Anger Management: A Help Guide
What is anger?
Despite its bad reputation, anger, when at a normal level, is a healthy human emotion. It is felt in response to feeling that either you, your loved ones, or your property are under threat.
Everyone experiences anger, and anger is actually useful when dealt with productively. It gives us warning bells when we need to be alert and practice self-care, encouraging us to stand up for ourselves and make necessary changes in our lives.
Anger can feel quite physical. This is because it is part of the 'fight or flight' response that helped us survive in primitive times, causing a rush of adrenaline, a racing heart, and sweating. It's rare that we are in physical danger nowadays, and more common that what we perceive as a threat is towards our sense of self or identity, leaving the physical response of anger to sometimes seem overwhelming.
What is an anger issue?
Like any emotion, anger can be dealt with poorly or allowed to swing out of control.
An anger issue is when your anger is mismanaged, negatively affecting or hurting you, your life, or those around you. This can include disruptions to your relationships, career, mental and physical health, and ability to achieve goals.
If you have an uncontrollable temper, it may feel like there's nothing you can do, and you might think you are just the sort with a 'bad side'. But this is not true. You are not your anger, and you can learn to control your anger. It takes time and committment and often requires professional help, but the results of learning anger management can be life changing.
Not everyone with anger issues exhibits a constant uncontrollable temper. Repressed anger can be just as damaging and just as much of a problem. It might just seem like ongoing irritation and tension, but if it isn't dealt with it can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders. It can also turn into a sudden violent outburst.
If your anger has spiralled into rage and violence, it's important you immediately seek help. Not only can such behaviour hurt you and those around you, it can sometimes be the sign of another mental health condition.
Domestic abuse is often linked to anger issues, but it's important to know the difference. While an abuser might exhibit rage, abusive behaviour is not the result of just uncontrollable anger. It's a conscious choice the abuser has made to control someone else. Anger management does not solve domestic abuse, which requires specialised treatment. If you are the perpetrator or victim of domestic abuse and need help, call one of the hotlines listed at the bottom of this guide.
What is anger management and who needs it?
It is rarely anger itself that is the issue, but the way that one chooses to handle their anger that is the problem.
Anger management is learning how to handle your anger in a way that is productive and doesn't harm you or others. It involves recognising your triggers for anger, knowing the signs you are getting angry, and then being able to take the right actions that help you not overreact but instead deal with the situation you are facing in a useful way.
Anger management is not about learning to not be angry or hold all your anger inside. Everyone experiences anger, and again, it is a healthy emotion when managed correctly. While it's not useful to have blowouts, repressing anger is also not a productive long-term tactic and leads to its own set of problems.
Anger management is helpful for anyone who has problems expressing that they are upset with a person or situation in way that is not harmful or counterproductive to themselves or others. It is useful for anyone whose anger has caused them problems at work or home. It can benefit both those who struggle with constant feelings of anger and those who repress their anger then have sporadic outbursts.
How common is it to have an anger issue?
A survey on anger using a controlled sample of 2000 people was carried out by the UK's Mental Health Foundation. It discovered that more than one in ten claimed they had trouble staying in control of their anger, and more than one in four people are uneasy with how angry they sometimes get.
In America, it has been suggested that one in five has an anger management problem, and it has recently been found that a sobering two-thirds of teens have experienced a threatening or violent anger attack.
What are the signs of an anger issue?
These are the possible signs of an anger problem:
- you feel frustrated and annoyed on a daily basis
- something small that doesn't upset others can send you into a rage
- you sometimes avoid certain people or places because you can't control your anger around them
- your temper has gotten you into trouble at work
- your anger has caused problems in your relationships
- friends or partners have left you after telling you that you are too angry
- you have an ongoing soundtrack in your head of veangeful thoughts
- you have had a run in with the law because of your temper
- you have violently attacked objects, such as kicking a car or smashing dishes
- you have a tendency to verbally abuse others or have bullied and intimidated others
- you have engaged in physical violence against animals or other people
And these are the possible signs of a problem with repressed anger:
- tendency to avoid conflict or others you feel are too emotional
- rarely show anger but when you do it's explosive
- experience irritation and frustration easily
- are busy all the time or possible workaholic
- have been accused of being passive aggressive
- struggle with addictive behaviour (substances, food, exercise, shopping, etc)
- suffer muscle tension, insomnia, constant colds and flus, possibly chronic pain
- constantly suffer low grade depression
- like to be in control
- hide behind sarcasm or apathy
- self-sabotage often, such as missing deadlines, being late
- fear rejection
- have nervous habits such as nail biting or lip chewing
- difficulties saying no and setting boundaries
(for more information on repressed anger see our article, 'Is Repressed Anger Holding You Back?)
