Ask Alistair

Dear Alistair,
I have anger management issues and just can’t seem to control my anger (in most situations). Please help me!

Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when one loses control and expresses it in destructive ways, it can lead to problems, especially within one’s relationships. And it can make you feel as though you’re at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion.

Anger is an emotion or feeling that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological changes that are often experienced as body sensations such as an increase in one’s heart rate (and blood pressure). And the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline rise.

Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a specific person or event (e.g. a careless driver), or your anger could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings.

Importantly, anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats so the instinctive way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviours, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we feel “attacked”. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival. Laws, social norms, and common sense mean, however, that we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that annoys us.

The goal of ‘anger management’ is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You can’t avoid or change the things or the people that enrage you but you can learn to control your reactions. The main approaches to managing your anger might be phrased as Expressing and Suppressing.

Expressing angry feelings in an assertive, not aggressive, manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. To do this, however, often means that you first have to learn how to control your internal (physiological) responses, such as through deep breathing to lower your heart rate, and calm yourself down. Being assertive means being respectful of yourself and others.

Suppressing your anger means that you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive. The aim is to inhibit your anger and convert its energy into more constructive behaviour.

The danger in suppressing anger is that if you don’t allow its outward expression, your anger can turn inward on yourself, which may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, and/or depression. Unexpressed anger can also lead to its pathological expression, such as through passive-aggressive behaviour (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that is perpetually cynical and hostile, constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments. As with the aggressive expression of anger, this is likely to damage one’s relationships.