What Is Anger?

Many people think that anger is caused by hormonal changes or brain activity. This is only partly true. Researchers have found that while hormones play a role in an angry response, there is always a cognitive (thinking) component.

Some people think that humans are innately aggressive or warlike. While our behaviour is sometimes hostile toward others, anger is not part of our basic nature.

Frustration may lead to aggression, but it is not inevitable. Some people respond to frustrating events with anger, while others don’t.

Why We Get into the Anger Habit

Anger is our response to stress. Many times we feel anger to avoid feeling some other emotion, such as anxiety or hurt. Or we may feel angry when we are frustrated because we want something and can’t have it. Sometimes, feeling angry is a way of mobilizing ourselves in the face of a threat.

Anger may be useful because it stops (blocks) stress. Here are two examples:

  1. You are rushing all day in your home office to meet an impossible deadline. Your daughter bounces in after school and gives you a big hug as your furiously type on your computer. You snap, “Not now! Can’t you see I’m busy?”
  2. You have just finished taking an important exam. You have studied for weeks and the result is very important to your career. You fantasize all the way home about dinner at your favorite Italian restaurant. When you get home, your husband has prepared a steak dinner for you. You yell, “Why don’t you ask me before you just assume you know what I want?”

This explains why people often respond with anger when they experience the following kinds of stress:

  • Anxiety
  • Being in a hurry
  • Being overstimulated
  • Being overworked
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Fear
  • Feeling abandoned or attacked
  • Feeling forced to do something you don’t want to do
  • Feeling out of control
  • Guilt, shame, or hurt
  • Loss
  • Physical Pain

What to Do Instead of Getting Angry

Here are some constructive things you can do to reduce stress-instead of becoming angry:

  • Beat a pillow with a tennis racket
  • Cry
  • Do relaxation exercises
  • Get physical exercise
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Make a joke
  • Play games
  • Say it out loud
  • State your needs assertively
  • Take a nap
  • Tell a friend about it
  • Work
  • Write about it

Four Ways to Stop the Spiral of Anger

  1. Call a time-out. This is a very effective technique for breaking the sequence of behavior that leads to a blowup. It works best if it is discussed ahead of time and both people agree to use it. Here’s how it works: Either person in an interaction can initiate time-out. One person makes the time-out gesture like a referee in a football game. The other person is obligated to return the gesture and stop talking.
  2. Check it out. If anger is a response to personal pain, it makes sense to ask the other person, “What’s hurting?”
  3. Make positive statements. It may be helpful to memorize a few positive statements to say to yourself when your anger is being triggered. These statements can remind you that you can choose your behavior instead of a reacting in a knee-jerk manner-for example, “I can take care of my own needs,” “His needs are just as important as mine,” and “I am able to make good choices.”
  4. Be prepared with a memorized response. Here are a few statements and questions which will help de-escalate anger:
  • What’s bothering me is…
  • If it continues like this, I’ll have to _____ to take care of myself.
  • What do you need now?
  • So what you want is…

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