Understanding Anger

Poor anger. It’s kind of like the outcast of the emotions family, and often the most misunderstood. When we describe someone who’s angry, we say “She’s going ballistic”, or “He’s lost it”, or, one of my favourites, “He blew a gasket”. All of these imply a drastic, uncontrollable rage, but the reality is that anger doesn’t have to ever get to that point, not when managed properly.

What is anger and why do we have it

Anger is one of the many emotional states we experience, and it ranges from mild irritation to extreme rage. It’s usually triggered when we experience real or imagined wrongs, injustices or perceived threats – mostly to ourselves, but sometimes to others. While the majority of us manage anger within reason (even though we may grumble or be irritated), we tend to stay fairly calm, accept the situation, or assert ourselves in non-violent ways. Others, however, start seeing red and fly off the handle.

Left unchecked, anger often leads to aggression, which is why it can be naturally problematic and even dangerous if not properly controlled. It can hurt our physical health, mental health and relationships, both personal and professional. However, being angry about something can also be a good thing, but only when we’re in control of it. When we’re upset over an injustice, inequality, bias or other wrongdoing, it can (and should) propel us into action. Angry people who assert themselves and seek a way to make things right are change-makers. A little fire inside is a good thing.

Anger warning signs

It’s usually easy to spot an angry person – we tend to think of a red face, clenched fists or teeth, breathing heavily…that sort of thing. It’s true that when we are angry, our heart rate does go up, our blood pressure increases, and our breathing rate intensifies. There are also brain chemicals doing their part as well, causing very real psychological and physiological reactions which are more intensely felt than most other emotions. Beyond the fits and outbursts, anger can also cause people to cry, ruminate excessively, or even shut down altogether emotionally.

Another important indicator that our anger may be problematic is when it’s disproportionate for the issue at hand. The stories in the news about road rage are a good example of this. When someone cuts us off in traffic or drives erratically, a reasonable reaction might be a heavy sigh, or perhaps a few choice words mumbled under our breath. However, chasing down that car and attacking the driver is clearly an issue of instability, rage and built-up anger. When anger is unmanaged, it can be terrifying. The good news is that there is help for people with anger-management issues; it’s not something we’re born with, it’s a learned behaviour.

Anger myths

There are several myths about anger that need to be debunked in order to understand it better. Here are a few of them:

  • It’s good to ‘let off steam’ to manage anger.

Although letting anger bottle up inside isn’t good for us, neither is letting anger explode with violent words or behaviours. Uncontrolled episodes of outward anger only perpetuate problems and make things worse, instead of learning how to manage those strong emotions.

  • Anger is bad.

We’ve already explored some of the benefits of being angry, so it’s fair to say that although aggressive or violent behaviours are not good, being angry over an important issue helps us to learn how to assert ourselves and stand up for what’s right or fair.

  • Anger and aggression are the same thing.

Anger is simply one of many emotions. Aggression on the other hand, is forceful, hostile, or even violent behaviour, usually so someone can get what they want. It’s often a bi-product of anger, but not always.

  • Men are angrier than women.

Feeling angry is similar between men and women, but it’s expressed differently.  According to this article from Psychology Today,  “Men are more likely than women to use physical violence when angry”, while women express anger more through tears, shouting or social retaliation.

As we can see, learning about anger and how to manage it is very complex, which is why it’s this month’s blog theme; I’ll have lots more to share. Remember, anger can be a very positive emotion that gives us the boost we need to accomplish something, but when it turns to aggression or other destructive behaviours, the harm it does can be devastating.

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”- Aristotle