Anger Management

Anger management is a term that can be tossed around casually in our culture, often hurled as an insult in order to disregard the feelings of another person. This can make it difficult for people to seek the support they need to address genuine issues they experience. Skills need to be developed over time, and that can be challenging for some folks who don’t have the structure to work within. Let’s explore the basics of anger, anger management and how support is provided to those who need to foster their skills.

The Basics of Anger

At its core, anger is a biological response to stimuli that make us feel frustrated, physically or emotionally hurt, annoyed or even disappointed. In many instances, it is the body preparing itself for what’s perceived as an impending confrontation. Feeling angry is a perfectly normal thing in the course of any day, but recurring patterns of anger and aggression are a different matter.

Becoming angry is marked by a number of biological shifts. These include:

  • Rising levels of the steroidal hormone cortisol
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Spikes in brain activity, especially in the left hemisphere
  • Rising testosterone levels
  • Tensing of the arteries

Simply put, the body prepares itself for explosive activity as part of the fight-or-flight response, which is sometimes called the stress response. Chronic pressing of these mental and emotional buttons can have serious and adverse long-term health effects. Similarly, chronic anger is a quality-of-life issue regardless of how well the body handles it.

A number of factors can drive anger. There are many types of learned behavior that we model from our parents, siblings, other family members, and even peers. Long-term exposure to stress can also trigger forms of anger. Additionally, brain damage, especially undiagnosed forms, can sometimes play a role in anger.

Biologically speaking, anger is often correlated with low serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in how nerve impulses are sent and received. It shows up when we perceive being hungry or satiated when we eat, perceive pain and feel general moods. Sudden releases of serotonin have been linked to migraines.

There is also evidence that dopamine and GABA neurotransmitters may figure in how anger is expressed. GABA receptors, for example, may play a role in how postpartum aggression is fostered as part of a mother’s protective instincts toward her offspring. Dopamine seems to play a different role, encouraging reward structures that foster competitive aggression. This may explain, to some extent, why risky behavior appears to be more rewarding for many people who are in aggressive moods.

Anger is often described as having two types of effects. These are considered to be:

  • Facilitatory effects where the body is filled with hormones and neural activity that allow us to act suddenly when threatened
  • Impairing effects that often narrow thought processes and feelings to handling only the most immediate problems

The facilitatory effect is believed to be tied to some of the more pathological aspects of anger. Some people, simply put, feel sharper and more focused when they’re angry. Astonishingly, it has been found that anger doesn’t match very well with our understanding of emotions that are culturally thought of as negative. While sad people tend to be more pessimistic, those who are angry often feel optimistic, especially when evaluating potentially high-risk actions. In fact, their perceptions more closely mirror those of people who are happy than those of folks experiencing sadness.

Anger issues are often diagnosed across a wide spectrum of psychiatrically recognized disorders. High levels of anger or sudden bursts of it are associated with:

  • Opposition defiance
  • ADHD
  • Paranoid and narcissistic personality disorder
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Bipolar personalities
  • Borderline personality disorders
  • Intermittent explosive behavior
  • Anti-social personalities
  • Conduct disorder

In light of the widespread validity of anger as a diagnostic tool in spotting so many types of psychological problems, it’s also thoroughly unsurprising to learn that anger management is an important tool in helping patients learn to self-regulate.

How Unhealthy Is Anger?

Many social ills are tied to anger. We know, for example, that it features in the formation of addictions, and it also plays a role in physical and emotional abuse patterns. Many relationships are undermined by poorly controlled and misdirected anger, too. Similarly, crime is often anger-driven.

While overt anger features prominently in the literature on the subject, it’s important to note that more subtle forms of anger are also harmful. In fact, suppressed anger is likely a driver of many cases of depression and anxiety. Although it’s important at a social level to identify anger that can lead to violence, crime and even warfare, we should not underestimate the adverse impact that suppressed anger is having on those who don’t directly act out against others.

It’s worth thinking about the biological costs of anger, too. We know that anger can promote a range of health issues, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Skin problems
  • Headaches

People who experience anger can end up feeling suicidal. Similarly, immediate and lingering anger may both play roles in other life-threatening situations, such as reckless driving.

