What is problematic anger?
Anger can mean different things to different people. It can be a demonstration of frustration when we feel we’ve been treated badly or a reaction to sadness, or even a fear for someone’s safety where you might get angry with someone doing something dangerous, when really you are just concerned for their safety. For example, you might become angry with your son for crossing the road without looking, when really you’re not so much angry as afraid for his safety. Anger can vary in intensity and in the length of time it lasts for:
- It can be short term and ‘explosive’ in nature, when a person flies into a rage. When people experience this type of anger they tend to have strong physical reactions. They might start sweating or feel their muscles tense up, or their heart races. Some people can become aggressive or violent when they get angry like this, and end up hurting or threatening other people or damaging things
- It can be longer term anger or resentment. This type of anger tends to be the result of thinking negative thoughts over and over again – for example, replaying frustrating events over and over again or constantly having revenge fantasies
Why do we get angry?
In the military, anger is not altogether a bad thing as it helps you cope with danger, gets you moving and helps you protect yourself and your mates in the face of danger. It is part of your survival instinct and helps you in life and death situations.
The problem is that often it’s hard to turn off these instincts when you get home, so you can overreact to minor situations. It’s not an excuse but knowing this does give you a way of understanding why it happens and helps you develop ways of dealing with similar issues in the future.
For some people, anger can be related to another mental health problem like depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, some people get angry as a way of avoiding other unpleasant feelings like embarrassment, guilt, anxiety or depression. Some people use alcohol or other substances to try and manage their anger, but end up finding that it has the opposite effect. Post traumatic stress disorder is particularly linked with anger because if you feel wound up and on edge all the time, it doesn’t take much to trigger an angry outburst.
What can I do about it?
Firstly, get treatment for any related mental health issues and your anger may get better on its own. Your treatment for these conditions could also give you strategies for controlling your anger.
If you want to try and control your anger, you could try some of the strategies outlined in the following sections.
If you feel your anger building, take a bit of time to consider the situation rather than simply reacting. Here’s a simple memory aid to help you:
Recognise your early warning signs e.g. Do you get sweaty, red in the face or clench your fists?
Retreat from the situation and spend a bit of time alone
Relax so that you are in a much calmer state and in a better position to look at things from a different perspective
Return only once you’ve calmed down and have your anger under control
When we get angry our muscles tense up, ready for a fight. If you’re angry a lot, you’ll probably be pretty tense all the time and won’t even notice it, so the first step is learning to recognise tension. Ask yourself; do parts of your body feel tired or achy? Being able to release tension is a really effective way of managing anger. One simple strategy for doing that is to deliberately tense each of your muscle groups (e.g. arms, face, back, stomach, legs) in turn, and then relax them completely. Learn a new skill to relax your muscles, progressive muscle relaxation.
People with anger problems tend to think in ways that fuel their anger, almost like they are looking for a reason to get angry. You tend to jump to conclusions without the evidence that what you are thinking is right e.g. “My girlfriend has been on the phone a lot, she must be having an affair”. You will exaggerate small things or think in black and white rather than considering why something has happened the way it has.
Challenge your thinking, ask yourself “am I right?”. You might want to try a tool that helps you to work on helpful thinking by visiting the Resilience Toolkit.
Ask yourself a really simple question. “Is this worth getting angry about?” Generally the answer will be ‘No’, and you’ll save yourself from an embarrassing back down later on.
If you have tried self-management but are still having problems with anger you might benefit from some professional help.
Your doctor or other mental health professional is always a good place to start. He or she can help with a thorough assessment of the problem and make referrals for specialists.
Issues for partners and families
Partners and families are seriously affected by anger and aggression, and are really important in helping people deal with anger problems. Often the person who is angry or aggressive might not recognise there’s a problem, or feel that it needs treatment, and will only talk to their doctor about their anger because a family member has asked them to.
Remember, if your loved one is angry a lot, it’s often a sign that they’re struggling with something. A good first step is to try and find out exactly what that is. It’s important to try and stay calm yourself, and be open to listening to what the other person has to say. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they’re saying, or tolerate aggression!
Regardless of what the anger is really about, it’s not nice being on the receiving end of it, so it’s important to look after yourself (and other family members). It can be helpful to learn some relaxation strategies, and come up with ways of managing your own emotions and reactions (like going for a walk to calm down before trying to talk to your partner).
You might also find it helps to talk to someone else that you trust to get another perspective, and if necessary to set some limits around how much anger you are prepared to tolerate. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to family members or friends, you could talk to your doctor, or find out more about the range of services available for families (keeping families healthy).
Some people with anger and aggression problems can become physically violent. Violence often starts slowly, with what seem like small instances of acting in violent ways, for example, a verbal threat or a push during an argument. As time goes on, the violence may get more intense and happen more often. Violence is a problem if you:
- Feel afraid of your partner or family member
- Feel like you need to avoid certain topics or ‘walk on eggshells’ so that you don’t set your partner or family member off
- Feel like you can’t do anything right
- Believe that you deserve to be hurt or treated badly
- Feel helpless or emotionally numb
It’s quite common for people who act violently to say things like “my anger took over, I couldn’t help myself”. But even though it might feel like anger is uncontrollable, everyone can learn to control how they express their emotions.
Physical violence is never an acceptable outlet for anger. If you think your safety may be at risk, remove yourself from the situation and seek help.
If you feel like you are in immediate danger, contact the police on 111.