Learn more about Anger

General Description of Anger
The Problem of Anger*
Payoffs and Consequences of Anger*
Myths about Anger*
Anger as a Habitual Response*
Breaking the Anger Habit*
Strategies for Controlling Anger*
Blog Posts to Help with Anger, including Anger Management Strategies
Professional Resources

Entries with an * are from “Anger Management: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Manual” by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What is Anger?

Anger is one of several human emotions that all people experience to greater and lesser degrees. It can manifest in many ways, including (but not limited to) the following:
1.) Frustration
2.) Irritability
3.) Impatience and boredom
4.) Feelings of rage
5.) Physical symptoms like clenching fists, feeling warm, tightness in chest, raising our voices
6.) Passive aggressive behavior (e.g., trying to manipulate or sabotage)
7.) Aggressive behavior (e.g., physical and emotional violence toward other people or objects)
8.) Thoughts of revenge

*The Problem of Anger

*Note: The following information is from: Anger Management: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Manual, produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Read the entire manual here: SAMHSA.gov.

“In the most general sense, anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger is a natural response to those situations where we feel threat­ ened, we believe harm will come to us, or we believe that another person has unnecessarily wronged us. We may also become angry when we feel another person, like a child or someone close to us, is being threatened or harmed. In addition, anger may result from frustration when our needs, desires, and goals are not being met. When we become angry, we may lose our patience and act impulsively, aggressively, or violently.

People often confuse anger with aggression. Aggression is behavior that is intended to cause harm to another person or damage property. This behavior can include verbal abuse, threats, or violent acts. Anger, on the other hand, is an emotion and does not necessarily lead to aggression. Therefore, a person can become angry without acting aggressively.

A term related to anger and aggression is hostility. Hostility refers to a complex set of attitudes and judgments that motivate aggressive behaviors. Whereas anger is an emotion and aggression is a behavior, hostility is an attitude that involves disliking others and evaluating them negatively.

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When Does Anger Become a Problem?

Anger becomes a problem when it is felt too intensely, is felt too frequently, or is expressed inappropriately. Feeling anger too intensely or frequently places extreme physical strain on the body. During prolonged and frequent episodes of anger, certain divisions of the nervous sys­ tem become highly activated. Consequently, blood pressure and heart rate increase and stay elevated for long periods. This stress on the body may produce many different health problems, such as hypertension, heart disease, and diminished immune system efficiency. Thus, from a health standpoint, avoiding physical illness is a motivation for controlling anger.

Another compelling reason to control anger concerns the negative consequences that result from expressing anger inappropriately. In the extreme, anger may lead to violence or physical aggression, which can result in numerous negative consequences, such as being arrested or jailed, being physically injured, being retaliated against, losing loved ones, being terminated from a substance abuse treatment or social service program, or feeling guilt, shame, or regret.

Even when anger does not lead to violence, the inappropriate expression of anger, such as ver­ bal abuse or intimidating or threatening behavior, often results in negative consequences. For example, it is likely that others will develop fear, resentment, and lack of trust toward those who subject them to angry outbursts, which may cause alienation from individuals, such as family members, friends, and coworkers.”

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*Payoffs and Consequences

The inappropriate expression of anger initially has many apparent payoffs. One payoff is being able to manipulate and control others through aggressive and intimidating behavior; others may comply with someone’s demands because they fear verbal threats or violence. Another payoff is the release of tension that occurs when one loses his or her temper and acts aggres­ sively. The individual may feel better after an angry outburst, but everyone else may feel worse.

In the long term, however, these initial payoffs lead to negative consequences. For this reason they are called “apparent” payoffs because the long-term negative consequences far outweigh the short-term gains. For example, consider a father who persuades his children to comply with his demands by using an angry tone of voice and threatening gestures. These behaviors imply to the children that they will receive physical harm if they are not obedient. The immediate pay­ off for the father is that the children obey his commands. The long-term consequence, however, may be that the children learn to fear or dislike him and become emotionally detached from him. As they grow older, they may avoid contact with him or refuse to see him altogether.

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*Myths About Anger

Myth #1: Anger Is Inherited. One misconception or myth about anger is that the way we express anger is inherited and cannot be changed. Sometimes, we may hear someone say, “I inherited my anger from my father; that’s just the way I am.” This statement implies that the expression of anger is a fixed and unalterable set of behaviors. Evidence from research stud­ ies, however, indicates that people are not born with set, specific ways of expressing anger. These studies show, rather, that because the expression of anger is learned behavior, more appropriate ways of expressing anger also can be learned.

It is well established that much of people’s behavior is learned by observing others, particularly influential people. These people include parents, family members, and friends. If children observe parents expressing anger through aggressive acts, such as verbal abuse and violence, it is very likely that they will learn to express anger in similar ways. Fortunately, this behavior can be changed by learning new and appropriate ways of anger expression. It is not necessary to continue to express anger by aggressive and violent means.

