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What is anger?

Anger is one of the basic human emotions. Anger takes many different forms from irritation to blinding rage or resentment that festers over many years. At any point in time, a combination of physical, mental and social factors interact to make us feel a certain way. It's different for each of us. Our feelings are influenced by our emotional make-up, how we view the world, what happens around us and our circumstances. Like other emotions, anger rarely acts alone

How does anger work?

As we go about our lives, we're constantly weighing up situations and deciding what we think about them: good or bad, safe or unsafe etc. How we interpret a situation influences how we feel about it. If we think a situation means 'you are in danger', we feel afraid. If it means 'you have been wronged', we feel angry. And these feelings determine how we react to the situation. We translate meanings into feelings very fast. With anger, that speed sometimes means that we react in ways we later regret.

Is it always bad to feel angry?

Anger is a natural response to feeling attacked, injured or violated. Anger can help us survive, give us the strength to fight back or run away when attacked or faced with injustice. In itself, it's neither good nor bad, but it can be frightening.

Angry feelings can lead to destructive and violent behaviour, and so we tend to be frightened of anger.

When something makes you angry, you feel excitement in your body and emotions. Your glands are pumping your blood full of the hormone adrenalin, preparing for fight or flight. You are full of energy, alert, ready for action. Tension builds up, but is released when you express your anger. The release is good for you, helping to keep body and mind in balance and able to face life's challenges.

As long as the build-up of tension is usually released in action or words, you should be able to cope with feeling frustrated occasionally! But if, as a rule, you have to bottle up your feelings, the energy has to go somewhere. It may turn inwards and cause you all sorts of problems. Suppressed anger can have very negative effects, physically and mentally.

Physical effects

Anger might affect your:

  • digestion (contributing to the development of heartburn, ulcers, colitis, gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome)
  • heart and circulatory system (leading to blocked arteries)
  • blood pressure (driving it too high)
  • joints and muscles (resulting in inflammations, such as in arthritis)
  • immune system (making you more likely to catch 'flu and other bugs, and less able to recover from operations)
  • Pain threshold (making you more sensitive to pain).

Emotional effects

These might include:

  • depression (when the anger is turned inwards)
  • addictions (to alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs)
  • compulsions (eating disorders, such as excessive dieting or binge-eating, overworking, unnecessary cleaning and any other behaviour that is out of control, including sexual activities)
  • bullying behaviour (especially expressing racist, sexist or homophobic views)
  • All of these will damage relationships with other people, and this is likely to lower your self-esteem further, and make you more depressed.

Why do we get angry?

The situations that trigger anger can be very varied but could include some of the following:

  • facing a threat to ourselves or our loved ones
  • being verbally or physically assaulted
  • suffering a blow to our self-esteem or our place within a social group
  • being interrupted when pursuing a goal
  • losing out when money is at stake
  • someone going against a principle that we consider important
  • being treated unfairly and feeling powerless to change this
  • feeling disappointed by someone else or in ourselves
  • having our property mistreated

Whether or not we feel someone has wronged us on purpose is a crucial factor in whether we become angry. Our recent experience can also influence our reactions. If you are having a bad day and are in a state of constant tension, you're more likely to snap when another thing goes wrong, even if it is something that wouldn't usually bother you.

We may feel angry immediately or only feel angry later as we recall a situation. Anger that comes to the surface years later sometimes has its roots in abuse or neglect long ago. Sometimes anger hangs around inside us for decades because it wasn't dealt with sufficiently at the time.

How do people behave when they are angry?

Anger is not always negative. It can be a force for good. Moral outrage can drive people to campaign for change, right wrongs and enforce the rules that govern our society. People often think of anger and aggression as the same thing, but researchers estimate that people get aggressive just 10% of the times that they get angry.

Anger is an emotional state and aggression is just one of the ways that people behave when they are angry. Aggressive behaviour can be physical or verbal and gives the signal that someone intends to cause harm. It can mean people become violent towards others or throw things. Aggression often takes over when people act on their instinct to protect themselves or others.

People often express their anger verbally. They may:

  • shout
  • threaten
  • use dramatic words
  • bombard someone with hostile questions
  • Exaggerate the impact on them of someone else's action.

Some people internalise their anger. They may be seething inside and may physically shake, but they do not show their anger in the way they behave when they are around other people.

What kind of problems can be linked to anger?

