“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels nor demons, heaven or hell.”Buddha Quotes

You don’t have to be an Angry Bird to know something about the challenge of controlling anger. Learning how to express anger is a normal part of self-development that none of us escapes. It is part of the maturation process. We are taught to turn our cries of frustration into the word no and then into complex verbalizations that communicates our upset and feelings about it. But, some people have trouble with this process that results in fixed personality patterns in which uncontrolled anger is a major continuing feature (Narcissistic Personality DisorderBorderline Personality Disorder).

But, you don’t have to have a personality disorder to have difficulties managing anger. Stress and health problems can temporarily undermine our ability to adequately cope with stressful problems. Chronic pain, physical disability, Premenstrual Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (Your Hormones)Chronic Fatigue , Fibromyalgia DisorderTemporal Lobe Epilepsyallergies, migraines, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are physical conditions that have anger as a symptom.

Even if you don’t have a problem that predisposes you to angry reactions, life is still an ongoing lesson in anger management in which you will have many chances to learn how to turn your upset into a healthy expression of differences.

Anger Is A Warning Bell

Anger is a complex emotion that signals we feel afraid, violated, or threatened and can range from mild irritation to full-out rage, depending upon the size of the threat, in our minds. We may not be in touch with the feeling of threat that is beneath our anger; but, it is there and fueling our upset. Take for example, a coworker who gets promoted over you. You feel angry, because you were passed up for the promotion. But, at the root of your anger is a threat to your self-esteem and a fear of job security. Or, for example, a friend says negative things about you. Certainly, you dislike being bad-mouthed. But, the real threat is to your self-image and having opened yourself up to a person who has hurt you.

The greater the anger, the more pressure is on us to take a breather, calm down, and think through what is really bothering us. If we do not, there may be negative social, work or health consequences. Poorly managed anger can make us appear more self-centered, immature and out of control. It hurts our self-image and self-esteem and can lead to heart disease and other health-related problems, if chronic (Anger and Heart DiseaseNew York Times). Too, anger can negatively affect our work relations and job security. People who have chronic anger are more apt to be fired from their jobs, passed up for job promotions, make less pay, and have a history of highly-conflicted interpersonal relationships (American Psychological Association).

There’s no question about it, learning to better manage anger will serve us well physically, socially, and professionally.

Anger and the Fight-or-Flight Response to Stress

Anger is evolutionarily tied to the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response to stress. In less civilized times, we dealt with fears to our survival by fighting foes fist-to-fist or by running away. For cave men, this was easier to do, as matters of survival were clear-cut. We were either food for predators or they were food for us. Today, matters of survival extend beyond the threat of going hungry. Now, we have ideas, beliefs, and values, and the feelings that accompany them, that complicate the nature of threat to our survival and welfare. What is more, we have the added pressure of having to manage our anger, when we feel threatened. We cannot fight fist to fist or run away. We may be jailed, fired from employment, or abandoned by lovers and friends. Or, if we flee the threat, we may be judged incompetent problem-solvers or cowards.

We have to cope with our anger or else there will be hard-hitting consequences for the lack of self-control. Today, coping is the fight side of the fight-or-flight response to threatening circumstances.

Working Memory In Anger Management

We have to be able to reason through fears to cope with anger. You may recall in my article on Attention Deficit Disorder that at the heart of inhibition of anger and self-control is working memory. Working memory is the brain’s ability to give us a thinking space for processing what is happening to us in the moment. It lets us hold our thoughts on what is happening in our minds long enough to reason them through and to direct our behavior in constructive ways and stops distracting ideas from interfering with the process.

But, negative emotions, like anger, impair working memory. They over-excite the brain to the extent that nerve connections between emotions and working memory processes (brain’s frontal lobes) temporarily disconnect. Anger to the brain is like being on too much caffeine. When we are very angry, the brain gets so highly aroused that we lose the ability to think through what’s happening. We become one big ball of negative feeling!

It takes a calm body to access the thinking space that the brain provides for regulating strong emotions through reasoning processes.

Anger Management Recommendations

Traditional anger management therapy has a poor success rate, because of its short time frame (4 to 8 weeks) and its band-aid approach to understanding anger. Anger gets its blood supply, so to speak, from many areas of our functioning. Physiology, ideas tied to ego, thinking patterns, self-esteem, personality vulnerabilities, and health problems make anger a very complex experience.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to appreciate everything that may be contributing to our anger. The following treatment recommendations make you aware of the various areas of functioning that may be contributing to your anger problem. The more areas of functioning that you treat, the more chance you have of regulating angry responses into healthy self-expressions.

1. Befriend anger. The right attitude toward anger is the first step to learning how to constructively manage it. Take a dispassionate interest in how anger operates in you so you can examine the body, mind, and feeling patterns that lead you to feeling hurt, rejected and devalued, and in defense of the ideas, beliefs and values that you hold.

Anger is a normal and useful human emotion. It’s not a virus that we need to keep at bay or protect ourselves against. When healthily expressed, anger allows us to healthily air differences, set boundaries, get better understanding, and grow relationships to deeper, more meaningful levels. Approach anger with curiosity and openness. This is the first step to conquering its potential for destructiveness in your life.

2. Become aware of your body’s arousal level. High body arousal produces chemicals and hormones that agitate the brain, stimulate negative feelings, and impair working memory. One of the first things you should do when you are feeling very angry is to take a moment to deep breathe. By slowing down breathing, you lower body and brain arousal, secure the connections between feeling and reasoning processes, and lessen the chance for saying and doing things that you may regret later.

When you make stress management and relaxation exercises part of your daily routine, it’s easier to stay calm in stressful situations. These exercises teach you how to observe subtle shifts in your biology so you know when your body’s arousal level is increasing, self-awareness and self-control are shutting down, and you are at risk for angry, impulsive reactions. A heads-up on rising body tension lets you cut off negative emotions at the pass, so that they don’t get the best of you. You’ll be happy to see how much anger you let go of when your body is relaxed and centered.

3. Unmask the fear behind your anger. Examine the emotional conflicts that are most apt to threaten you and make you angry. All of us have emotional conflicts from the past. Some of us yearn to be recognized, valued, and taken seriously by people, especially our loved ones. Others of us may have beliefs and values so deeply tied to our identity that having them challenged feels like a personal assault on us.

To get ahold of our anger, we have to become familiar with the fears it masks in us. Take a look at my post that describes the various fears that hide behind anger (Masks of Anger). Know your hot buttons so that anger doesn’t unexpectedly creep up and get the best of you.

4. Examine all or nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking sets us up to feel angry when people or circumstances conflict with these ideas. Maintaining all or nothing ideas and beliefs about who we are or the meaning of a situation can evoke powerful emotions in us, when countered. We are not questioning the right to a belief here. It is more the insistence that no other belief has a right to exist.

Over-identifying with ideas of the ego is always at the root of all or nothing thinking. Our self-image, religion, politics, culture, nationality, beliefs, and values are reference points that ground us in the world. But, they can become powerful stimuli for aggression in us, when our investment in their rightness gives little room for other people’s observations and opinions.

We can learn a lot about ourselves through our anger. Anger informs. Its usefulness or destructiveness depends upon how we cope with it. Hence, don’t treat anger like a virus to be avoided. Own it, study it, and work on all areas of your life that contributes to its unhealthy expression.

By: Deborah Khoshaba, Psy.D.