Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD Print Email
Anger can be a pulse-raising response to other people’s behavior, but it can also be triggered by your own thoughts and memories. It is rooted in a basic, biological instinct that empowers us to defend ourselves from a threat. But in the modern world, anger must be controlled or it can result in dire consequences.
People who have a hard time coping with anger may need — or be ordered to — anger-management training.
Anger Control: Evolutionary Consequences
“Anger is generally recognized as a fundamental emotion that everyone experiences as a consequence of evolution,” says Charles Spielberger, PhD, distinguished research professor emeritus at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “As an emotional state, anger varies in intensity as a response to perceived danger in situations in which a person is attacked, criticized, or feels frustrated. As a personality trait, anger refers to the frequency [with which] the emotion is experienced over time.”
Spielberger and colleagues developed the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory (STAXI), which is often used to evaluate anger. It is a written test that measures, among other things, the components of someone’s anger, in terms of normalcy and abnormalcy.
Anger: A Learned Response
Anger is often a secondary emotion, says George Anderson, an anger management trainer with Anderson and Anderson Anger Management in Los Angeles. That means it comes as a result of another emotion — most often stress. Anger can be an unpleasant emotion with unpleasant results, including an increased risk of heart disease, if it is not handled correctly.
Many people learn how to cope with anger from the environment in which they grew up. Research suggests that people who have poor anger control grew up in homes that were chaotic and with people who had difficulty expressing anger well.
“What that means is if how you cope with anger can be learned, it can be unlearned,” says Anderson, who provides anger management training to a variety of professionals, including doctors. “Unfortunately, the person who has the problem is usually the last to recognize it.”
Anger: Signs That You’re Losing Control
“Anger is a problem when it is too intense, occurs too frequently, lasts too long, affects health and relationships, or leads to person- or property-directed aggression,” says Anderson.
You may have an anger-control problem if:
People in your life tell you that you seem constantly angry, touchy, or irritable You respond with violent words or actions out of proportion to the situation Your supervisor, human resources department, or a judge has ordered you into anger-management training You have a lot of broken relationships You lose jobs often Anger Control: Common Thought Processes
Researchers know that there are some thought processes that are common to people with poor anger control. Consider the examples of road rage and parents who become violently enraged at their children’s sports events.
Both situations demonstrate out-of-control anger, but both are due to a person’s unreasonable desire to control others or belief that events reflect poorly on them.
Anger Control: One Big Button
“I think I was probably a little too sensitive,” says 51-year-old Gary Galvan, a former elementary school principal who was referred to anger-management training by his district administrator. “I probably didn’t read the social cues as well as I may have. I was one big button; people were able to push and I’d respond.”
Galvan says anger-management training gave him skills he needed — he just wishes he had learned them earlier in his life. “It would have saved a lot of heartbreak,” he says.
Anger Control: I-Statements
One of the skills Galvan treasures is a new way of speaking about his feelings. He's learned to use a formula called I-statements: “I feel ___ when ___ because I need ___,” he says.
He offers the example: “I feel mad when you don’t acknowledge my achievements because I need to know my work is valuable.”
Anger Control: Strategies
If you are having trouble controlling your anger, try these strategies to keep anger in check:
- Slow down. “If you can recognize in advance a situation that is going to make you angry — if you can slow the process right down — you can prevent it from getting to the stage of rage,” says Anderson.
- Empathize. Sometimes the people who are triggering your anger have their own problems and emotions to cope with. Empathizing with their situation can help you, too.
- Solve a problem. If a situation is making you angry, come up with a plan and then take action to change some of the angering aspects.
- Make a change. Elements in your day or environment may be making you more likely to lose control. For example, if you tend to get angry when you are stressed, try to find a way to de-stress before you hit the time of day when you are most likely to lash out.
- Change your thinking. If you can’t change your environment, you might want to change the way you think about events. Seek help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist who can teach you coping skills.
- Use humor. A good laugh can break the tension or just give you a better perspective.
And, if there is a way you can avoid a person or situation that consistently makes you angry, do so.
Learn more in Everyday Health's Emotional Health Center.
Last Updated: 12/22/2009