As we emerged from the covid-19 pandemic in Spring 2022, we were met with a war between Russia and Ukraine followed by a surge in inflation. Alas more uncertainty. And if the pandemic taught us anything it is that with uncertainty come difficult emotions, including anger. Anger comes about when we feel someone or something has deliberately done us wrong.
Both internal and external events can trigger anger. For example, a partner or co-worker might do or say something which angers us. Similarly, events such as missing a train or someone cutting in front of you in traffic can cause angry feelings to bubble up. Setbacks can also trigger anger as we view them as barriers to achieving our goals. The final source of anger is found within ourselves. Constant worry or ruminating on our problems as well as recounting memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger anger. While anger is a normal and important emotion it can be both healthy and unhealthy.
With healthy anger we feel annoyed or irritated by someone or a situation. Anger provides us with a way to express negative feelings and can motivate us to find solutions to problems. Healthy anger leads us to behave in helpful ways such as setting a boundary with another person. Anger is also a natural response to threat which has helped the human race to survive by motivating us to react in aggressive ways when under attack. Clearly a certain amount of anger is necessary. However, expressing anger in aggressive or violent ways in non-life-threatening situations can lead to all sorts of problems.
Unhealthy anger can indicate an emotional problem. When anger gets out of control, we can experience problems in our relationships, career and with our physical and mental health. Unhealthy anger often involves feelings of rage or hate towards a situation or person. It can be very unhelpful and causes us to behave in aggressive and even violent ways even in the case of only a minor inconvenience. On the other hand, failing to express anger can lead us to bottle it up and we might then take it out on other people or seek revenge. Furthermore, excessive anger can cause a variety of health problems including increased blood pressure and other physical changes. When we are angry, stress hormones are released in the body which over time can damage the cells in our brain affecting things like judgment and short term memory. Anger can also make it difficult to think straight which can lead us to behave in ways that harm our physical and mental health.
There are a variety of techniques we can use to manage anger. To get started have a think about your anger triggers. Once triggered, the goal is to recognise and catch the anger before it renders us powerless. Expressing anger in a healthy way prevents us from unhealthy behaviours such as being passive aggressive or seeking revenge. Rather than making demands or getting aggressive with someone, express the anger in an assertive manner. Unhealthy anger can indicate that we are struggling with our self-worth. When someone is disrespectful or treats us poorly, this can remind us of the low view we hold of ourselves. Working to accept ourselves as imperfect people who from time to make mistakes or hurt others can help us to realise those around us are just the same. Focus on your self-talk and remind yourself of your ability to cope. Instead of saying “what an idiot, I can’t believe he spoke to me like that,” try “I am feeling very frustrated with this person, and it’s understandable that I’m upset but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry won’t fix it”.
If you encounter someone who is angry there are some useful steps you can take. Firstly, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider their point of view. Have a think if there are any immediate solutions to the problem available. Secondly, although you might be tempted to respond with anger, do your best to stay calm. Tackling anger with anger will only worsen the situation. Keep your breathing nice and steady and keep your voice as low as possible. Thirdly, if you are not making any progress with the conversation, consider walking away. And finally, remember that those experiencing anger can act in aggressive and violent ways so it is important to have an exit plan in case you need it particularly if you do not know the person well.
As always, it is worth noting that in some cases it may be necessary to reach out to a professional. If you are experiencing difficulties controlling your anger or if your anger is causing problems in your life such as a breakdown in relationships or issues at work, it is essential to seek support. If you find yourself questioning if you might have an anger problem, chances are you do. Bad habits are hard to break but change is possible and certainly worth it.
Dr Aoife Quinn. Dean of Psychology at City Colleges.