Feeling angry and what to do about it

What do you do when you are feeling angry? Do you have strong reactions that affect yourself and the people around you? Or do you suppress your anger so you don’t know how to respond when you’re upset?

Anger is a natural and unavoidable emotion, but it has more potential than other emotions to lead to reactions that are harmful to yourself and the people around you. The consequences of unhealthy reactions to anger can be obvious in the moment, and they can be subtle as well. This is why it’s very valuable to learn how to control your reactions when you get angry. Even if the effects aren’t immediate and obvious, they still do harm.

Responding to anger by losing control and becoming abusive, or repressing anger and insisting you aren’t upset are both unhealthy reactions to anger. Adopting a moderate response is much healthier and works best when you can acknowledge that you’re angry, but stay calm enough to work through what you’re thinking and feeling to find a solution.  

What is anger?

Anger is defined by psychologists as: an emotion characterised by feelings of hostility, strong dislike, and/or opposition towards someone or something you think has deliberately done you wrong. It is a natural and unavoidable emotion. Getting angry can even be healthy as it releases negative emotions that are harmful to your mental health if you suppress them.

All emotions can be categorised into positive – enjoyable to experience, or negative – painful and uncomfortable. Positive emotions include happiness, excitement, and (pleasant) surprise. Negative emotions include sadness, fear, and disgust. Anger can be positive or negative, depending on how you feel about getting angry.

Anger is a powerful emotion that compels you to act, typically in situations that feel threatening. When you get angry, your reactions can feel righteous and not only appropriate, but warranted. You may believe you’re protecting yourself, helping someone, or correcting an injustice. This can give anger an intoxicating quality that excuses reactions that are out of proportion to the cause.

The intensity of anger is what makes some people feel like they can’t safely experience this emotion, so they suppress it. This is especially likely for people who were told as children that anger isn’t acceptable instead of being taught healthy reactions. People who experienced trauma that hasn’t been resolved are also more likely to repress anger because they don’t know how to deal with their painful emotions so they suppress them instead of facing them.

Much of what makes anger such a powerful emotion is how it effects your brain. The human brain is made of two parts – the primitive instinctive part, and the much younger logical part. Because the primitive part of the brain is so much older and designed for survival, it has far more control over your behaviour. Behaviour is driven by emotions much more than logic, so when you’re in an emotionally charged situation, you’re likely to be governed by the primitive part of your brain.

The two parts of the brain have been compared to an elephant and his rider. When they want the same things, they can easily work together. But when the elephant wants something the rider doesn’t, there’s very little the rider can do to stay in control because the elephant is much stronger. Since anger is an instinctive emotion that comes from the primitive part of your brain, it can override the logical part, so people are prone to reacting without considering other options or the consequences when they’re angry.

Feeling threatened makes the brain go into survival mode, which is characterised by the fight-flight-freeze or fawn response. These reactions are automatic and you often don’t have time to consider them before acting. But because these reactions happen so quickly, they usually aren’t the best reaction to the situation so you can act in ways that have unpleasant consequences and cause painful emotions you don’t need to feel. Over time, they can become so automatic that you don’t even realise you’re doing them, like looking both ways before crossing the street. Anger is often felt in response to threats, including threats to your status and your sense of justice. When your brain is in survival mode, you can’t respond rationally or use logic, so it’s very difficult to react in ways you’ll be proud of once you’re calm.

Even if you don’t recognise that you get angry and suppress your feelings instead, the elephant can still take control and the logical part will shut down. Suppressing anger can even keep the elephant in control longer because you’re not doing anything to signal that the danger has passed so your brain stays in survival mode.

But you don’t have to lose control when you get angry. You can change your instincts and train the elephant by practicing healthy reactions while you’re calm. At first it will take effort, but with perseverance and practice they can become second nature.

This is why the ability to recognise, learn from, and then move away from anger is so important. Stopping feeling angry is the goal but this can only happen after you’re learned what you can from it.

Why unhealthy reactions to anger are unhealthy

What do you do when you get angry?

Some people become violent or aggressive. Violence is the intentional use of force or power – threatened or actual – over others, oneself, or a group that has a high likelihood of resulting in physical or psychological harm. When anger is expressed in violent or aggressive ways, there are often consequences for yourself and the people around you.

There are different types of violence; the easiest to recognise is physical violence. This is the use of or the threat of using physical force to injure, abuse or damage another person and/or their belongings. People can also be psychologically violent when they seriously harm a person’s mental health through intimidation, force, control and/or threats. It can involve coercion, defamation, verbal assaults or harassment.

Aggression is displaying feelings of anger in a manner that suggests violence is about to occur. Like violence, aggression is intended to harm another person.

Anger is an emotion, and violence and aggression are unhealthy ways of reacting. Although you can’t stop getting angry, you can change how you respond by not behaving violently or aggressively.

