What’s Behind your Anger?

Do you curse and fume at other drivers? Or do you find yourself shouting in a rage at home, or even at work? Anger is a completely normal emotion but, when it is destructive, it can hurt others. Either way, most of us would benefit from trying to look beneath the anger at what is really going on (as most often there is another emotion that we are trying to suppress).

It struck a chord with me recently. A friend said something offensive and I became angry (not directly to her – which may have been preferable – but I ranted to my husband instead). Afterwards, another pal – a psychologist – pointed out that maybe I wasn’t really angry at all, but actually hurt by what she had said. It was so true. In a way, the anger made me feel like the one in control, but the truth was that I was just trying to avoid that feeling of being hurt and vulnerable. If I had sat with my hurt and disappointment, I may never have pressed the ‘angry’ button or, at the very least, I may have put a stop to it sooner (apologies dear husband for going on and on, and on!).

Dig Deep

Psychologists believe that, even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling underneath. It is this feeling that the anger is trying to control or suppress. And, in so many cases, it is often hurt or sadness.

In others – for instance, just think a road rage situation  – anger is often hiding the real emotion, which is fear (ie. that the other driver may actually cause an accident, harming you and your passengers). Often the emotion switches at such neck-breaking speed that we don’t even realise it. The next step, unfortunately, is that we often turn to substances or behaviours so try to suppress our emotions – it could be a doughnut or a glass of wine but the research shows that this doesn’t work. Emotions don’t just go away so we are much better to face them, and feel them, when they knock on our door. No emotion is a ‘bad’ emotion – they are all legitimate.

A Clever Chemical

It’s fascinating to learn that anger may even be designed to soothe us. This is how it works: one of the hormones that the brain secretes during anger arousal is norepinephrine, experienced by us like a painkiller. When we are confronted with physical or psychological pain (or even the threat of such pain), the internal activation of the anger response will cause the immediate release of a chemical expressly designed to numb it. Aren’t our bodies just amazing? The only problem is that this numbing is temporary and very short-lived, but the destruction our anger causes can be far-reaching and detrimental to our relationships.

7 Tips to Help Deal with Anger

1. Walk away: first and foremost, calm down by walking away. Taking just a few moments to collect your thoughts can make a huge difference to how you behave. In fact, walking itself is one of the best ways to calm down and deal with anger. Some entrepreneurs have famously cited walking as one of the best ways to calm everyone down during a heated debate at work, and the best way to move things forwards towards a solution (see more on exercise below).

2. Express yourself in a new way: try to express your frustration in an assertive but non-confrontational way. State your concerns and needs clearly using the ‘I’ words. For instance, instead of saying “You never do any housework,” try saying “I’m upset you left the table without offering to help me.” And instead of saying, “You’re a horrible person” try saying “I’m really hurt by your words.” This one single thing can make a radical difference in your relationships and in how you feel about yourself – try it and see. It does mean being a bit vulnerable, but it is so much more effective in lots of ways.

3. Get some exercise: physical exercise is one of the most effective methods for reducing anger and stress, and is particularly effective with ‘emergency’ emotions which are very intense in nature (I challenge you to run/walk briskly around the block and not feel less intensely afterwards). Exercise provides you with an opportunity to release your emotions and it can help to reduce stress levels by increasing your body’s production of endorphins, which are natural ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that promote feelings of wellbeing. For more on how exercise can improve mood, read here.

4. Do you ABCs: on the left-hand side of a journal, write down your current thoughts about what happened. Then, on the opposite side of page, write down a different thought – one that is more rational, positive and helpful (for instance, what a friend might say about the situation). Take away the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘musts’ and try instead to use ‘It would be better if…’. Give it time and keep writing to help you get a new perspective on things.

5. Let go of grudges: If you allow anger and other negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice, which can lead to self-destructive behaviour such as binge eating or drinking. Instead, let go of it and give them the benefit of the doubt.

6. Practice relaxation skills: practice deep-breathing exercises, imagine a relaxing scene, or repeat a calming word or phrase, such as “Take it easy” or “This, too, will pass”. You might also listen to music, write in a journal, meditate or do a few yoga poses — whatever it takes to encourage relaxation. For more on how meditation can help mood and weight, read here

7. Know when to seek help: learning to control or deal with anger is a challenge for us all at times. But it’s crucial to seek help for anger issues if your anger seems out of control, causes you to do things you regret or hurts those around you. Contact the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (iacp.ie) to find a therapist near you.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle