By Ms. Sue Newton, MN,RN
Anger is a powerful and important emotion that all of us have experienced at various times in our lives. Nowadays we hear a lot about ‘anger management’ but it is important to understand what triggers your anger before you try to manage it. It is also necessary to manage anger in a healthy and respectful way and learn how to let go of the anger before it leads to long-term resentments.
All emotions have a function and anger is an emotion typically evoked by injustice, towards others or ourselves. For example, we may feel hurt, betrayed, denied or unfairly wronged. Often it can indicate when one’s basic boundaries are violated. It is an emotion that can be evoked by both external and internal events. Some people become angry with a specific person or event while others can be triggered by worrying or brooding about personal problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings. As people differ on what they feel is unfair or unjust in this world, so does their anger and some people may get angry much more often than others.
Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger can be subdivided into 3 phases:
Phase 1 is the feeling of anger. This is essentially an instinctive or reflex emotion over which we have little control.
Phase 2 is the reaction to anger. Although we have no control over the feeling of anger, we do have control over our reactions and how we manage our emotions.
Phase 3 is the resentment of anger and how long we hang onto the feeling of anger.
Sometimes 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 is 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 to handle and react to the problem.
Reacting to Anger
When reacting to anger, people use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their angry feelings. The three common approaches are: expressing, suppressing, and calming.
Expressing angry feelings in an assertive, not aggressive, manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, we have to learn how to make clear what our 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 others and ourselves.
Suppressing anger is unhealthy and occurs when one holds in the anger, stops thinking about it or focuses on something else as a distraction. The danger in this type of response is that if anger isn’t allowed outward expression it can turn inward on oneself, which may lead to high blood pressure or depression. Unexpressed or suppressed anger can also create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile. People who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments haven’t learned how to constructively express their anger.
Thirdly, one can learn to calm the angry feelings from within. Positively reacting to anger is not just about managing outward behavior, but also about managing internal responses, such as taking steps to lower heart rate, calm oneself down and let the feelings subside. When you feel like flying off the handle, take a deep breath. Deep breathing slows down your fight or flight response and allows you to calm your nervous system and choose a more thoughtful and productive response.
Don’t neglect the basics. Lack of sleep, going too long without food or water, and lack of recreation and physical activity can leave your mind and body vulnerable to exaggerated responses. For many of us it’s easy to let our own basic self-care take a back seat to the noble cause of taking care of others. Ironically, it is your loved ones
who are most likely to end up on the receiving end of your emotional reactions. Prioritizing your own self-care will help minimize angry outbursts.
Tune in and name it. A stiff neck, pit in the stomach, pounding heart, and tense muscles can all be signs that you’re feeling angry. Becoming more aware of physical cues actually helps you to stay ahead of the anger and better able to manage your response. Naming your feeling activates both sides of your brain allowing you to reflect on your situation instead of just reacting to it. Angry people tend to jump to and act on conclusions, and some of those conclusions can be very inaccurate. The first thing to do if you’re in a heated discussion is slow down and think through your
responses. Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head, but think carefully about what you want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.
Put a positive spin on it. Once you’ve identified and named the sensations in your body, you can intervene with your thoughts. When we have intense emotions it’s easy to go to a worst-case scenario as an explanation for whatever you’re reacting to. Watch for all-or-nothing thinking as clues that you’re heading towards
catastrophizing. If someone offends you, consider the possibility that the insult is not about you. Maybe the neighbor who snapped at you was just given a pay cut at work and is feeling discouraged, or the person who cut you off in traffic is rushing to the hospital to see the birth of his first child. Make up a backstory that makes sense and puts a positive spin on whatever is triggering your emotional response.
Identify and resolve emotional “leftovers.” Notice patterns in your reactions. If you find yourself repeatedly revisiting an intense emotional response, there is likely a historical component that needs to be addressed that is fueled by emotional leftovers from your past.