Working with Anger
When healthy aggression is thwarted, then we get anger. When anger is thwarted, then we get hostility. But what lives at the core of anger? What is beneath the devastating power of hostility and the explosive reactivity of rage?
Let’s say your coworker asks you to help them with some of their projects. You try your best to assist them, but the increased workload is piling up, and you are getting swamped. Then, you find out that your coworker has been slacking off while you do all the hard work!
If you have ever been in a similar situation, you will know just how upset and angry this can make you. You may want to confront your coworker on the spot and let them know what for.
But indulging in anger can lead to much more painful situations. That’s why it’s important to understand the root of the anger and find ways to soothe ourselves. That way, we can make rational decisions and avoid being hurt further.
What Is Anger?
Anger is a deep and visceral emotion that is often fed by sadness, fear, and shame. It is frequently accompanied by hostility and/or aggression.
Hostility implies the intent to harm. Very often, you will find yourself wanting to hurt back or take revenge to feel empowered rather than collapsing into shame or vulnerability.
In our example from before, you may have wanted to confront the coworker or lash out. You felt an injustice was dealt towards you and want to balance it by making your coworker feel just as bad. But this can actually do more harm than good to both parties.
The Difference Between Anger and Hostility
Anger is usually a response to either hurt or fear; it is an emotion. To flip from feeling hurt or frightened to feeling angry, we almost always need a narrative about injustice.
This may come out as, “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I don’t deserve this. I need to set the record straight – to set the situation straight.”
Hostility, according to Shelly Harrell, PhD, is “a way of being in the world; it’s an adaptation. Hostility is how we relate to the world around us. We sometimes use hostility as an act of protection.”
While we may get angry and hostile, we can also be hostile without being angry and vice versa. For example, we can be hostile by avoiding, dismissing, and even putting blame on others in order to protect ourselves from hurt and disappointment. But this does not necessarily mean we are angry.
Why Do I Feel So Angry?
Many people feel angry as a result of disappointment, frustration, judgement, rejection, and/or fear.
The first spark of anger activates in the amygdala before you are even aware of it. The amygdala turns on the stress response system in your brain and body, also known as the HPA axis.
The HPA axis consists of the:
- Pituitary gland
- Adrenal glands
The way it works is the amygdala will send a signal to the hypothalamus. When the hypothalamus receives that signal, it will release a hormone called CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone).
This hormone will signal to the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH reaches the adrenal glands, which in turn, will secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
(For a quick and easy infographic on this information, click here).
When we are in a stress-induced state, we enter a “defense mode”. We enter these defensive modes because we perceive a threat. When we are threatened, we become more alert as we prepare to face the threat.
What does this have to do with anger? Well, when we get angry, the process is the same as a stress response. We perceive the anger-inducing situation as threat to us. So, our stress response in that moment is to become angry and defensive.
Why do I act without thinking when I’m angry?
In the heat of the moment, we don’t use our best judgment. We may say or do things that we later regret. We can even lose track of what we say during an argument. Why is that?
One reason people act without thinking during a state of anger is that elevated cortisol levels can cause our neurons to take in too much calcium through their membranes. This can make the cells fire too frequently and die.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus are typically the most affected areas when this happens. The loss of neurons in the PFC can suppress activity in that area. This can prevent you from using your best judgment. So, you may not make the best decisions when you are upset.
Too much cortisol in your hippocampus can kill neurons and keep your brain from making new ones. This can weaken your short-term memory and prevent you from forming new memories properly. Which is why you might not remember what you say in an argument.
Here is a visual of this information.
Negative Impacts of Anger on Physical Health
According to Stephen Porges, PhD, “Anger and hostility rest on a mobilized sympathetically-driven state.”
As mentioned, anger causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These hormones give your body bursts of energy so you can cope with negative situations accordingly.
However, a frequent or prolonged stress response can negatively impact your body.
Some of the ways anger can impact your health include. . .
- Increased pressure inside your eyes
- Vision issues like tunnel vision, sensitivity to light, or blurry vision
- More frequent headaches and migraines
- Decreased number of natural killer cells
- Increased likelihood of stroke and heart attack
How Can I Reduce Anger?
Anger is an emotion that gives you energy, so you may want to act more impulsively. When you are angry, the brain tells you that if you indulge in the anger, you will feel even better.
However, according to Kelly McGonigal, PhD, this is inaccurate – “There is a cost, and the consequences [of indulging in anger] are often painful and costly.”
We may vent, speak up, or even physically attack someone to dispel anger. While this may feel good in the moment, it can often hurt our relationships and make things worse in the long run.
So how can we reduce our anger? Well, here are just a few techniques that may help.
- Focusing on your breathing
- Shifting perspective
- Practicing mindfulness
In a stress response, we take quick and short breaths. This creates a physiological state that supports our anxiety and stress behaviors.
Stephen Porges, PhD explains, “When we exhale slowly, we tend to see the world more positively. Hostility and anger can be shifted by giving people a breathing toolkit.”
One strategy that can help with breathing is extending the duration of our phrases. When we are angry, we tend to take breaths after each couple of words. By becoming aware of our breathing, and sticking more words in our sentences, we can extend our exhalation.
When we get angry, we are more likely to try to justify our reactivity by interpreting prosodic voices, gestures, and facial expressivity negatively. We become extremely sensitive to these cues.
For example, if we see our coworker smiling at us after we confront them, we may interpret the smile as sarcastic and/or aggressive.
We have to be aware of how we interpret these subtle cues so that we can get out of our defense state. But how do we do that?
Kelly McGonigal, PhD suggests that we pay more attention to the eyes of an individual rather than their mouths. This way, we can interpret their emotions more accurately and reduce our reactivity and anger.
Mindfulness helps us stay focused on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about future events. We can train our brain and mind to bring attention to the present moment where we are usually pretty safe.
Staying focused on being in the present moment can help strip our negative emotions from our decision process, leaving us to make more rational decisions. You may remember from earlier that when we are angry, we tend to become more reckless and think irrationally. So, mindfulness can help us stay focused and think clearly before we act.
Some ways we can practice mindfulness is by bringing attention to our bodily sensations. This can be our breathing, our physical feelings, or stance or positioning. We can also pay attention to how we feel emotionally.
Ron Siegel, PsyD, explains, “People who act angry are not so good at feeling anger. When anger arises in us, if we immediately discharge it and start yelling or criticizing, we don’t actually get to feel the texture of the anger. We don’t get to sit with it. To actually feel and know anger, one has to be able to feel it and not immediately discharge it.”
So, even by just sitting with the anger and allowing yourself to feel the emotion, can help reduce it. We gain better understanding of why we are angry, and we can think clearly of how to handle the situation we are put in.
Working with a reactive emotion such as anger is not easy, but the steps we take today can help us work on our emotion regulation skills and improve our overall wellbeing.
Bettering ourselves takes hard work, but this is the work that leads to a happier and healthier version of you – and all it takes is one small step to start that change.
For more information, check out our short course Working with a Client’s Anger.
Want more ideas and strategies you can use with your clients today?
To learn more about working with anger, hostility and other overpowering emotions, check out some of our courses:
Practical Skills for Working with a Client’s Anger
3 CE/CME Credits Available
How to Work with Shame
4 CE/CME Credits Available
Expert Strategies for Working with Anxiety
4 CE/CME Credits Available
How to Help Clients Develop Tolerance for Emotional Distress
4 CE/CME Credits Available