Simple Ways to Manage Anger

Everybody experiences anger in different ways. What can feel like a minor irritation for one person may be a source of sub-psychotic rage for someone else. For this reason, the toolbox of skills we provide for anger management needs to be diverse.

Relaxation techniques are a time-honored tradition that far predates modern medicine’s understanding of anger management. Deep breathing, in particular, represents a good starting point. This involves breathing deeply and slowly while explicitly focusing on breathing through your diaphragm. Additionally, you may want to repeat a single phrase over and over as you do so, such as “relax.”

It’s also worth learning the signs that anger is impending in order to deploy relaxation methods as early as possible. You may want to start trying relaxation techniques if you feel:

  • A headache coming on
  • Your heart rate increasing
  • Pulsing anywhere there are arteries, such as your neck
  • Warming of your face, particularly around your eyes
  • Difficulty thinking
  • Sweating

People should also consider, when possible, whether anger serves a constructive purpose in a situation. For example, when getting in a fight with a romantic partner, you may want to take a second to decide whether you’re really making a point or just trying to cut the other person as deeply as possible with a remark. It’s often better to take a pause and let something go unsaid. You can then come back to it at a later, calmer time if it seems like it’s really worth revisiting.

Developing listening skills is also frequently beneficial. Anger often leads to feedback loops where one person’s agitation fosters another’s. By listening and communicating, you can help others feel a sense of trust. This frequently defuses situations before they get out of hand.

Those who struggle with suppressed anger may need to work on anger management from a more expressive angle. It’s important for all humans to feel in charge of themselves, and stating your feelings can help. It’s important to do this while not promoting defensiveness or hostility, but you may need to practice these skills in an active way.

Many people can benefit from professional therapy for this reason. It can be a sandbox where basic anger management skills can be developed without taking immediate risks with important personal or professional relationships.

Recognizing triggers of anger is also important. For example, someone who is triggered by discussing financial issues may ask their spouse to steer away from such conversations around paydays. This will provide a buffer between the stimulation of thinking about finances and conversations that do need to be had.

It’s a good idea to conduct a full self-assessment of when you feel angry. Be serious in your assessment of situations you may be subconsciously steering into. Some individuals choose to go to the bar in the hope of finding a fight, and others are quick to identify perceived slights in the form of bad service at stores.

Being constantly mad about the terrible driving you see every day, for example, should open you up to some questions about whether it’s really their fault or something stewing inside of you. Evaluating your reasons for being triggered into anger may give you an additional second to avoid getting wound up.

Be aware, however, that avoidance is never a long-term solution. Anger must be managed, not crammed down. If you find yourself unable to handle anger in a structured manner, it may be time to look toward other anger management solutions.

A Medically Grounded Approach to Managing Anger

Seeking support for coping with anger issues is an important first step to consider, especially if you have tried some of the methods we’ve listed in the previous section and had continued trouble. Therapy is a viable option, and it’s also a good idea to check for other potential sources of trouble, such as brain damage or unbalanced hormone levels. These types of conclusions can only be arrived at by a qualified professional working in a clinical environment.

Based on the array of mental health disorders that are tied to anger, it should not be surprising that medical treatment options are just as diverse. Medication is sometimes prescribed to treat the most immediate issues related to anger, especially if these verge on rage. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, more commonly called SSRIs, are a common choice among professionals. These are the class of drugs that include recognized brand names like Prozac. These drugs are intended to have short-term and quick calming effects. Other choices may include:

  • Antipsychotics
  • Mood stabilizers, such as lithium
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax and Valium
  • Antidepressants, such as Zoloft and Celexa
  • Hormonal therapies

Behavioral interventions are a popular choice among practitioners for treating anger issues. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a tool that psychiatrists and psychologists often lean on. CBT focuses on teaching people to evaluate how practical specific responses to situations are. Skills are encouraged, too, with an emphasis on verbalizing concerns, channeling feelings and resolving disputes in structured ways.

Fortunately, anger management is a skill that most adults can acquire. It takes time, and there is an advantage for many folks in having the support of professionals as they obtain it. If you feel that you’re having trouble maintaining control of your mood, it’s a good idea to get help. Whether you’re dealing with suppressed anger or outward displays of rage, you can develop the skills required to put yourself in greater control of the situations that will confront you over time.

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