What causes an anger issue?
In some cases there might be a physiological or genetic reason for why a person is always angry. There has been research done that suggests some people are born with an irritable personality which is present from an early age.
But usually anger issues are learned behaviour. They develop in response to what you were taught about anger and emotions when growing up. If you were a child who watched adults yell and throw things at each other you are more likely to grow up an adult with anger issues. Growing up with no emotions exhibited or allowed in your household can also cause anger issues, as you are taught to bottle everything up inside and were possibly belitted if you tried to express how you felt. The years of repression can lead to rage.
Anger problems can also be triggered by or created as the result of circumstances, such as traumatic experiences including abuse, crime, and natural disasters, other events that leave you feeling powerless, or just too much stress.
What is the impact if anger issues are not addressed?
When anger gets out of control it can have serious negative repercussions on all areas of your life, including the following:
Relationships – anger problems mean that others find it hard to relax around you, feel they don't trust you, or even feel unsafe with you. It can therefore destroy marriages and estrange you from your family, or make it difficult to keep a partner in the first place. At its worst, it can lead to violence against the very people you love. Anger problems can make people very nervous to be around you, and can be very damaging on children.
Career – constructive disagreements are normal in a workplace. But if you become known as the one who takes things too far or explodes over little things, you might feel ostracised at work, have staff who don't respect you or see a high turnover of employees, damage client relations, or even constantly lose jobs and ruin your reputation so that in time find yourself unemployable.
Mental health- anger can take over your thinking, leaving you with an ongoing soundtrack of veangeful thoughts that means you are unfocussed, can't achieve your goals, and don't enjoy yourself. Anger also leads to low self-esteem, high levels of stress, and often ongoing depression. Those with anger issues are also prone to develop substance abuse problems, with their attempts to use alcohol or drugs to lower their anger more often than not making them simply more volatile.
Physical health – consistently high levels of anger place stress and tension on the body, including increased blood pressure, digestive problems, headaches, insomnia and fatigue, and possible heart palpitations. Chronic anger has been connected to heart disease and diabetes.
How are anger problems detected?
Anger problems are diagnosed through a discussion with your GP over how you feel your anger is negatively affecting you, your life, and those around you. They can then refer you on to places and practitioners who help with anger management.
It is possible to self-diagnose your own anger problem. If you are sure your anger is damaging your home life, relationships, and career, then you can seek help on your own via a support group in your area or a private counsellor or psychotherapist such as those at Harley Therapy. The important thing is to take steps to seek support.
Recommended actions for anger problems
You might be recommended by your GP to an anger management program.
Anger management programs aims to support individuals to change the way in which they deal with anger. It can take place over several months and involve working in a group as well as meeting weekly with a counsellor for a private session. Sometimes there are also one-day workshops or weekend courses included as part of your program.
In all cases some for of counselling is recommended. Anger problems develop over years, usually with roots in childhood, and it's important to have a safe, supportive environment to learn to understand your anger, spot your triggers, and learn new ways of expressing your emotions.
CBT therapy is often recommended. This is a type of psychotherapy that helps you learn to recognise the thoughts you have that trigger emotions and physical reactions, then helps you learn to take charge of your thoughts and choices.
Person-centred counselling can also be helpful, creating an environment to explore what bothers you and what changes you'd like to make moving forward.
In some cases, medication will be prescribed, such as anti-depressants or lithium, but medication is not a solution in and of itself.
Psychological health conditions related to anger
Anger problems can come hand in hand with the following mental health issues:
Well-known people with anger problems
Celebrities who have been charged for acts of violence including assault and domestic incidents include Chris Brown, Sean Penn, Naomi Campbell, and Michelle Rodriguez. Others known for explosive tempers include Steve Jobs, Rosie O'Donnell, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin, Liam Gallagher, and Charlie Sheen.
