We all know what anger is, and we’ve all felt it, whether as fleeting annoyance or as full-fledged rage.
Anger is a completely normal, and usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems: problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life. And it can make you feel as though you’re at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion.
What is Anger?
Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and so does the level of your energy hormones, adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Anger can be caused by external or internal events. You could be angry at a specific person (such as a coworker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a canceled flight), 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.
The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors that allow us to fight and defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us. Laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far we should let our anger take us.
People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming.
Expressing your 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. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
Another approach is to suppress anger and then convert or redirect it. This happens when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive to do instead. The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior. The danger in this type of response is that if your anger isn’t allowed outward expression, it can turn inward–on yourself. Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.
Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of anger such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on), or a perpetually cynical and hostile attitude. People who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments haven’t learned how to express their anger constructively. Not surprisingly, they aren’t likely to have many successful relationships.
Finally, you can calm yourself down inside. This means not just controlling your outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.