Anger may be our most confusing emotion. It’s confusing, in part, because as children we are given various, and often conflicting, cultural messages about anger. We may be told that it’s bad to show anger even as we’re encouraged to admire the “manliness” of a seething father. We may associate anger with a parent’s violence. We may not be offered any practical skills in how to productively express or manage our anger.
As we grow up with our internalized messages, we may not even recognize our own anger – or know what to do with it.
But in fact, anger, like fear, is a normal and natural response to threats. An emotional state that ranges from mild irritation to rage, anger is accompanied by physiological and biological changes in the body: Our faces redden, our heart rate and blood pressure go up. These changes prepare us to handle the threat.
If we are unable to manage our anger, our body sustains that state of “high alert.” People who are chronically angry experience more heart attacks, strokes, migraine headaches and digestive problems. A University of Pittsburgh study found that men who react quickly to stress with anger are three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and that women who harbor feelings of anger or depression are more likely to have heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol and an unhealthy weight.
Unmanaged anger can also lead to spousal abuse and violence in the family.
Anger is a directed emotion: we target others or we target ourselves. When we target others, we may become abusive (verbally or physically), manipulative, sarcastic, vengeful and blaming. When we target ourselves, we may become self-destructive, emotionless/numb, self-blaming or engage in dangerous activities, from drug, alcohol and food abuse to reckless driving. In both cases, we often deny that we are angry.
Managing anger is a learning-and-practice process that involves first recognizing the feelings, symptoms and triggers of anger and then developing effective skills to communicate and cope with the emotion. This may require us to examine some of the messages about anger that we were given as children. As we make the shift from anger to assertiveness, we practice listening skills and empathy and also learn to recognize and express a variety of feelings that, unexpressed, can lead to anger.
Therapy is enormously helpful as we are learning to cope with unmanaged anger. In counseling, we learn to recognize the triggers that cause anger to escalate and to create effective signals and skills to cope with emotions before they boil over.
For a free phone consult, call Dr. Fibus at 818.395.2831.