Anger is like an avalanche which, once started, runs its course to the very end. It is strong and manipulates us easily, turning us into ticking time bombs. This is why we need to know how to manage it and how to keep our temper in any situation.
Aside from frustration and other common factors which trigger anger (danger, abuse, pain, etc.), we find that there are variety of factors that generate it, as well as some variability in their interpretation. Some people get angry because they missed the bus or because they have been criticised. Others keep calm when faced with unpleasant situations. Everyone has (at least) one vulnerable point—an Achilles heel—which makes them catch fire under certain conditions. The display of one’s emotions differs from person to person and is influenced by education, self-discipline, and temperament.
Unlike impulsive people, who give free rein to their natural tendencies without thinking them through, passive-aggressive individuals choose indifference, sarcasm or sulking as a way to express their anger, while passive people prefer silence. However, neither suppression nor expression devoid of discernment gives us any significant advantage when it comes to achieving emotional comfort. The way in which we deal with the situations that frustrate or repulse us impacts not only our wellbeing but also our relationships with those around us. It affects our work, self-esteem, and health.
An inability to integrate the feeling of anger into a rational form of accepting reality may cause heart disease, diabetes, a weakening of the immune system, insomnia, chronic stress, depression, food disorders, drug or alcohol abuse and other forms of suffering. Contrary to the myths stating that anger is uncontrollable or that it imposes a sense of authority (reasons for why it should be tolerated), the need to understand how, when, and why anger appears can help us tame it successfully, if we wish to do so.
1. Understanding what goes on “behind the curtain”
Both emotional anger and aggression can play tricks on us by suddenly forcing their way into our daily behaviour. A good way of establishing whether our feelings and reactions match objective reality is to access the area behind the curtain and understand what goes on there.
Why are we so easily angered?
It often happens that we get angry for trivial reasons, that we become irritated by a word or small gesture unwittingly committed by someone. Many of the situations that test our patience are actually unimportant. However, they awaken in us the need to be incisive and to chastise people for exhibiting unpleasant behaviours.
Taking a closer look, we might notice that it is not the dirty dishes, the tardiness, or the gloomy weather but secondary aspects that irritate or frustrate us. What we will also notice is that anger disguises fear, embarrassment, shame, uncertainty and other feelings we do not know how to express because we were not taught to recognise them, accept them, and express them as such.
In other cases, the reason we easily “get hot under the collar” is connected to the patterns we were taught by our family. If our parents and close ones often solved their problems by fighting, being irritable and lacking self-control, the odds of reacting in the same way, even in situations which do not justify conflict and escalated tension, increase significantly.
We resort to loud outbursts as an irrefutable form of power, when we do not know how to reach a compromise by negotiation. When angered by a threat to our fragile egos or the need for control, we reject unfamiliar opinions and different perspectives. When we lack emotional intelligence, we are constantly running away from guilt, failure, vulnerability and other frames of mind which are difficult to process.
Often times, what lies behind outbursts of anger are causes which go beyond readily apparent reasons, and exploring them is the first step to monitoring our own emotions, labelling them, and using them to guide daily thought patterns and behaviour accordingly.
2. Recognising internal signals
Angry outbursts trigger a series of reactions in the body and cause the secretion of adrenaline, the essential hormone in dealing with stress provoked by dangerous circumstances.
The most obvious signals include an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, perspiration, tightness or tremor of the body, clenching of the jaw, feeling a knot in the pit of one’s stomach, headaches, psychomotor agitation, and an inability to focus.
Being aware of the signals our bodies send out allows us to act rationally before losing control in the heat of the moment.
When something triggers us, the whole body undergoes an accelerated tension. Its total release would wreak havoc all around us: verbally (by using harsh words, offensive expressions or talking loudly), but also physically (by using aggressive gestures, throwing objects or attacking the other person).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, anger inhibition would be a false solution of the problem; an illusory postponement with side effects in the long run. Repressed anger tends to come back with a vengeance in the most inappropriate situations. If, however, we redirect negative energy to a constructive path, we will manage to release our emotions in a safe, risk and regret-free way.
