it head-on, you will be less
likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing thinking,
even if the problem does not get solved right away.
Angry people tend to jump to --and act on-- conclusions, and
some of those conclusions can be pretty wild. The first thing
to do, if you are in a heated discussion, is to slow down and
think through your responses. Don't say the first thing that comes
into your head, but slow down and think carefully about what you
want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other
person is saying and take your time before answering.
Listen, too, to what is underlying the anger. For instance, you
like a certain amount of freedom and personal space, and your
'significant other' wants more connection and closeness.
If he or she starts complaining about your activities, don't retaliate
by painting you partner as a jailer, a warden or an albatross
around your neck.
It's natural to get defensive when you're criticized, but don't
fight back. Instead, listen to what's underlying the words: the
message that this person might feel neglected and unloved. It
may take a lot of patient questioning on your part, and it may
require some breathing space, but don't let your anger --or a
partner's-- let a discussion spin out of control. Keeping your
cool can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.
'Silly humor' can help defuse rage in a number of
ways. For one thing, it can help you get a more balanced perspective.
When you get angry and call someone a name or refer to them in
some imaginative phrase, stop and picture what that word would
literally look like. if you're at work and you think of a co-worker
as a 'dirt-bag' or a 'single-cell life form,'
for example, picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting
at your colleagues desk, talking on the phone, going to meetings.
Do this whenever a name comes into your head about another person.
If you can, draw a picture of what the actual thing might look
like. This will take a lot of the edge off your fury; and humor
can always be relied on to help un-knot a tense situation.
The underlying message of highly angry people, Dr. Deffenbacher
says, is 'things oughta go my way!' Angry people tend
to feel that they are morally correct, that any blocking or changing
of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should
NOT have to suffer this way. Maybe other people do, but not them.
When you feel that urge, he suggests, picture yourself as a god
or goddess, a supreme ruler who owns the streets and stores and
office space, striding alone and having your way in all situations
while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your
imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe
you are being a little unreasonable; you'll also realize how unimportant
the things you're angry about really are.
There are two cautions in using humor. First, don't try to just
'laugh off' your problems; rather, use humor to help
yourself face them more constructively. Second, don't give in
to harsh, sarcastic humor; that's just another form of unhealthy
What these techniques have in common is a refusal to take yourself
to seriously. Anger is a serious emotion, but it's often accompanied
by ideas that, if examined, can make you laugh.
Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it's our immediate surroundings that give us cause for
irritation and fury. Problems and responsibilities can weigh on
you and make you feel angry at the trap you seem to have fallen
into, and all the people and things that form that trap.
Give yourself a break. Make sure you have some 'personal
time' scheduled for times of the day that you know are particularly
stressful. One example is the working mother who has a standing
rule that when she comes home from work, for the first fifteen
this brief quiet time, she feels better prepared to handle demands
from her kids without blowing up at them.
Some other tips for easing up on yourself:
- Timing: if you and your spouse tend to fight when you
discuss things at night -- perhaps you're tired, or distracted,
or maybe it's just habit -- try changing the times when you talk
about important matters so these talks don't turn into arguments.
- Avoidance: if your child's chaotic room makes you furious
every time you walk by it, shut the door. Don't make yourself
look at what infuriates you. Don't say'well, my child should
clean up the room so I won't have to be angry!' That's not
the point. The point is to keep yourself calm.
- Finding alternatives: if your daily commute through
traffic leaves you in a state of rage and frustration, give yourself
a project -- learn or map out a different route, one that's less
congested or more scenic. Or find another alternative, such as
a bus or commuter train.
Do You Need Counseling?
If you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it is
having an impact on your relationships and on important parts
of your life, you might consider counseling to learn how to handle
it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional
can work with you in developing a range of techniques for changing
your thinking and you behaviors.
When you talk to a prospective therapist, tell her or him that
you have problems with anger that you want to work on, and ask
about his or her approach to anger management. Make sure this
isn't only a course of action designed to 'put you in touch
with your feelings and express them' --that may be precisely
what your problem is.
With counseling, psychologists say, a highly angry person can
move closer to a middle range of anger in about 8 to 10 weeks,
depending on circumstances and the techniques used.
What About Assertiveness Training?
It's true that angry people need to learn to become assertive
(rather than aggressive), but most books and courses on developing
assertiveness are aimed at people who don't feel enough anger.
These people are more passive and acquiescent than the average
person; they tend to let others walk all over them. That isn't
something most angry people do. Still, these books can contain
some useful tactics to use in frustrating situations.
Remember, you can't eliminate anger -- and it wouldn't be a good
idea if you could. In spite of all your efforts, things will always
happen that will cause you anger. Life will always be filled with
frustration, pain, loss and the unpredictable actions of others.
You can't change that; but you can change the way you let such
events affect you. Controlling your angry responses can keep them
from making you even more unhappy in the long run.