Anger is a perfectly normal human emotion. Everyone has experienced it – from the typical feeling of annoyance when you’re stuck in traffic to the fury you might feel when something happens to hurt you deeply. The most important thing to understand about anger is that there’s a difference between feeling anger and expressing anger. People who have a problem with anger usually don’t know how to express it in appropriate and constructive ways.
Ways to express anger
The healthiest way to express anger is in a calmly assertive – not aggressive – manner. To be able to do this, you have to know how to describe your feelings to yourself and others and how to make clear what you need from others without being hostile or demanding. People who have not learned how to do this will usually handle their anger in one of three ways:
- Holding it in - Holding anger in means that you push it down and try not to think about it. Or you walk away from a conflict without saying anything, while seething inside. The problem with this approach is that the anger can, over time, turn into resentment, and you won’t have solved any of the issues that caused it in the first place. Bottled-up anger may lead to depression, anxiety and physical problems such as high blood pressure.
- Letting it all out - Some people believe that venting anger is healthy. This is a myth. Angry outbursts and tirades can give the impression that a person is impulsive and can’t handle opposing viewpoints. Letting it all out also conveys a lack of respect for the person on the receiving end. And more often than not, it causes angry feelings to escalate rather than subside.
- Being defensive - People who have not learned how to constructively deal with their anger may develop rigid psychological defenses that allow them to express it without acknowledging it, thus avoiding direct confrontation. Passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people in indirect ways while denying anger) is a classic example. Expressing anger indirectly often causes people to come across as cynical, sarcastic, bitter or hyper-critical.
When anger becomes a problem
Sometimes it’s not easy to know if you have a problem with anger. These warning signs can help you decide if anger is becoming a problem for you:
- You often feel angry about something. If you have a lot of stress in your life, you may also often feel angry, as well. This can take a toll on your health and relationships and may increase the chance that you’ll express your anger in destructive ways. Even if your anger is justified and you’re expressing it appropriately, you may still need to find ways to reduce stress and minimize its effects.
- The intensity of your anger is out of proportion to its cause. For example, you get furious if someone cuts you off in traffic; or you come home from a bad day at work and blow up at your spouse over the slightest thing. Overreacting with rage is a sign that that there are larger issues behind the anger that you need to understand. If you often experience intense anger – where it feels like your heart is pumping faster and your breathing increases – your anger may be effecting you in more ways than you realize. Unaddressed intense anger affects your emotional health, and can seriously damage your physical health as well as your relationships at home and at work.
- Your anger lasts longer than it should. People who hold anger in have a hard time getting rid of it, because the feelings are not being addressed. They tend to withdraw and sulk or brood for a long time after something happens to offend them. Internalizing anger can also contribute to poor health, may eventually diminish self-confidence and the ability to enjoy life.
- Your anger is getting in the way of your relationships at work or at home. Perhaps the most obvious sign that you might be having a problem with anger is that people make comments about how you express your anger. At work, you might hear “Calm down,” “Don’t be such a hothead” or “You always blow everything out of proportion.” At home you might see the hurt in your family members’ faces when you lash out at them or withdraw into brooding silence. It’s important to pay attention to how your anger may be affecting others.
Anger is out of control when it simmers nearly all the time and frequently boils over in explosive rage. Out-of-control anger puts a person at serious risk for destructive behavior toward others, him or herself, animals or property. And it can be very frightening.
Out-of-control anger may be a sign that a person is unsuccessfully dealing with personal issues much deeper than the event that set off an outburst of rage. This behavior may have been influenced by any of the following:
- Childhood experiences - Growing up in a family where expressing anger through verbal and physical aggression (yelling, hitting, throwing things) often leads to the same behavior in adulthood. Victims of child abuse, for example, sometimes have difficulty controlling anger as adults.
- Difficulty expressing feelings other than anger - Anger can be a way of dealing with other feelings that may be more difficult to express. For example, a person who always acts tough and in control may have a hard time showing feelings of guilt, insecurity, embarrassment or grief.
- Exposure to traumatic events and high levels of stress - Anger is a common reaction after being in a situation that causes feelings of fear or loss of control. It can be greatly intensified for people who have experienced extremely traumatic events or been exposed to intense stress for long periods of time. That’s why out-of-control anger can be a very real problem for service members returning from deployment in a war zone.
Finding healthy ways to express anger
If you have a problem with anger, you can learn how to express it in constructive ways and get it under control. When you do, you’ll find that you’re better at solving problems, and your interactions with those around you are more positive and satisfying. Here are some healthy approaches to managing anger:
- Learning and practicing anger management techniques - It's easy to find books, articles and websites devoted to tips and techniques for managing anger. Be sure to see, for example, the Military OneSource article "Getting Anger Under Control." Practicing anger-management techniques until they become habit is essential to success. But don't despair if you slip up every now and then. Anger management is just like any other skill honed through trial and error.
- Taking an anger management class - Anger management courses and groups help people learn and practice anger management skills with others who have similar stories to tell. They also provide the opportunity to get feedback from an anger management specialist. Programs are widely available on military installations and in civilian communities. Your installation family support center or Military OneSource can help you find one that's right for you.
- Working with a counselor - If you feel that your anger is becoming a problem or is out of control, you might consider getting professional help. By working with a counselor, you can learn better ways to communicate your feelings and begin to explore the events and feelings behind your anger. There are a number of counseling options for services members and their families. You can call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to learn more about those options and to learn about the non-medical counseling services they offer in person, online, or by phone.
Remember, your goal is not to eliminate anger, but to express it in ways that will help you earn respect from others, be closer to the important people in your life, and solve, rather than react, to problems.