Anger Management PDF Print E-mail

From: American Psychological Association

We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it: whether as a fleeting annoyance or as a full-fledged rage.

In this article:
  1. What is anger?
  2. Expressing anger
  3. Why are some people angrier than others?
  4. Is it good to 'let it all hang out'?
  5. Strategies to keep anger at bay.

1. What is anger?

Anger is a completely normal and usually healthy emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems at work, in your personal relationships and in the overall quality of your life.
Anger can make you feel as though you're at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion. It's 'an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage', according to Charles Spielberger, PhD, a psychologist who specialises in the study of anger. Like other emotions, it's 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, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a specific person (such as a co-worker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a cancelled 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 feelings.

2. Expressing anger

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 behaviour, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we're 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 and others.
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 behaviour. The danger in this type of response is that if the anger isn't allowed an outward expression, it can turn inward - on yourself. This 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 behaviour (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, criticising 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 behaviour 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."
Negative thoughts
James Tighe, clinical nurse research fellow
It's easy to think that you're completely at the mercy of your feelings, but in fact you're not. To some extent the way you feel is dictated by the way you think, and bad feelings are often the result of unhelpful patterns of thinking.
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 reactions.
There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry feelings, how prone to anger you are and how well you handle it. But it's likely that if you do have a problem with anger, you already know about 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.

3. Why are some people angrier than others?

According to Jerry Deffenbacher, PhD, a psychologist who specialises 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 and 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 shouldn't have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience or annoyance. They can't take things in their 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's 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're 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 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 unskilled in communicating emotionally.

4. Is it good to 'let it all hang out'?

Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people take this theory as permission 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 keep those triggers from toppling you over the edge.


5. Strategies 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're 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 stomach.
  • Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as "relax" and "take it easy". Repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply.
  • Use imagery; visualise 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.

    Cognitive restructuring
    This simply means changing the way you think. Angry people tend to curse, swear or speak in highly colourful terms 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, "Everything's ruined," think "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 won't fix it."
    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" aren't 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's 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've ever met!" The only goal that this 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 own hands by, for instance, setting your meeting time half an 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 isn't going to fix anything, and that it won't make you feel better (and may actually make you feel worse). Logic defeats anger, because even when it's justified, it can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic - remind yourself that the world isn't 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 better of you, and it'll help you get a more balanced perspective.
    Angry people tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement and willingness to do things their way. Everyone wants these things, and we're 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'd like something" is healthier than saying "I must have something". When you're unable to get what you want, you'll 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's 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 to such a situation 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 organising 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 the problem head-on, you'll be less likely to lose patience and fall into an 'all-or-nothing' style of thinking, even if the problem doesn't get solved right away.
    Better communication
    Angry people tend to jump to - and act on - conclusions, and some of those conclusions can be pretty far-fetched. If you're in a heated discussion, don't say the first thing that comes into your head, but think carefully about what you want to say. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.
    You should also listen to what's underlying the anger. For instance, if you like a certain amount of freedom and personal space, and your partner starts complaining about your activities because he or she wants more connection and closeness, don't retaliate by calling them a "jailer" or an "albatross around your neck".
    It's natural to get defensive when you're criticised, but don't fight back. Instead, listen to what's underlying your partner's words - the message that they 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 prevent the situation from becoming a disastrous one.

    Using humour
    Silly humour can help diffuse 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 an 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, try to picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting at your colleague's desk, talking on the phone and 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 humour can always be relied on to help to diffuse a tense situation.
    The underlying message of highly angry people, Dr. Deffenbacher says, is: "Things ought to go my way!" Angry people tend to feel that they're morally correct, that any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they shouldn't have to suffer this way.
    When you feel that urge, he suggests, picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme ruler who owns the streets and shops 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 realise that maybe you're being a little unreasonable; you'll also realise how unimportant the things you're angry about really are.
    There are two things to be cautious about when using humour. First, don't try to just laugh off your problems; instead, use humour to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don't give in to harsh, sarcastic humour, which is just another form of anger in itself.
    What these techniques have in common is a refusal to take oneself too 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 at all the people and things that form that trap.
    Give yourself a break. Ensure you have some personal time scheduled for times of the day that you know are particularly stressful. For example, a working mother might have a standing rule that when she comes home from work, she has 15 minutes of 'quiet time' enabling her to feel better prepared to handle demands from her children without erupting with anger.

    Useful tips to help control anger:
    • Timing: if you and your spouse tend to fight when you discuss things at night, 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 past, shut the door. Don't make yourself look at what infuriates you, saying: "My child should clean up the room so I won't get angry!" That's not the point. The most important thing is to keep calm.
    • Finding alternatives: if your daily commute through traffic leaves you in a state of rage and frustration, give yourself a project. Map out a different, less congested route, or find another alternative, such as a bus or commuter train.

    If you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it's impacting on your life and relationships, you might consider counselling to learn how to manage it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional <> can work with you in developing a range of techniques to change your thinking and behaviour.
    When you talk to a prospective therapist, tell them 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 simply a course of action designed to let you express your feelings - you need to look at the reasons why you need to vent your anger in this way.
    With counselling, psychologists say that a highly angry person can move closer to a middle range of anger in about eight to ten weeks, depending on circumstances and the techniques used.
    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, and 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, life will always throw situations at you that will cause angry feelings - from frustration, pain and loss to the unpredictable actions of others.
    You can't change this, 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.

    Controlling Anger - Before It Controls You: by kind permission of the APA's public communications office.

    For further information, please contact:
    American Psychological Association, Office of Public Affairs
    750 First Street, NE, Washington DC 20002-4242, USA.
    Tel: 001 (202) 336-5500.
    If you'd like help monitoring your anger, you can make an anger management plan (and check your progress along the way) by using thought diaries and mood monitoring charts <>.
    Alternately, if there's a specific anger problem you'd like to work through, Managing your anger <> provides a new way to look at situations, as well as print-off-and-keep charts for discussion.
    This article was last reviewed in February 2005.
    First published in June 2000.