Useful advice for managing anger
Work towards recognising the signs you are triggered. Anger is linked to the primal 'fight or flight' response so the body gives clues. Recognising these physical cues will give you a chance to make the choice to remove yourself from the situation until you are not in a 'red zone'. Start to notice if before your anger fully kicks in you feel a hot sensation in your body, a tension in your jaw, begin to clench your hands, or your heart starts to pound.
Find out what soothes you. This is different for everyone. For some, it's a fast, hard run, or having a session with a punching bag in the garage. For others, it's a certain upbeat song, or twenty minutes of meditating. Use constructive techniques, not destructive ones like alcohol or overeating.
Learn 'emergency' techniques to cool down. This might be deep breathing, fcounting to ten, or focussing on a part of your body like your shoulders and relaxing them. Maybe it's thinking of someone you love who wants you to be happy, or learning how to turn and walk away. Find what works for you and start to use it.
Own up to the things that are contributing to your anger. If you are using a substance like alcohol or drugs, how might your anger change if you got help and stopped? If you are going to a certain bar where inevitably you get into a fist fight, what would happen if you stopped going there? Are there certain friends you are spending time with that make you worse? Or are you keeping yourself on edge by choosing to listen to angry music and watch aggressive videos?
Educate yourself on ways to express emotions constructively. If you grew up in a family environment where yelling and throwing things was seen as normal, there's a good chance you have no idea of how how to express emotions or how to communicate properly. Choose to learn. Start investigating how to recognise your different emotions, and how to communicate them in ways that help you instead of hinder you. You can find resources online, buy self-help books, join support groups, whatever works for you.
Start questioning your anger. It's hard to change something we don't understand, and often people just assume they are angry and that's all there is to it. Start really examining what is happening each time you feel upset. What is it that you are really angry at? When did the angry feeling really begin, was it several hours earlier, a day ago? Who are you really angry at, is it the person you are yelling at or someone else you dare not have words with? The more you question your anger, the more you can start to understand and control it instead of letting it control you.
Start exploring the deeper reasons you are angry. Anger is rarely about the one thing that triggers it and is inevitably a build up, often from childhood. Start looking for patterns to your anger. Is it always the opposite sex you blow up at? And how might that relate to something you experienced or learned as a child? Do you tend to get angry if you feel foolish, or if others are getting on your nerves, or is it more when you feel things aren't going your way? If it is small things that tend to trigger you, what are the big things that came before that might be the real reason you are feeling so edgy? It's great to explore these things with the support of a therapist, but you can also use techniques like journalling or talking into a tape recorder to start to unravel your anger.
Consider learning mindfulness. Mindfulness is a useful technique now used by many psychotherapists and counsellors as it helps you to live in the present moment and be more aware of how you are really feeling. It alsos lowers anxiety. There are mindfulness classes in most cities nowadays, and many online courses and resources are also available.
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Overcoming Anger and Irritability. Dr William Davies (2009)
Beating Anger: The Eight Point Plan for Coping With Rage. Mike Fisher (2005)
Anger Management: How to Control Your Temper and Overcome Your Anger - a Step-By-Step Guide On How to Free Yourself. Sandy Smith (2013)
Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. Thich Nhat Hanh (2001)
Anger Management: A Practical Guide. Adrian Faupel, Elizabeth Herrick and Peter M. Sharp (2010)
Support Line UK 01708 765200
Young Minds Parent Hotline (for parents dealing with angry or violent children or teens) 0808 802 5544
Respect (for perpetrators of domestic violence) 0808 802 4040
England National Domestic Violence Helpline 0808 200 0247
Scotland Domestic Abuse Helpline 0800 027 1234
Wales Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 801 0800
Northern Ireland Domestic Violence Helpline 0800 917 1414
Counselling and Therapeutic Services
The NHS- seeing your GP and asking for a referral to see an anger management specialist.
Local charities or organisations such as Mind UK may provide support groups, therapy and advice in your local or nearby area. You can also try calling your local council to see what is offered in your area.
Private counselling and psychotherapy clinics such as Harley Therapy can provide a practitioner to help you. You might also find our guide to low cost counselling useful in your search.