Anger in itself is neither good nor bad, but it becomes a problem when it harms us or other people. Anger is the emotion most likely to cause problems in relationships in the family, at work and with friends. People with a long term anger problem tend to be poor at making decisions, take more risks than other people and are more likely to have a substance misuse problem.

Long term and intense anger has been linked with mental health problems including depression, anxiety and self-harm. It is also linked to poorer overall physical health as well as particular conditions, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • colds and flu
  • coronary heart disease
  • stroke
  • cancer
  • Gastro-intestinal problems.

Why do people tend to neglect anger problems?

Reports show that anger problems are as common as depression and anxiety, but people experiencing difficulties with anger often fail to identify their anger or see it as a problem. They rarely seek support and may be more likely to see other people as the problem.

How can managing my anger help me?

Most people get angry quite often, but their anger is within a normal and healthy range. Other people experience anger frequently and intensely enough for it to interfere with their everyday life. Both sets of people can benefit from learning how to deal with their anger more effectively. There is lots of evidence to suggest that managing your anger in a healthy way can help people look after their mental and physical health, feel more positive about themselves, achieve their goals, solve problems and enjoy relationships with the people around them.

Anger can lead you to action, or even violence, you will regret. Keeping your temper under control can also save you from yourself, helping you to avoid the trouble or humiliation that may follow an outburst. Bottling up your anger for a long time is not a good thing either. It is important to deal with anger and move on, not let it stew inside you.

Is there a healthy way to let out my angry feelings?

It is much healthier to recognise when you are feeling angry and to express it directly in words, not in violent action. Expressing anger assertively in this way:

  • benefits relationships and self-esteem
  • allows fuller and richer communication and intimacy
  • defuses tensions before they get to 'explosion' point
  • helps to keep people physically and mentally healthy.

If you have spent a lifetime squashing your feelings, it will take time and effort to get into the habit of expressing anger in an assertive, but not aggressive way! But the following tips will help.

Assertiveness training

Learn about anger and assertiveness. Go to the HeadsUp Help section to learn more about assertiveness.

Caring for yourself

Look to your general health, especially diet and exercise. Lack of certain nutrients can make people feel irritable and weak. Exercise increases our self-esteem, as well as our fitness and muscle tone. Find pleasurable ways to let off steam involving vigorous physical activity, dancing, chopping wood, jogging, or whatever you feel like. This will prevent tension building up in your body in a destructive way.

How can I deal with my angry feelings better?

Examine your behaviour patterns

Get to know your own pattern of behaviour and history around anger. What was your family like when you were growing up? Who got angry, and what happened when they did? If no-one was openly angry, what happened to resentments and differences of opinion or of needs?

What unspoken messages did you receive about anger? Do you tend to bottle things up and get depressed, or do you tend to explode and be aggressive? How do you feel about your current pattern? Find someone to talk to about your feelings with an understanding friend, or a professional counsellor.

Acknowledge past hurts

It is important to acknowledge angry feelings left over from the past. Nothing can change what happened to you, but your attitude to it can change. Past losses and injustices, big or small, can rankle for years. Painful experiences may include being neglected by your parents, bitter rivalry with a brother or sister, the death of someone close, or growing up in exile. You may think you have forgotten about them, that it is pointless to go over old bones. But, if something suddenly happens to you in the present, and your response to it is totally over the top, it may become clear that these feelings are not so in the past after all! While you remain unaware of them, they can cause unnecessary problems. But, if you can get to know them, you will have a chance of dealing more constructively with present situations.

What should I do when I feel myself getting angry?

  • Stop and think, if at all possible! There is a traditional saying, which is very sound that goes: 'Hold your breath and count to ten before you say anything.'
  • Walk away from situations
    It is a good idea to ask yourself, 'Am I so angry I can't think?', and, 'Am I wanting to lash out and hit someone?'. If the answer to either of these is yes, then walk away from the situation. Tell the other person that you are too angry to speak to them at this moment, if you can. Go away somewhere to calm down.
  • Resolve unfinished business
    'Why am I so angry?'. Finding the answer to this is important for the next step. Are you angry because of something that is happening now, that threatens you, your life, your loved ones, your work, someone or something that you value? In other words, is your anger justified and in proportion? Or is it that some of the anger that you feel is not really due to the person and situation that you are facing now, but to some unfinished business from the past? If your anger turns out to be more to do with the past than the present, then think about how to address that before, or as well as, dealing with the current situation. The way to find out about this is by talking it over with another person, preferably someone who is not involved, personally. Once you are clear that the anger is about the here-and-now, prepare to tell the other person that you are angry!

