Michael was popular, intelligent, and well-liked by friends, but he was also occasionally referred to as “intense.” He grew up in a family where dialogue and debate was regularly encouraged, but outsiders would’ve been likely to observe that it often ended in yelling and hurt feelings. The family believed they bounced back quickly and that it was all part of friendly debate, but this style of engagement didn’t pay off well with others who weren’t used to the dynamic. Now that he was managing an entire team of salespeople, Michael’s management style was being called into question by employees and supervisors alike – they needed him to tone it down.
Molly and Courtney had fallen in love at first sight when they met 3 years ago – madly in love. They laughed hard, worked hard, and played hard. Their passion for life and one another was infectious to almost anyone who spent time with them. And yet, for all of the positive fireworks, there were clear drawbacks to that kind of relational fire. The opposite end of their physical and emotional dynamic meant that they had a hard time creating good psychological space. Both could be clingy and demanding when their needs went unmet, and they ended up causing fights just to get the energy to separate and get some time away from one another. They didn’t see this as a pattern for themselves, but it was clearly there. Last week, Molly got so angry she called Courtney a hurtful name she’d sworn she never would, and Courtney retaliated without thinking by pushing Molly onto the couch. Both of them were scared.
Oliver was frequently told he had the world at his fingertips. He came from a family of some means, had gotten a great education and an even greater job, and lived in the trendy East Nashville neighborhood in a half-a-million dollar home that had recently been rehabbed. On the outside, he conceded there was little to be upset about. But for the third time in as many months, he heard the same comment from someone he’d been dating casually that he’d heard his entire life – “You need to lighten up.” When pressed for what was meant, she said that he snapped a lot, seemed “tense,” and always had to have the last word. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this just made Oliver mad.
Anger Affects Us All
Sometimes, people are surprised when they find out that friends or family tend to view them as irritable or angry, while others are aware that they have some degree of trouble managing their anger. And even if anger isn’t typically a “problem” for someone, all of us lose our tempers from time to time. If this sort of trend continues, we run the risk of being labeled as “angry people.”
What is Anger?
On a physiological level, anger typically involves an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as levels of various hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. It can be triggered by any number of things, including internal and external cues.
Responses to anger tend to have some common themes, ranging from mild to severe. On the mild end, people may experience thoughts of resentment, feelings of hostility, or curse. On the more severe end, people may throw objects, act out in violence, or manifest physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath.
Less Obvious Symptoms of Anger
Most people are familiar with active expressions of anger, but they tend to overlook inactive expressions of it.
Anger expressed actively: raising your voice, dry throat, screaming, curse words, increased heart rate, headaches, heart palpitations, racing blood pressure, gritting teeth, clinching fists, hostility, feeling violated, rage.
Anger expressed inactively: refusing to participate in things that others ask of you, smarting off, sleeping more than usual, feeling unusually fatigued, sulking, whining, over- or under-eating, critical or harsh tone or speech, mean jokes, drug or alcohol abuse.
(Some of these may also indicate the presence of other emotions)
But..Isn’t Anger a Normal, Human Emotion?!
Indeed it is! This is in fact why we say anger affect us all. It is appropriate to feel anger when there is some form of injustice taking place, for example. It seems foolish to suggest that we ought not be angry when someone has been harmed without cause. But, like most human emotions, the idea that some anger is commonly experienced shouldn’t become an excuse for excessiveness.
How Do I Know if Anger Has Become a Problem For Me?
Fundamentally, anger is problematic for people for whom it interrupts their functioning or the functioning of those around them. For example, if your feelings of anger cause problems for you personally (e.g., headaches, increased blood pressure, inability to concentrate) or cause problems for those around (e.g., reports from co-workers, upset or injured family members or friends), then it’s likely that your anger has reached beyond a point that could be easily dismissed as a run-of-the-mill human response.
Conventional Psychological Wisdom & The 2-Factor Theory of Emotion
Conventional psychological wisdom suggests that we have primary and secondary emotions. Combined with the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, we feel some things first (primary) and then others (secondary) as a result of the level to which we are aroused physiologically and our thinking. Anger is seen as a secondary response, meaning that we feel something else first, and then our physiological arousal and our thinking leads us to feeling angry. Consider this example:
Person A and Person B cross a busy street together, and nearly get run over in the process. But only Person A responds in anger, cussing and yelling at the driver who keeps right on going, while Person B simply continues walking across the street feeling shaken up but not angry.
Conventional psychological wisdom would suggest that both Person A and Person B were likely to have felt some initial primary emotion, such as fear. But the two-factor theory would suggest that Person A’s level of arousal may have been more intense, and their thinking lead them to eventually feel angry. For example, Person A may have thought to themselves, “This is the United States of America! I ought to be able to walk across the street without getting hit by a car!” or “That person was probably too busy texting to drive!” It’s not hard to see how these thoughts lead to anger.
On the other hand, Person B may have been less intensely aroused, and may have thought something like, “Maybe they had an emergency and were on their way to the hospital.” In short, less arousal and more productive thinking leads to less feelings of anger.
Some Suggestions for Beginning to Manage Anger More Effectively
- Recognize that anger is often deeply connected to being afraid. Though it’s uncomfortable for some of us to admit, most of the time anger is strongly driven by fear. So, the next time you’re angry, stop and ask what it is that you are worried is going to happen. Often, your angry reaction is an effort to take control of a situation to prevent your fears from coming true. Learning to sit with your fear rather than responding in anger helps immensely.
- Become more mindful. Mindfulness is simply the art of being present. Anxious and fearful people spend much of their time in the future, and depressed people often lament the past. Since both of those timeframes are out of their reach, they feel angry and frustrated. Research consistently shows that people report higher levels of happiness when they are present to the moment.
- Examine the distortions in your thinking. See if your anger is being influenced by these errors in the way you think:
- Black and White or All-or-Nothing Thinking: “She does this EVERY time.”
- Magnification: “This is the WORST day of my life.”
- Emotional Reasoning: “Because I feel this way, my thinking must be based in reality.”
- Should’ing & Must’ing: “Seriously?! I shouldn’t have to wait this long on the phone!! These people must not care about my business.”
- Fairness Fallacies: “Why can’t my son see that we deserve better treatment than this after all we’ve done for him?”
- Negative Funneling (focusing on the negative only): “My boss is a total loser. He’s consistently behind on reports, doesn’t return emails, and is disorganized.”
- Holding Others Responsible for the Way You Feel: “My partner makes me so mad.”
- Restructure the Way You Think. If you’re guilty of some (or all!) the cognitive distortions above, you’re not beyond hope! Changing your thinking takes time, but it happens with practice and motivation. The next time you find yourself angry, one easy way to get started is to simply employ the double-standard technique. As yourself, “If a friend came to me and presented this situation and wanted me to help them find a way not to be angry, what would I tell them?”
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