Myth #2: Anger Automatically Leads to Aggression. A related myth involves the misconception that the only effective way to express anger is through aggression. It is commonly thought that anger is something that builds and escalates to the point of an aggressive outburst. As has been said, however, anger does not necessarily lead to aggression. In fact, effective anger man­ agement involves controlling the escalation of anger by learning assertiveness skills, changing negative and hostile “self-talk,” challenging irrational beliefs, and employing a variety of behav­ ioral strategies. These skills, techniques, and strategies will be discussed in later sessions.

Myth #3: People Must Be Aggressive To Get What They Want. Many people confuse assertive­ ness with aggression. The goal of aggression is to dominate, intimidate, harm, or injure another person—to win at any cost. Conversely, the goal of assertiveness is to express feelings of anger in a way that is respectful of other people. For example, if you were upset because a friend was repeatedly late for meetings, you could respond by shouting obscenities and name-calling. This approach is an attack on the other person rather than an attempt to address the behavior that you find frustrating or anger provoking.

An assertive way of handling this situation might be to say, “When you are late for a meeting with me, I get pretty frustrated. I wish that you would be on time more often.” This statement expresses your feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction and communicates how you would like the situation changed. This expression does not blame or threaten the other person and minimizes the chance of causing emotional harm. We will discuss assertiveness skills in more detail in sessions 7 and 8.

Myth #4: Venting Anger Is Always Desirable. For many years, the popular belief among numer­ ous mental health professionals and laymen was that the aggressive expression of anger, such as screaming or beating on pillows, was healthy and therapeutic. Research studies have found, however, that people who vent their anger aggressively simply get better at being angry (Berkowitz, 1970; Murray, 1985; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). In other words, venting anger in an aggressive manner reinforces aggressive behavior.

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*Anger as a Habitual Response

Not only is the expression of anger learned, but it can become a routine, familiar, and predict­ able response to a variety of situations. When anger is displayed frequently and aggressively, it can become a maladaptive habit because it results in negative consequences. Habits, by definition, are performed over and over again, without thinking. People with anger manage­ ment problems often resort to aggressive displays of anger to solve their problems, without thinking about the negative consequences they may suffer or the debilitating effects it may have on the people around them.

Events That Trigger Anger

When you get angry, it is because an event has provoked your anger. For example, you may get angry when the bus is late, when you have to wait in line at the grocery store, or when a neighbor plays his stereo too loud. Everyday events such as these can provoke your anger.

Many times, specific events touch on sensitive areas in your life. These sensitive areas or “red flags” usually refer to long-standing issues that can easily lead to anger. For example, some of us may have been slow readers as children and may have been sensitive about our reading ability. Although we may read well now as adults, we may continue to be sensitive about this issue. This sensitivity may be revealed when someone rushes us while we are completing an application or reviewing a memorandum and may trigger anger because we may feel that we are being criticized or judged as we were when we were children. This sensitivity may also show itself in a more direct way, such as when someone calls us “slow” or “stupid.

In addition to events experienced in the here-and-now, you may also recall an event from your past that made you angry. You might remember, for example, how the bus always seemed to be late before you left home for an important appointment. Just thinking about how late the bus was in the past can make you angry in the present. Another example may be when you recall a situation involving a family member who betrayed or hurt you in some way. Remembering this situation, or this family member, can raise your number on the anger meter. Here are examples of events or issues that can trigger anger:

  • Long waits to see your doctor
  • Traffic congestion
  • Crowded buses
  • A friend joking about a sensitive topic
  • A friend not paying back money owed to you
  • Being wrongly accused
  • Having to clean up someone else’s mess
  • Having an untidy roommate
  • Having a neighbor who plays the stereo too loud
  • Being placed on hold for long periods of time while on the telephone
  • Being given wrong directions
  • Rumors being spread about your relapse that are not true
  • Having money or property stolen from you.”
*Breaking the Anger Habit

Becoming Aware of Anger: To break the anger habit, you must develop an awareness of the events, circumstances, and behaviors of others that “trigger” your anger. This awareness also involves understanding the negative consequences that result from anger. For example, you may be in line at the supermarket and become impatient because the lines are too long. You could become angry, then boisterously demand that the checkout clerk call for more help. As your anger escalates, you may become involved in a heated exchange with the clerk or another cus­tomer. The store manager may respond by having a security officer remove you from the store. The negative consequences that result from this event are not getting the groceries that you wanted and the embarrassment and humiliation you suffer from being removed from the store.

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*Strategies for Controlling Anger

In addition to becoming aware of anger, you need to develop strategies to effectively manage it. These strategies can be used to stop the escalation of anger before you lose control and experience negative consequences. An effective set of strategies for controlling anger should include both immediate and preventive strategies.

Immediate strategies include taking a timeout, deep-breathing exercises, and thought-stop­ping. Preventive strategies include developing an exercise program and changing your irrational beliefs.

One example of an immediate anger management strategy worth exploring at this point is the timeout. The timeout can be used formally or informally. For now, we will only describe the informal use of a timeout. This use involves leaving a situation if you feel your anger is escalat­ing out of control. For example, you may be a passenger on a crowded bus and become angry because you perceive that people are deliberately bumping into you. In this situation, you can simply get off the bus and wait for a less crowded bus.

