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by Ernest J. Bordini, Ph.D.,
Exec. Director CPANCF

Anger is a normal part of human emotion, whether as a reaction to a threat, injustice, or simply being hurt as part of someone’s thoughtlessness. It can generate from our autonomic nervous system fight-flight response. We may experience it as a momentary reaction, as more intense rage, or persisting anger about an ongoing situation or even a single event. It comes out of our self-preservation instincts and can convey a simple message that something is wrong or threatening. Usually, the emotion itself is not a problem, it is what people do with it that can be problematic and destructive.

When out of control it can cause problems in relationships, at home, work and impact negatively on marriage, work advancement, physical and mental health, and even lead to legal problems. Unfortunately, some people’s lives spin out of control, because anger is controlling them.

Expressing Anger

Anger may come on slowly or quickly, but usually triggers our fight-or-flight system in terms of raising our heart rate, increasing our focus and releasing hormones such as andrenalin. In short, our bodies receive a call to action. This is part of our survival instinct and usually settles down after the threat is gone or we have removed ourself from the situation.

The fight-or-flight response is designed for immediate survival. When someone has an unusually low threshold for anger, or cannot “let go” of anger they may be constantly on edge and over-reacting to what they may see as new threats and the constant state of agitation often leads to problems with others as well as personal problems with depression and stress. This may become further complicated by efforts to “self-medicate” with alcohol, a substance that usually leads to even worse anger control. While we may all get angry, people who cannot “let go” of anger may become “angry people”.

What are appropriate ways of dealing with and expressing anger?

Often, one of the keys to keeping anger under control is to recognize that anger is usually a reaction. Dealing with the situation to clear up a misunderstanding, an unintended slight, or situation which is seen as problematic is more likely to result in a cooperative solution if one controls anger in a way that does not provoke a counter attack or negative personal consequences for unacceptable angry aggressive behavior.

Psychologists use terms such as aggressive, passive, and assertive to describe interactions in which you may be dealing with others. Simply put, aggressive behavior is threatening, does not respect other’s rights, and usually ends up producing negative consequences or an aggressive response in return. Passive behavior means allowing one’s own rights to be violated. While there is definite wisdom in “picking your battles”, this can lead to resentment and allows anger to grow if it is a situation or problem that must be addressed. Assertive behavior is simply described as being able to communicate one’s needs, limits or opinions in a manner that maintains respect for the rights of others and the rights of others to disagree.

Assertive communication means being able to clearly put your concerns, needs, or complaint into words, and expressing your wishes about the situation without hurting others and without being pushy or demanding.

Sometimes re-directing some of the energy that comes along with anger in a productive instead of a destructive way helps keep anger under control while preventing the build up of resentment. This may involve getting involved in education of others, a committee to study a particular problem, or sometimes even just blowing off some steam in a healthy way by exercising, or getting a sense of satisfaction and a better sense of control by getting some things done.

Most inappropriate expressions of anger occur because we are reacting to our physical response created by our instinct and have not allowed the thinking part of our human nature to fully engage. Often we can respond better by gaining control of our own thoughts and bodily reactions first. Lowering your voice, speaking slower, breathing calmly, slowing down your speech, relaxing your hands and muscles can be helpful in avoiding a poorly controlled response to a situation that may make you angry. Allow time and create distance if necessary until you can respond in a calm manner.

What is the goal of Anger Management?

The goal of anger management is to learn how to react to situations in an assertive manner, which allows you to stand up for yourself, and to be able to communicate you concerns or needs without threatening, intimidating or violating the rights of others. This usually involves learning to control that instinctual fight or flight reaction through cognitive-behavioral techniques and learning to communicate your limits, needs, feelings and concerns in a constructive way.

Is My Anger Out of Control?

Our office can employ psychological tests to sometimes help answer this question. A first step can be taking an honest look at yourself, and listening to what others close to you might think. You may be receiving reprimands, experiencing road rage, excessive impatience in line, lashing out at strangers, intimidating co-workers, experiencing marital problems, losing friendships, or experiencing avoidance by other people. You may be surprising or even frightening yourself with your reactions.

For some people this may be an ongoing problem, just due to their physical makeup, excessive demands on themselves or others, low tolerance for frustration, or lack of flexibility. Some people learned to act in angry way to protect themselves at an early age, or learned to act this way by growing up in chaotic or difficult situations. For others, anger management difficulties may be brought on by various types of stress or even depression, excess anxiety, or a medical condition.

Do You Need Counseling?

If you are being surprised at the level of your anger, or it is interfering with your work, advancement, marriage, or friendships, there is a good chance your anger is out of control. Talking to a counselor or psychologist for an assessment and help learning anger management skills would likely be helpful.

What are the Most Effective Therapies for Anger Management?

Group-based limited anger management programs, including those that are court-mandated have received fair criticism. Some allow someone to passively participate, and some people may find it difficult to open up in a group setting about some of the issues they would with an individual therapist. In such programs limited attention can be focused on individual psychodynamics or relationship issues Another  Group anger management programs may not be effective for people who do not recognize that they have anger issues. There has been limited treatment outceome research compared to treatments for anxiety and depression.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), CBT-based interventions have been shown to be moderately to strongly effective across age groups, different populations, and different settings, with mean effect sizes ranging between 0.6-1.2. CBT-based interventions teach skills to dampen anger-related physiological arousal and develop more adaptive thinking and responses to anger triggers. 


Stress/Anger Management - AGPA. 

Anger management interventions. - APA PsycNet.

Anger Management Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

11 Anger Management Therapy Techniques and Interventions

Cognitive behavioral therapy for anger management. - APA PsycNet. 

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