The effects of violent and aggressive reactions to anger are sometimes obvious, such as getting into a flight with a friend or smashing your phone in a rage, but they can be subtle as well. The people you’re closest to could be policing their behaviour when they’re around you to avoid setting you off, so you can’t have natural and authentic relationships with them. You could have missed opportunities for advancements at work because you can’t be trusted to control your temper, and more. There could also be consequences to violent and aggressive reactions to anger that you aren’t aware of.

Your perception of yourself is also likely to be affected by violent or aggressive reactions to anger.

Repeatedly acting in ways you regret but feel powerless to stop sends you the message that you can’t control your behaviour. This is a very disempowering feeling that can make you believe you’re a victim who is controlled by others when they upset you and wild emotions you can’t reign in. If you think you don’t have control over your actions, you can develop a victim mentality where you believe you’re powerless to take control of yourself or your situations. These beliefs act as self-fulfilling prophecies that keep you from trying to gain control improve yourself and your circumstances.

Uncontrolled anger can also cause shame. Shame is the belief that you’re flawed as a person and therefore unworthy of connections with other people. Rather than thinking you made a mistake, you think you are a mistake. It’s an incredibly painful and isolating emotion that sends you the message you’re a fundamentally flawed person and always will be.

But believing you can’t change and improve isn’t true, even if you’ve spent years feeling unable to control yourself when you’re angry. Your reactions can be deeply imbedded, but with motivation and good techniques, you can build the habit of having healthier responses when you get upset.

Anger can make violence or aggression feel justified even when it’s not

 

Anger can make violence or aggression feel justified even when it’s not

Some people believe they shouldn’t acknowledge their anger. In situations that make them upset, they quickly bury their feelings and tell themselves that nothing is wrong. But this is also bad for your mental health and your relationships with others.

People suppress anger for a variety of reasons. What they were taught in childhood about anger and their right to express it is a very common reason, but people can also suppress anger because of:

 

    • Trauma they haven’t processed

    • Not being self-aware or having low emotional-intelligence

    • Being a perfectionist and/or a people-pleaser

    • Experiencing high levels of shame (https://wiserways.com.au/building-tools-to-escape-shame/)

    • Struggling with a mental health condition such as anxiety (https://wiserways.com.au/understanding-and-overcoming-anxiety/), depression (https://wiserways.com.au/depression-symptoms-types-and-management-techniques/) or PTSD

Sometimes it’s useful to delay reacting to anger, such as when you’re already upset and decide to deal with what happened once you’re a bit calmer. Or recognising that an angry reaction could make your situation worse, such as staying quiet after an unfair comment from your boss but planning to vent to a friend after work.

But it’s still necessary to acknowledge that you’re angry, even if you decide not to react in the moment. A delayed reaction isn’t the same as supressing because people who suppress their anger don’t even let themselves admit that they’re angry.

Suppressed anger doesn’t disappear – it can emerge in other ways by turning into different emotions that could be harmful to your mental health since you’re denying what you’re actually feeling.

Suppressed anger can turn into:

Sadness and disappointment

These aren’t unhealthy emotions to feel for a short amount of time. But if you blame yourself when you’re sad or disappointed, you’re putting more pressure on yourself than what’s reasonable. Taking responsibility for your mistakes and learning from them is a very valuable skill, but if you didn’t do anything wrong then there’s nothing to learn and you’re punishing yourself for no reason.

Shame

If you blame yourself for the things that make you upset as part of suppressing anger, or you judge yourself for not being better at stopping yourself from getting angry, you can feel ashamed of yourself, which is a dangerous emotion to experience.

Guilt

Guilt is a signal you’ve acted in a way that’s not aligned with your beliefs and values and that you’ll be happier if you act differently next time. But if you feel guilty over things that aren’t your fault, there isn’t a lesson to learn so your guilt is misplaced. If you feel guilt (https://wiserways.com.au/understanding-the-differences-between-shame-and-guilt/) too often, it can turn into shame.

Depression

Depression is characterised by feelings of hopelessness, which can keep you from trying to improve your situation and typically leads to unhealthy thoughts and behaviour patterns when it isn’t managed.

Anxiety

Anxiety is helpful when there’s something to be anxious over, especially if you use these feelings to take better control of the situation to relive your tension. But if you just let anxiety wash over you and feel powerless to do anything, it’s not helpful.

Powerlessness

If you don’t let yourself admit that something is wrong, you aren’t going to do anything to improve your situation or even realise that’s an option. So instead of finding a way to remove the cause of your anger or reconcile your emotions, you’re more likely to be frustrated and tense because there’s so much about your environment that you don’t like, without realising you have the ability to change it.

Defensiveness

People can become defensive instead of angry because they want to react but they aren’t letting themselves, even though it’s often obvious to the people around them that they really are upset. Being defensive makes communicating very difficult since you aren’t really listening and are refusing to be realistic about your behaviour, while being dishonest about your emotions.

Sarcasm, hostility and/or passive-aggressiveness

These are also ways of responding to anger you don’t want to admit to feeling that can push people away.

