Anger is a normal human reaction to feeling threatened, provoked or being treated unfairly. Anger is an intense emotion, as it changes the way that people feel, think and behave. Everyone experiences anger at times, and it’s useful for telling us when something’s not right or dangerous. However, anger becomes a problem if it leads to harm to ourselves or others.
Signs that anger is a problem
Some people know that they have a problem with anger. Other people might not be so sure. The following things might not be problematic on their own but a combination of them might indicate a problem with anger.
- Irritability - feeling generally annoyed a lot of the time
- Restlessness – not being able to sit still or relax
- Getting very angry very quickly
- Tightness in the chest
- Rapid heartbeat
- Not being able to remember the reason for feeling angry
- Deliberately being unkind or using hurtful words with people
- Thinking the worst of people or judging them harshly
- Everything feeling like a massive problem
- Constantly arguing with others
- Causing damage by breaking or throwing things
- Lashing out at other people
What can I do to help myself?
Because thoughts cause anger, challenging some thoughts can help. Taking a deep breath and thinking through the thought can allow us to decide whether we actually mean it. Relaxing can be a useful way to stop feelings of anger. Mindfulness practices can help.
It might be helpful to take some time to think of the things that cause us anger, and why this might be. Understanding emotions is key to managing them.
Real life experience
Pressure, it can be instant or build over a period of time. For example, instant pressure, like a finger touching your eyeball will provoke an immediate response; instant, but from nowhere, just a reaction to an action. Gone as quickly as it arrived. Or, like the steam in a pressure cooker builds until maximum capacity is reached. As heat builds, steam builds, so the pressure within builds. It you remove the lid at full pressure, it will explode! Same if there wasn’t a release value. Two things allow safe pressure release - the valve needs to safely channel the pressure, or the heat needs to be removed and the cooker allowed to completely cool, thereby, completely removing the pressure.
Both of these are how I would describe my anger, but more often than not it’s the pressure cooker. Before I gained more awareness, I never knew just how much pressure was cooking up! There isn’t a window on a pressure cooker to see if you’re at the max level, you only know when steam starts to blow out the valve. And by then it’s too late, there’s no cramming that steam back in - whoosh! Worse still, the valve doesn’t work at all and the lid blows clean off - bang!
By the time I realised that my main safety valve was sport, I was too physically restricted (by CFS/ME) to properly utilise it. So, in time I tried to learn and adapt new safety valves. This wasn’t easy for me, as nothing could vent my anger like competitive sport could. Anger management had been suggested a couple of times over the years, but for me, personally, I had to go to the root causes. Without addressing where the anger stemmed from, it wasn’t effective to simply manage it when it appeared. It was like constant fire fighting of each little fire that broke out and missing the big raging fire, the one within.
Personally, my anger was steeped in an emotional cocktail - frustration, self-hatred, abandonment issues, confusion, suppressed emotions, fear, hurt, and anger itself. My learning process, specifically relating to anger, started in a very unexpected way, with a Disney Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’. It was mentioned during DBT group therapy and a short clip was shown, to show the emotions we all have. It really resonated with me and I was determined to get it and watch it in full. I mentioned it to a friend and her daughter had a copy, which I borrowed. On the face of it, I identified with the little red character - ‘anger’. We were watching and immediately they identified me as the chubby, bespectacled blue character - ‘sadness’. This was based solely on my appearance (because I am stout and wear specs, not because I am blue!). However, I identified with ‘sadness’ for more than simply looks. I told my friends, actually I’m more like ‘anger’ but they couldn’t identify me in that way – they hadn’t ever seen that side to me. But my husband could, he had seen first-hand over the years. It dawned on me there and then – I was a mixture of all the characters, though I spent more time as some than others. All the characters that represent an emotion have a function. Anger has a function. It is a response to a threat – actual or perceived. However, when anger is disproportionate or unwarranted, that’s when it’s problematic.
Personally, mine mainly occurs when I feel the (actual or perceived) threat of abandonment, though it has taken decades of time, much self-analysis and awareness, coupled with much therapy to have identified that for myself.
Notice the little red character? We associate red with anger – red hot with anger, or the red mist descends. Red is associated with heat. When we are angry our temperature rises, we sweat and go red in the face. Anger isn’t always the ‘red mist’ descending. I’ve had my fair share of that – hysterical screaming and shouting, not able to recall what I said or did, how I arrived somewhere, verbally abusive to loved ones, injured (such as when I had tried to scale a wall), driving erratically or driven to self-harm. No, it can be much less obvious than that. Like me, it could be internalised. It can lead to things like self-loathing, depression, suicidal feelings, despair and physical symptoms such as fatigue, palpitations, chest pains, indigestion, nausea and headaches to name a few. Personally, I have a mixed bag of externalised and internalised anger. I’m not sure anger, or any other emotion is ever a clear, straight line.
Back to the pressure cooker for a moment, one of the solutions was complete removal of heat to remove the pressure. When relating this to anger, for me it hasn’t been possible to remove all heat. My personality, my issues, my emotions, my circumstances, my experiences and the environment we live in, all mean that my pressure will build. The question is then, if I cannot remove the heat and pressure, how can I dial it down? How can I channel them? What safety valves can I utilise? What is realistic?
I mentioned DBT, which stands for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) based therapy. I was referred to it from the Affective Disorders team. It helped me identify emotions, learn the functions of them and gave me skills to cope with them. One of these skill sets uses the acronym ‘TIPP’ - Tip the temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced Breathing, Paired Muscle Relaxation. When I feel angry, I feel hot, so let’s look at Tip the temperature – I put my face in a bowl of cold water or grasp an ice cube tight in my hands, or (my preference) rub the ice cube on the back of my neck. Technically speaking, it triggers the ‘dive response’, which causes a decrease in temperature. Literally, I go and ‘cool off’. The breathing really helps too, the more I practice, the quicker I ‘come down from the ceiling’.
I don’t have just one safety valve, as it’s too much pressure on one sole outlet, and if it fails the results are catastrophic. I have various smaller valves which form an early warning system. The hope is if I listen to them, I avoid the lid blowing off.