The informal use of a timeout may also involve stopping yourself from engaging in a discussion or argument if you feel that you are becoming too angry. In these situations, it may be helpful to actually call a timeout or to give the timeout sign with your hands. This lets the other person know that you wish to immediately stop talking about the topic and are becoming frustrated, upset, or angry.” (End SourceSAMHSA.gov)

In summary, strategies that can be helpful with managing anger in a skillful and non-harming way include:

1.) Awareness: becoming aware of anger is the first step in overcoming it!  Pay attention to the physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral signs of anger when it first starts to develop.

2.) Time-outs: this is one simple but powerful technique everybody should learn to use.

3.) Deep breathing exercises – using things like diaphragmatic/belly breathing or mindfulness of breath practices – to calm down.  See “Stress Management 101” for a description of both of these strategies.

4.) Distraction: taking your attention off the triggering situation, including trying the cognitive therapy technique of Thought Stopping (where you notice the bothersome thought and consciously say to yourself or aloud “Stop!” and then try to focus on something else.  Sounds simple but it takes repetition for it to work).

5.) Prevention: exercise, stress management, reinforcing rational beliefs and minimizing irrational ones.  You can work on all of these BEFORE anger gets triggered.  By focusing on prevention, you’re helping inoculate yourself to the vulnerabilities that cause anger to escalate.

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Blog Posts to Help with Anger

What is Anger? A Secondary Emotion

Psychology Tools: A-B-C-D Model for Anger Management

Psychology Tools: Use an Anger Meter to Avoid Negative Consequences

Anger Management Tools: Internalize Sacred Figure (visualization exercise)

Stress Management 101

Professional Resources

If you’re having difficulty managing your anger through self-help efforts, consider the following resources that can help.  Keep in mind that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but actually takes a lot of strength and courage.

1.) Medical Doctor: speak with your primary care (PCP) or family physician about your concerns.  They can help direct you to resources that are covered by insurance.

2.) Individual Therapy: find a therapist that specializes in treating anger management issues.  Search online and/or ask your PCP, family members or friends for recommendations.  PsychologyToday‘s therapist finder and GoodTherapy.org are two popular online directories to help you find anger management therapists.

3.) Group Therapy: for some, participating in an anger management group, rather than individual counseling, is the best fit.  There are many resources for finding an anger management group: contact your health insurance provider, local chapters of professional counselors (National Association of Social Workers (NASW), American Psychological Association (APA), Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT).

4.) Spiritual Resources: if you are religious and/or connect with spirituality, consider reaching out to the leadership in your local church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, as their offerings may be able to help.

Back to Learning Center…

  1. In and around the clinic I have noticed that it is not uncommon for people to seek help with anger. I am not an expert on anger, but in my training and experience (clinical psychology) seeking therapeutic help for anger is a 100% appropriate thing to do! There are plenty of self-help books on anger, and many counselors and therapists who have helped people with anger. From what I’ve seen, it’s fashionable these days to use mindfulness training to work with anger, which can truly help with acceptance and awareness of the anger emotions.

    The key thing I take from this article that I find really helpful is making the distinction between anger (an emotion) and aggression (an action and/or intention to do harm). Basically, anger is not “bad.” Many people have developed the belief that anger is “bad” or “wrong.” So, lo and behold, every time they feel angry, then they feel what the Buddhists call the “second arrow” of pain, in the form of guilt, or shame, or even getting angry at one’s self for being angry! Quite a paradox. My thinking is that it makes sense to accept that we will feel anger many many times, and learn to work with it.

    I agree that there are many ways of expressing anger that can be learned. Yet, in my opinion, I tend to believe that anger is primarily a natural response designed, by evolution, to protect our selves and our loved ones. It is activated very quickly and mobilizes our bodies to act! Thus, while we shouldn’t go around looking for things to make us angry (I have heard people speak to anger’s addictive quality), I believe that trying solely to prevent or avoid anger is probably not realistic, as there will certainly be things in life that will cause the emotion of anger to arise. Based on affect theory, “anger-rage” is an innate (hard-wired, present from birth) physiological affect. According to http://www.tomkins.org/what-tomkins-said/introduction/nine-affects-present-at-birth-combine-to-form-emotion-mood-and-personality/ (direct quotation) “The infant’s swollen, reddened face, muscle tension and scream are the obvious signs of anger. [Silvan] Tomkins sees anger as caused by overload; it is triggered by persistent high-density neural firing. If distress is a signal that things are “too much”, anger is a signal that things are “WAY too much.” Tomkins writes at length about how managing anger and the violence associated with it are crucial for civilization. Systems of wealth, religion, and laws are all collective responses to anger.” Certainly anger is a big topic! But for today…

    In some cases the therapist may want to work with you on anger in an “activated” state, so don’t be alarmed or discouraged if therapy brings up a lot of feelings in-session. Indeed, based on the theory of state-dependent learning, this can actually help us learn better: if anger (or any intense feelings) are never activated in therapy, then it is less likely that we will truly practice the skills (e.g. awareness and acceptance) and remember to use them when we get home, in the heat of the moment. My two cents 🙂

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