Understanding anger issues, and the therapy available to help
Why do we get angry?
All emotions are helpful, even if our reactions to these are not. With anger, its primary function is to help us to protect ourselves when there is a personal threat. It tells us that something is wrong, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.
What message do we give to others when we express our anger? It tells them that we can protect ourselves and is a warning sign to move or stay away.
Anger is often believed to stem from the ‘fight’ part of fight or flight, which is an anxiety response. Whilst this is one reason why we may get angry a range of other emotions and triggers can lead to anger:
- Feeling disrespected by others
- Feeling embarrassed or ashamed
- As part of the cycle of grief following a loss
- If we have anticipated something we are looking forward to, and then are disappointed if it does not happen.
- Feeling guilty about something we have done
Some people will develop specific sensitivities as they grow up which, if triggered, can lead to a greater level of anger than expected. This may feel like it comes out of the blue and is uncontrollable.
Examples of sensitivities
- A person who has grown up in a family home where they are constantly belittled and laughed at, may be more sensitive to others laughing at them/ joking around them.
- Someone who has suffered from being bullied at school may find themselves getting unusually angry in the workplace if they feel under pressure, or they think someone else is being treated unfairly.
- Somebody who has always held high expectations of themselves to do well at school/ work may be more sensitive to failing or being given critical feedback about something they have done.
What is the difference between anger and aggression?
Anger is an emotion which if not managed healthily can lead to the behavioural response of aggression or violence. Not everyone who feels angry will become aggressive. Similarly, not everyone who is aggressive will be angry.
How do I know if I am angry?
Anger can come out in several ways, it can include:
- belittling others,
- being ‘passive aggressive’ – giving people the silent treatment, being rude about them behind their backs.
- taking it out on ourselves – for example self-harm.
- trying to block it out, maybe with substance misuse or comfort eating.
- becoming overly emotional and crying.
The ways we may feel anger in our body include:
- clenching of jaw/ grinding teeth
- increased heart rate
- feeling overly hot
- shaking or trembling
- tightness in chest/ stomach
Anger thoughts can follow the pattern shown in this diagram, where they are initially about a perceived threat, move to feelings of unfairness before finding justification for us to react. The further a person goes up these thoughts, the greater the likelihood of a negative behavioural reaction.
What does anger treatment involve?
Cognitive behavioural therapy has been found to be effective for anger management. Firstly, you will develop a formulation of your anger and responses to this, which identifies your triggers, background states, thinking and feelings which lead to you feeling angry.
Treatment will then be tailored to help you change these areas. It can include:
- Physical techniques, which focus on the body’s reactions to anger (heartbeat, breathing, temperature). These often include relaxation techniques.
- Thinking skills, which focus on identifying specific ‘hot’ thoughts that can increase anger and looking at techniques to modify and challenge these.
- Stress inoculation techniques, which can use imagery as exposure to situations that have made you angry, where you are encouraged to imagine managing these differently
- Considering the pros and cons of acting on anger, and then developing strategies to manage any positives identified.
- Problem solving skills to help break down the issues that lead to anger and finding better ways to manage them
- Behavioural techniques, including behavioural experiments to test out skills in potentially triggering real life situations.