Emotional distance

Suppressing anger can cause people to be uncomfortable with emotions. They can refuse to share their thoughts and feelings with others and feel awkward when others try to open up with their emotions. This prevents them from having strong relationships based on shared vulnerability.

IMAGE – pressure gauge

Even if you don’t acknowledge your anger, it still affects you

Whether you suppress anger or have violent or aggressive reactions, you’re likely exhausting yourself and harming your relationship with yourself and others.

How to start having healthy reactions to anger

Unlearning harmful reactions to anger can be a long and challenging process. Your reactions to emotions originate from beliefs about what is appropriate for you in different situations. If you have unhealthy reactions to anger, it’s valuable to identify the patterns of beliefs that cause your responses. Then you can then start challenging any harmful beliefs and eventually replace them with healthier ways of thinking about anger.

Depending on your past and mental state, this could be a challenging and potentially traumatic process. It’s important to reach out to someone if this brings up anything that feels too challenging to process on your own. This could be a trusted friend or loved one, or you could prefer to talk to a mental health professional. They can recognise signs of potential trauma and mental health conditions, identify harmful thought patterns, and help you discover the best techniques for you to use as you work on changing.

Regardless of your background, if you want to start making improvements you can begin right away.

Emotions happen for a reason – they tell you there’s something that’s making you unhappy. If you listen to these messages, you can find ways to improve your situation so you’re less likely to keep having these painful emotions. But if you suppress them, you can’t learn or change anything and can stay in an uncomfortable situation when it’s not necessary.

In order to have healthy reactions to anger, it’s important to be able to listen to your emotions and calm yourself down. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling, let your emotions play out, and eventually guide yourself away from a consuming anger to think rationally about an upsetting situation.

When you get angry, your first step should be to calm your mind so you don’t feel controlled by your anger. Some people like to do something relaxing, like taking deep steady breaths, laying down, or stretching. Others need to release their anger so they do things like running, exercising, or listening to aggressive music. Finding what methods work best for you may take trial and error, so don’t get discouraged if what you try first doesn’t work.

If you’re used to suppressing your anger, you might need to consciously let yourself experience your feelings. Having a powerful emotional reaction may be unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable, but it can be very cathartic. This isn’t an excuse to lash out and hurt others, but a way of connecting with your emotions by practicing feeling angry.  

When you’re ready and feel in control of yourself, slow down your thoughts to find out if anger is actually the most appropriate reaction.

If you’re used to getting violent or aggressive, you might have to convince yourself you’re feeling something other than anger. Turning straight to anger can keep you from fully understanding your situation and choosing an appropriate reaction. You could think you’re angry at a friend for cancelling plans, but you’re actually disappointed that you won’t get to see them. An angry reaction could push your friend further away, while acknowledging that you’re disappointed can lead to you reaching out and making new plans to get together.

But if you’re used to suppressing anger, you might have to let yourself admit that you really are angry. Instead of telling yourself you don’t mind your partner inviting a friend to what was supposed to be date night, recognise that you’re upset that they didn’t ask for your opinion. Or if you bought a product online and it immediately broke, you can admit to yourself that you’re angry instead of blaming yourself for not doing better research.

However, thinking about why you’re upset isn’t replaying the scenario over and over in your head and keeping yourself angry. Consider different perspectives. If you’re angry at someone for how they treated you, ask yourself if they intended to hurt your feelings or if there’s an explanation for their rude behaviour, such as being under a lot of pressure. Or your colleague’s comments about your work were meant to be helpful rather than hurtful.

Once you know why you’re upset, ask yourself what would improve your mood. If a friend said something inconsiderate you may want them to apologise. If you’re mad at yourself for forgetting to pay a bill and getting a late charge, consider ways you can keep this from happening again.

Recognising why you’re angry and finding a solution is a valuable ability. Ignoring for feeling keeps you from doing anything, while overreacting makes it very unlikely you’ll get ideal results. But if you understand what’s upsetting you and how you can fix this, anger can help you make improvements.

Anger can feel like a dangerous emotion or impossible to deal with in a healthy way, but you can experience it without hurting yourself or others.

Learning to manage anger is sending yourself the message that you’re in control of how you react and what happens to you. You can improve your situation when you’re upset, not by getting violent and aggressive or defensive and avoidant, but recognising your emotions and identifying ways you can remove the source of those unpleasant feelings.

Anger can seem like an emotionally safe reaction because it feels powerful and can get immediate results. Even when you’re mad at yourself, you’re sending yourself the message that you have the power to change and improve through anger. Other emotions can require tough introspection so they can be uncomfortable and painful, but they’re often more appropriate. You still have the power to change situations through anger, but not by lashing out. You can also feel like you’re losing control with anger, which is frightening if you aren’t confident you can handle your emotions, so suppressing anger can feel safer than acknowledging what you’re actually feeling.

Anger, like make other things in your life that could be causing challenges, doesn’t have to be a drawback. Learning how to approach anger in a healthy way can be an incredibly empowering experience. It will take time and effort, but the results – internal and external – are worth it.

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