3. Identifying the triggers
No matter how moderate we are, life constantly tests our weaknesses, like a careful teacher. By knowing our triggers and weaknesses, we can identify the factors which cause us to act impulsively: we tend to get annoyed in traffic, we crash if we have a dispute, we become irritable when we are tired, we lose our temper around certain people. Anticipation helps us be one step ahead of our volcanic impulses which are just waiting for an excuse to erupt.
Starting with understanding and admitting our own limits, we have two possible options: we either avoid the subjects and people who disturb our peace, or we learn to approach them differently, in a new manner, superior to the natural reaction of anger.
The first alternative forces us to be realistic. The belief that we can eliminate any disruptive elements around us is a fantasy. Thus, formulating new, adaptive answers to our triggers of aggressive behaviours seems like the most plausible solution. For this we need to discourage automatic thought patterns which fuel our anger through mechanisms such as assumption, inflexibility, generalisation, negativity, and blame-seeking.
These five can act together or separately. Joining them is the sure way to the lion’s den. A common example, inspired by the typical way in which partners relate to each other, would sound like this: “In 10 minutes I’ll be home and I am sure he/she did not do what I asked him/her to do (assumption). I will not tolerate this (inflexibility), because he/she always does this (generalisation). The atmosphere is thus wrecked (negativity) on account of his/her actions (blaming)”. This kind of default is guaranteed to invoke anger.
4. Maintaining self-control
Although accessible and highly popular, the methods through which we can gain patience in moments of extreme tension are often underestimated. Experience confirms that simple techniques help control the emotions associated with anger, resentment, exasperation, indignation, vexing (insult), enmity, irritability, hostility, and hatred (classification according to Daniel Goleman).
The old standby of counting to 10, or breathing exercises, walking, stretching or massaging tensed areas, and distraction from the problematic context have proven, over time, their usefulness when it comes to regaining one’s inner balance. Another useful exercise for emotional calibration is the appeal to introspection. For this purpose, specialists recommend addressing certain questions meant to clear one’s mind and moderate one’s briskness by objectifying certain stressful situations for the individual:
- How important is this thing that has me so riled up?
- Is it worth getting angry over this?
- Is it worth spoiling my entire day because of this?
- Is my behaviour appropriate for the given situation?
- What could I change about my relationships?
- Is better for me to act, or to back down?
5. Developing beneficial habits
Scripture says the “one who is quick-tempered displays folly” (Proverbs 14:29). Many of us have experienced this firsthand. To spare ourselves the consequences generated by the “follies” brought about by our lack of self-control, we have numerous habits and guiding principles at our disposal.
Rest, exercise, embracing an optimistic view on life, assertive communication, mediation, prayer, humour, and avoiding the consumption of drugs and alcohol help us cultivate patience and perfect the necessary reins for an effective control of our impulses, including our anger.
On the other hand, principles such as loving one’s neighbour, being willing to forgive, cherishing human relationships above one’s personal ego, respect for others, and detachment from past burdens creates the appropriate context for us to gradually abandon the habit of reckless reactions.
Emotional maturity and behavioural changes do not happen overnight by simply pressing a button or by uttering a magic formula capable of turning us into the best version of ourselves. We cannot practice self control if we do not fight daily, on several fronts. The elements of a balanced lifestyle as well as a well-rounded moral structure are key components which contribute to acquiring the wisdom which makes one patient (Proverbs 19:11) and fills us with “great understanding” (Proverbs 14:29).
When anger management problems degenerate into dangerous situations (repeated fights with friends and family, involvement in physical confrontations, abuse towards one’s partner or children, breaking the law, losing one’s temper in traffic and committing reckless acts), this is a sign that we must ask for help. Some predispositions or emotional disorders may make us eligible for the support of a knowledgeable, empathetic, trustworthy person who can carefully guide us on the journey towards a better version of ourselves.
Despite its negative reputation, anger is a natural emotion, as legitimate as it gets. We are not mere robots programmed to treat life with indifference. The capacity to feel anger helps us react to threats and dangers, and to reject injustice, lying or hatred. There are numerous events, attitudes and circumstance which are worthy of our fierceness. On the other hand, this fundamental emotion gnaws at us from within. It dominates us and weakens our will.
Anger compromises self-control, and the man who cannot contain himself is “like a city whose walls are broken through” (Proverbs 25:28). A patient person is better “than a warrior”, and one with self-control is better “than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:30).
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.