Why We Get Angry and What to Do About It
Anger Issues Often Signal Underlying Emotions
Anger is a normal emotion and people get angry for many different reasons. While we often identify triggers, a disappointment we suffered or a hurt that we experienced, anger can also be a messenger, telling us that something is not right in our lives. It can point to deep and enduring frustrations, unfulfilled longings, or emotional pain or suffering. Anger can also be a secondary emotion, with the primary, underlying emotion being fear, sadness, or hurt. But rather than identifying and expressing those primary emotions, people simply get angry.
Some people think anger is bad and might even suppose an angry person has a disorder. Although the way anger is expressed can be problematic, anger can be quite beneficial. The expression of it can be very necessary. It can signal that something needs to be addressed and not ignored or avoided. Anger can also be a catalyst for increased understanding and effective problem-solving. But to be a force for good, rather than a destructive force, anger must be managed well.
There are many things a person can do to manage their anger. Deep breathing, listening to soothing music or going for a walk are proven ways to calm oneself. Many people also find meditation and prayer to be beneficial. Seeking social support can also help, provided the person from whom we seek support is a calming influence, rather than someone who fuels our anger and frustration. While employing these helpful strategies for managing anger, we must also avoid unhealthy ones, such as misusing substances.
Becoming angry often involves a process referred to as “priming,” where agitation and frustration build slowly and relatively small issues begin to add up until we’re primed to react more strongly than a situation requires. Recognizing that can help us take a step back from an anger-creating situation and lead us to use the coping strategies. Also, since negative thinking and rumination can create or exacerbate anger, practicing gratitude can counteract that. Counting our blessings has many benefits.
The biggest key to managing our anger is recognizing our need to manage it and then having the courage and wisdom to work at managing it. No one can do that perfectly. We are all a work in progress when it comes to appropriately handling the anger we often feel. So-called “righteous anger” is especially challenging. But unless we have a desire to grow in this area, we never will.
That’s especially important for parents. The lessons we learn about anger, and how to appropriately express it and manage it, typically go back to our childhoods. Children benefit greatly from witnessing the effective management of anger by their parents or other people in their lives. Some parents never argue in front of their children, but children are given an invaluable gift when they have the opportunity to see that although parents argue and have disagreements, those can be handled in a respectful and beneficial way.
On the other hand, uncontrolled anger and repeated outbursts children witness or experience firsthand threaten their sense of security and safety. The overt or covert expression of hostility is especially harmful to children. Research has shown that children who witness persistent hostility between their parents have much more difficulty regulating their own emotions, focusing their attention and soothing themselves when they become upset. Those children also can struggle significantly with managing their anger as they become adolescents and adults.
Anger can be an asset and an ally, and it can be a force for good. Anger can also cause great harm. Which it does in our lives depends on what we choose to do with the anger we experience.
Alan Korinek, Ph.D., is the director of the Counseling Center at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC), the managing director for the TTUHSC Employee Assistance Program and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
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