This is the first in a series of blogs about anger and is a general introduction to the topic. Learning about anger management is a common reason why people come to counselling. We all experience anger. It is a normal emotion with a wide range of intensity, from mild irritation, frustration, sulking and malicious gossip to full-blown rage and violence. It is a reaction to a perceived threat to ourselves (or some part of our identity), our loved ones or our property. It is a warning bell that tells us that something is wrong. Everyone experiences anger, and it can be healthy. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and correct injustices. When we manage anger well, it prompts us to make positive changes in our lives and situations.
However when mis-managed, our anger has the power to destroy our relationships. We may apologise after an outburst, but with each outburst we lose a part of the person and a level of trust is gone. The child, partner or work colleague may “walk on eggshells” attempting to avoid further outbursts. But, often to no avail. The culprit will explode repeatedly. The recipient is not to blame – the problem happens because of “trigger factors” in the culprit’s brain. These result in a surge of anger, in spite of little or no provocation.
Why is an angry person like a reptile?
Anger is an aroused state in which the mind’s attention is focussed on a potential threat and the body responds by getting ready to run or fight. It is produced by a primitive part of our brain, which we share with reptiles. When “triggered”, it prepares the body to fight the danger. The red-faced, menacing individual is literally in-for-the-kill. Access to their cognitive (thinking) brain stops and the angry person is no more logical than a reptile. They are literally stupid, and often should be avoided until they calm down. Sometimes their response to extreme threat can become “stuck” which leads to responding to all stress in survival mode.
Anger affects us at three levels:
Adrenaline and other stress hormones like cortisol flood the system, heart rate and blood pressure rise, breathing gets deeper and faster, blood is diverted from the organs to the muscles, and the whole organism gets ready for action.
At the same time, thinking becomes more primitive and our rational brain is temporarily disabled.
We can lash out verbally or physically. This can obviously create major problems in our personal lives especially in our close relationships.
Why do we get angry?
Anger is one of our most powerful emotions, designed to help humans to survive in hostile and threatening environments hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But, today, there are far fewer occasions when our lives are actually under threat. If we get frustrated or feel angry with our manager at work, we usually have to keep those feelings to ourselves, which leaves them circulating with no obvious way of being discharged. Or we may become more and more wound up by little annoyances that build up over the day until we reach a point when, over something seemingly trifling, we snap. There are many other circumstances that can lead us to have lower tolerance for irritations – for instance, overtiredness, feeling ill or hungry, hormonal changes, chronic pain or addictive cravings.
Sometimes people have a tendency towards anger because of chronic low self-esteem, which usually stems from abuse or neglect during childhood. As adults, they may never feel good or worthy enough and tend to lash out if they perceive themselves as slighted in any way. Similarly, a person who experienced a lot of fear growing up in a house with an angry alcoholic father, may lash out, as an adult, when he or she feels insecure. Mild brain damage can cause a loss of impulse control and aggression. And people on the autistic spectrum are often more prone to angry outbursts because of their difficulties and frustrations in trying to relate to other people and make sense of the social world.
A sudden eruption?
Anger can appear, both to us and those around us, to come from nowhere. But is doesn’t just sneak up and then explode volcano-like. There is build up inside, with certain physiological signs: tightness in the stomach, tension in the muscles of the body, dryness in the mouth. Such signs denote anxiety, as do the shallow breathing and tightness of throat and vocal cords that often also accompany anger. When a client is learning about anger management, I often draw an image of a beaker or test tube on a large sheet of paper for my clients and ask them to name the various stresses in their lives which fill up that beaker. It could be something like:
- My anger stemming from my childhood – my father was often violent towards me
- My frustration that my boss treats me poorly at times
- Worries about money
- My tiredness from having sleep interrupted by our new baby
I draw these stressors like layers of liquid gradually filling up the beaker and then show how a fairly small incident such as someone cutting them up in traffic, can cause the whole thing to spill over.
Need some advice and support?
If you are interested in learning about anger management or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.