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How to overcome anger problems: the role of anger in psychology and what causes anger issues

Out of all our emotions, anger tends to be the one we’re least comfortable with – both when we’re in the presence of the anger of others, but also, sometimes, when it comes to expressing our own.

But anger is a completely natural, healthy emotion. In fact, just like all emotions, it serves an important function, helping us get our needs met and alerting us to danger.

However, when it gets out of control – and we’re unable to express our anger in an appropriate way – it can become destructive, both to ourselves and others.

Angry outbursts throw the body into fight or flight, which, when experienced for an extended period of time, can exhaust the body and deplete our energy… So much so, in fact, that studies have linked aggression and high levels of anger directly to depression – especially in men. 

That’s not to mention the toll this kind of anger can take on our relationships. When we shout, we create an atmosphere of threat. Whilst the aim might be to make ourselves – or our point – “heard”, the reverse is often true. When people feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time, they’re likely to be more guarded and less able to relax. In this sense, uncontrolled anger ostracises us from others, and holds us back from forming true intimacy.

What role does anger play in psychology?

Anger is one of the six “basic emotions” identified in the Atlas of emotions and it serves an important function. Being able to express our anger – rather than suppress it – is essential. Anger alerts us when our boundaries have been crossed, making sure we look after our own needs.

Anger is a valid emotion in its own right. That said, when anger becomes a problem, it can often be used to mask other, more uncomfortable emotions lurking underneath. Because of societal pressures, men in particular might find that they revert to anger as a way to cover up deeper pain and hurt.

What causes anger issues?

No one is born with an anger problem. It’s usually a learnt coping style with deep roots.

Some people learn this response by copying their parents growing up. Perhaps a parent had a short fuse or an aggressive communication style, berating or criticising other members of the family. If you’re brought up in this kind of environment, you might consider this kind of behaviour as “normal”.

It can also develop following abuse or bullying. Say, for instance, you were badly bullied at school… You may have vowed to never allow it happen again. In this sense, shouting people down becomes a pattern of “protection”.

How to overcome anger issues 

Overcoming anger issues isn’t about suppressing anger but rather about learning why it’s there and how to express it in an appropriate way.

Start an anger diary – in order to better manage your anger, you need to first learn how to recognise when you’re feeling angry (before it tips into rage). Start by thinking of a recent episode and make notes on the following:

  • What triggered your anger
  • The warning signs (how your body felt, what kind of thoughts were running through your mind…)
  • How you responded
  • The consequences of expressing your anger in this way

Consider what triggers your anger – examples might be: not feeling heard, things not going your way, people taking advantage of you, situational events etc. The aim is to help you identify what pushes your buttons. The better you are at identifying your triggers, the easier it will be to create coping strategies for dealing with your anger in a healthier, more productive way.

Look at the kinds of thoughts you get when you’re angry – do you immediately jump to worst case scenario or expect the worst from people? Do you take everything personally or assume that people’s motives are always negative? If you struggle with anger, you’re likely to find that some of your thoughts are distorted or blown out of proportion. Taking the time to step back and question these thoughts before making a knee-jerk response can help prevent an angry episode from taking hold.

Practice “opposite action” – opposite action is simply about acting opposite to an emotion’s urge. So when it comes to anger, the urge is usually to attack someone – physically or verbally – or to be sarcastic and criticise. Therefore, acting opposite means gently taking a step back from the situation, trying to be gentle and patient, and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Next time you get angry, try relaxing your body posture, unclenching your fists, doing some rounds of slow, deep breathing, and continuing until the intensity of your anger subsides.

When directed and expressed in the right way, anger can be healthy and positive, helping us clear the air and strengthen bonds with our loved ones. But when it becomes a self-sabotaging pattern, it can become dangerous and cause us a lot of problems in the long run.

As Ambrose Bierce once said,

“Speak when you’re angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret”.