At some point in time, everyone has experienced anger. Whether someone cut you off on the road when driving or you had an argument with your significant other, you know that feeling. Everyone may experience anger differently; however, when challenging emotions arise, you may have difficulty effectively managing them. Therefore, in this article I will dispel the myths of anger, describe what anger is, identify cues and triggers, and provide anger management strategies to improve emotional wellness.
- Myths of Anger
- Test Your Susceptibility to Anger
- So, What Exactly is Anger?
- What Causes Anger?
- Anger Management Strategies: How to Control Anger
Myths of Anger
1) Anger is a negative emotion
Oftentimes you may feel that anger is a negative emotion. You may reflect on times of rage, internal turmoil, and interpersonal discord and view these emotions as detrimental to your well-being and relationships with others. However, anger is in fact a normal, healthy emotion. When anger is effectively managed, it can lead to positive change. For instance, when athletes are competing and their opponent “talks trash,” they may notice increased motivation to succeed.
2) Venting your anger releases it
When you experience difficult emotions, you may feel that you need to release it externally to feel better. However, punching a wall, trashing your room, or screaming out your frustration does not release this internal turmoil and rage. Rather, research shows that venting your anger in this way actually has the opposite effect and likely exacerbates aggression, violence, and unhealthy behaviors.
3) Men are angrier than women
There is often a stereotype that men are angrier than women. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Men and women experience the same amount of anger, but they may express it differently. According to research, when men’s masculinity is threatened, they react with increased anger, violence, and aggression. However, women are more likely to use an indirect approach, like passive-aggressive behaviors. There are many other factors that should be considered when trying to understand gender differences in anger expression (e.g., racial/ethnic background, personality traits) In any case, it is fair to say that everyone experiences the emotion of anger in some way.
Test Your Susceptibility to Anger
Understanding your current level of anger is the first step in taking control. One way to measure your current susceptibility to anger and emotional health is to consider the following statements:
- I frequently become upset when something happens unexpectedly.
- I often feel that I am unable to control important things in my life.
- I often feel nervous and stressed.
- I do not feel confident about my ability to handle my personal problems.
- I frequently feel that things are not going my way.
- I frequently find that I cannot cope with all the things I have to do.
- I am not able to control irritations in my life.
- I often feel that I am not on top of things.
- I frequently become angry because things that happened were out of my control.
- I often feel that difficulties are piling up so high that I cannot overcome them.
If most or all of your responses are “yes,” then it may be time to learn additional strategies to manage your mood to enhance coping. Everyone experiences stress and difficult emotions, but it can be helpful to implement both cognitive and behavioral techniques to obtain more control over emotional wellness.
To take the full stress test, visit: https://www.bemindfulonline.com/test-your-stress
So, What Exactly is Anger?
Anger is a secondary emotion. Underneath anger may be hurt, pain, and disappointment, which is ultimately fueled by certain needs that have not been met.
Anger can also be constructive or destructive. It can motivate you to make positive changes, or it can be detrimental to your well-being and interpersonal relationships if you are not in control of your emotions. Therefore, it is what you do with your anger that is most important.
What Causes Anger?
To effectively manage difficult emotions, you need to first be aware of what causes and triggers emotions. When fear, anxiety, and other intense emotions arise, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to trigger the body’s “fight or flight” response. When this response occurs, your adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase, the body temperature rises, the pupils dilate, and the skin perspires.
Sources of Stress and Anger
In general, stress may occur for several reasons. One cause may be due to external life events. For instance, work stress, financial issues, family discord, and/or legal challenges may trigger an emotional response.
Furthermore, thinking patterns are also a contributing factor. Oftentimes you may view anger as largely being triggered by interpersonal or social challenges. However, sometimes it is not what happens to you as much as it is how you perceive and interpret situations. Therefore, it is crucial that you be aware of how internal dialogue plays a key role. For instance, cognitive distortions, which are thought patterns that cause people to view reality in inaccurate ways, can worsen your mood. Some examples may be: “I am a failure, I cannot do anything right…” or “I am seeing no progress when I work out; I might as well quit.” People are often their own worse critics, unintentionally commit verbal abuse towards themselves in the face of a mistake (e.g., “I am so stupid for doing that again.”). Therefore, it is important that you understand the impact of your thoughts on your emotions and behaviors to effectively cope with anger and distress.
Ineffective Coping Strategies
Lastly, be mindful of unhelpful coping strategies that may further exacerbate anger responses. Some ineffective strategies may include using substances and self-medicating, engaging in physical, verbal, or emotional abuse towards yourself or others, and “pushing down” thoughts and feelings as a form of avoidance. You may feel that avoidance helps mitigate stress in the moment. However, in the long term, not dealing with emotions in a healthy way can actually lead to worse outcomes, including rage, outbursts, internalized guilt, isolation, and broken relationships.
Anger Management Strategies: How to Control Anger
One way we can obtain more control when experiencing difficult emotions is to implement the SSTA (Stop, Slow Down, Think, Act) method.
The first step of SSTA is to stop. When triggered (e.g., having a disagreement with a coworker), it is important that you take a pause to notice how your body and mind are responding. Some questions to ask yourself are:
- What am I noticing about my thoughts? Are my thoughts rational (i.e.., based on facts) or emotional (i.e., based on how I feel about the situation in the current moment)?
- What am I noticing about my body (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart, muscle tension)?
- What is the primary emotion I am feeling (e.g., hurt, powerlessness, disappointment, sadness)?
Improving your awareness and emotional intelligence can help you better know when to stop and try to determine what is actually bothering you. When you experience these reactions, that is when to say to yourself—STOP! Stopping the negative feelings from taking over is an important first step. For instance, it is very difficult to take control of a bicycle if it has already started to roll downhill. However, stepping on the brakes early can allow you to stop before going too far.
The next step you can take is to slow down. When your fight or flight response kicks in, you may have the urge to make quick, impulsive decisions. Therefore, implementing techniques to slow down your amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved with experiencing emotions, is essential. Slowing down your emotional brain gives you the opportunity to utilize your prefrontal cortex, which is involved in problem solving, to make more rational decisions. When slowing down, your parasympathetic nervous system begins to kick in. When this response is activated, it slows your heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure, and begins to kick your body into a state of relaxation and recovery. There are many ways you can attempt to slow down. Some include implementing deep breathing exercises, practicing yoga, and implementing mindfulness, to name a few.
Additionally, a recent study found that found smiling—even a fake smile—can have a positive impact on mood. According to the literature, triggering certain facial muscles by smiling can “trick” your brain into thinking you’re happy. When you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala, which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state. You may want to try out this strategy the next time a difficult emotion arises!
After you are able to slow down both your mind and body, you now have allotted space for the rational part of your brain to be adequately utilized. By using a problem-focused approach, you can begin to brainstorm how you can respond to the stressor in a healthy way.
Lastly, after you have problem-solved, it is time to put your plan into action. For example, you may have come to the conclusion that the best action step is to walk away and take a moment to cool off. Or you may have realized that you should seek professional services to learn additional strategies to improve your well-being. Ultimately, implementing the SSTA strategy will provide you with the capacity to take control of your emotions and improve your overall emotional health.
Marmolejo-Ramos, F., Murata, A., Sasaki, K., Yamada, Y., Ikeda, A., Hinojosa, J. A., & Ospina, R. (2020). Your face and moves seem happier when I smile. Experimental psychology.
Sadeh, N., Javdani, S., Finy, M. S., & Verona, E. (2011). Gender differences in emotional risk for self- and other-directed violence among externalizing adults. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 79(1), 106–117. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022197
Tonnaer, F., Cima, M., & Arntz, A. (2020). Explosive matters: Does venting anger reduce or increase aggression? Differences in anger venting effects in violent offenders. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 29(5), 611-627.