How can I deal with other people's anger?

Being on the receiving end of anger or just being a witness to it can be tough. Many people put up with regular displays of anger from people close to them because they love them, fear them or feel that they deserve no better. But if other people's anger is really getting you down, you shouldn't have to put up with it.

Anger tends to be catching, but staying calm yourself can help both of you. If you get angry as well, things can quickly escalate.

  • Bear in mind the tactics that calm people down, use them yourself and remind the other person what can help them relax or distract themselves
  • Help them to consider why they are angry and encourage them to explain it to you calmly
  • Explain that sometimes anger is justified, but it can also make people lose perspective - unnecessary aggression makes things worse

It is easy to be affected by other people's negativity so it is often useful to take yourself away from an angry person. Give them time to cool down, wait a few minutes, then talk with them when they seem less agitated and may be more able to look at the situation neutrally. No-one needs to put up with violence. If you are afraid or feel threatened you should ask for help. If you have been assaulted, call the police.

What is the best way to tell someone I'm angry?

Before you meet

  • Get clear in your head what your rights are, and be realistic. What do you want to happen? What are you entitled to? What might happen when you tell the person you are angry? Can you do anything about that? Can you live with the consequences?
  • Question your conclusions. You may believe that if you tell someone that you are angry with them, certain negative outcomes may occur. Question these conclusions to see if they are likely to happen or if they are based on your own fear. If in doubt, talk to someone about your fears. It's important to clear up any doubts before the meeting, or you may sabotage your chances of being heard.
  • Set the scene. Choose a time and a place that will suit you, and where you think the other person is more likely to listen and hear what you have to say. Make sure you won't be disturbed; warn other people not to interrupt you for a set period.
  • Choose a setting that allows you to feel that you are both equal and that you both matter. Either sit in chairs at the same height, or both stand up. Make sure there are no physical obstacles (such as a pile of papers) between you.

During the meeting

  • Keep your body language assertive; alert, relaxed, keeping direct eye contact, with your feet firmly on the floor.
  • Keep breathing! This will help you to keep calm.
  • Be specific. Say, 'I feel angry with you because...' This avoids blaming anyone, and shows that you are taking responsibility for your half of the problem. The other person is less likely to feel attacked.
  • Listen to the other person's response, and try to understand their point of view. Treat them with the same courtesy and attention you want from them.
  • Ask for more time or another meeting, if things can't be resolved at once.
  • Finish by thanking the other person for their time and attention, whatever the outcome.

After the meeting

  • Give yourself a pat on the back and a treat for the time and effort you have put into managing your anger assertively!

Following these tips won't mean you never get angry, but it will help you feel better about yourself.

Tips on how to deal with anger in a healthy way

  • Count to ten before you act
    Anger leads us to take action very fast. But that can mean we don't give ourselves the chance to choose a more constructive way to deal with our anger. Give rational thinking time to kick in.
  • Drop your shoulders and take a few deep breaths
    And relax‰ߵ your instincts may be telling your body to get ready to fight, but you can reverse this message by telling your body to chill out.
  • Punch a pillow or have a scream in your room
    Anger gets us ready for action and floods us with energy. Release your tension in a safe way, without hurting yourself or anyone else.
  • Channel your energy into exercise
    Work off your anger through exercise and boost the release of feel good brain chemicals which help us relax.
  • Distract yourself
    Take yourself out of the situation that made you angry - read a magazine, do a crossword, listen to soothing music or go for a walk.
  • Get creative
    Pour out how you feel in writing or redirect your energy into another activity. It can help you get things in proportion and work out how you want to respond.

What you can do longer term

Practice relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation

Relaxation techniques challenge the physical aspects of anger, such as the brain chemicals that prepare you to fight, before these chemicals lead you to act impulsively. See the fact sheet on relaxation techniques in the mental wellbeing section. Click here

Keep talking, keep listening

Talking about your feelings is good for your mental health and offloading to a friend can help you get perspective. Listen to other people's point of view too.

Learn how to be assertive, not aggressive

Being assertive is a healthier way to express anger than aggression. People are more likely to take you seriously if you get your message across without sounding threatening or using aggressive body language. Check out the HeadsUp Online Skills section for a module on assertiveness

Know yourself

It can be helpful to work out what makes you angry, how it makes you behave and what calms you down. Would changes in your daily life help you deal with anger better? Check out the fact sheet on how immediate relief for stressful situations. Click here



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