Anger Management

Photo of a man's balled fist hitting a table

Anger is a basic human emotion that is experienced by all people. Typically triggered by an emotional hurt, anger is usually experienced as an unpleasant feeling that occurs when we think we have been injured, mistreated, opposed in our long-held views, or when we are faced with obstacles that keep us from attaining personal goals.

The experience of anger varies widely; how often anger occurs, how intensely it is felt, and how long it lasts are different for each person. People also vary in how easily they get angry (their anger threshold), as well as how comfortable they are with feeling angry. Some people are always getting angry while others seldom feel angry. Some people are very aware of their anger, while others fail to recognize anger when it occurs. Some experts suggest that the average adult gets angry about once a day and annoyed or peeved about three times a day. Other anger management experts suggest that getting angry fifteen times a day is more likely a realistic average. Regardless of how often we actually experience anger, it is a common and unavoidable emotion.

Anger can be constructive or destructive. When well managed, anger or annoyance has very few detrimental health or interpersonal consequences. At its roots, anger is a signal to you that something in your environment isn’t right. It captures your attention and motivates you to take action to correct that wrong thing. How you end up handling the anger signal has very important consequences for your overall health and welfare, however. When you express anger, your actions trigger others to become defensive and angry too. Blood pressures raises and stress hormones flow. Violence can ensue. You may develop a reputation as a dangerous ‘loose cannon’ whom no one wants to be around.

Out of control anger alienates friends, co-workers and family members. It also has a clear relationship with health problems and early mortality. Hostile, aggressive anger not only increases your risk for an early death, but also your risk for social isolation, which itself is a major risk factor for serious illness and death. These are but two of many reasons why learning to properly manage anger is a good idea.

Although everyone experiences anger in response to frustrating or abusive situations, most anger is generally short-lived. No one is born with a chronic anger problem. Rather, chronic anger and aggressive response styles are learned.

There are multiple ways that people learn an aggressive angry expression style. Some people learn to be angry in childhood by copying the behavior of angry people around them who influence others by being hostile and making threats. For instance, children growing up in a household where one parent constantly berates and belittles the other learn to berate and belittle themselves, and then often recreate this behavior when they grow up and enter into relationships by berating and belittling their partners. Someone who has learned to act in an angry way may not realize that they have an anger problem. From their perspective, they are just acting ‘normally’ (e.g., meaning normal for their family of origin).

Anger victims’ desire for revenge or mastery can also cause them to develop anger problems. An abused child may vow at some level to never again let him or herself be vulnerable, and start himself becoming hostile towards others on the theory that “a good offense is the best defense”. Alternatively, abused or wounded people may overgeneralize and seek revenge against an entire group of people, only some of whom may have actually harmed them. As an illustration of this revenge principle, consider the sometimes aggressive prejudiced responses that some Americans experience towards immigrants who come from countries that were once United States enemies; Japanese, and Vietnamese people, for example, or persons subscribing to the Islamic faith today.

Still another way people can learn to be aggressively hostile involves their being reinforced and rewarded for being a bully. People who bully someone once and then find others respecting or fearing them more for their aggressive actions become quite motivated to continue bullying. Bullys go on to use aggression more and more because they find that it helps raise their social status and position.

Harry Mills, Ph.D.