Dr. DanMental Health and Wellness

The Roots of Anger and Management Techniques

Hi Bears! This month, I wanted to talk to you about anger. Now let me say this right at the beginning because it’s an especially important point: anger is both a normal and oftentimes healthy emotion. As mental health providers, our goal is never to help our clients stop feeling anger altogether, but rather how best to understand and control anger as an emotional experience.

Though there is plenty of nerdy debate among psychologists, most describe emotions as being either primary or secondary. That is, primary emotions are considered “basic emotions,” or ones that all humans experience across culture and time. These primary emotions can range from fear, trust, joy, and sadness. Anger, however, is often considered a secondary emotion, or an emotion that is fueled or driven by one of the primary emotions. This means that when we experience anger, the origin of it can vary significantly. We can experience anger that’s driven by fear, such as when we may fear for our physical safety, or perhaps even out of sadness, as chronic anger and irritability have demonstrated some links to depression.

The point is, anger serves a lot of functions and can originate from a lot of different places psychologically. If you feel you have issues surrounding your anger and irritability, a helpful first step can be trying to determine the sources of your anger — either introspectively or with a therapist. Chronic or problematic anger is also common among those with adverse experiences in childhood, experiences of trauma, or alongside several other mental health conditions. Given that so many queer people were raised in unwelcoming and even hostile home environments due to their identity, it’s understandable that many queer folks may struggle with anger in adulthood.

When I talk to clients about anger, I often describe it as a sword and a shield. Anger, like a shield, can be protective. If you felt threatened by someone, you may ball up your fists as if you were ready to hit something, or you may yell and scream to make yourself seem more threatening and intimidating. And much like a sword, anger can be wielded to harm others and be weaponized. For example, maybe we don’t often feel “heard” by our partner or others around us, and we feel like we have to yell or be “loud” so they’ll finally listen to what we have to say. Obviously, these are two contrasting situations, and anger is being fueled by different emotions in each of them. If you’re worried or are thinking about how your own anger manifests itself, paying attention to the contexts where it arises is paramount.

Tips from Dr. Dan:

Punching or physically hitting an inanimate object to “release” anger (e.g,. punching a pillow when you’re angry) is something I would strongly advise against. It will only condition you to immediately resort to violence as a first option when anger arises – which can obviously turn into much larger problems. Diaphragmatic breathing is a lot more effective, I promise!

In my experience as a psychologist, people vary a lot when it comes to how they think about their own anger. Some are persistently worried about demonstrating anger and want to avoid expressing it at all costs. Others may recognize that they have a “short fuse,” but may chalk this up to just being a part of their personality rather than being representative of a deeper issue. And further still, many display a number of problematic angry behaviors that they do not see as a concern and are almost protective of and resistant to change. If you’re wondering if you or someone you know may have issues with their irritability and anger, the context is key. Does the anger seem commiserate for the situation? Is there significant guilt or regret after that anger has been expressed? Does the anger seem incredibly persistent, as if it were often dominating every other emotion? Does the anger frequently harm relationships? Some of these may be signs that this anger may need to be addressed more conscientiously or even professionally.

There are a lot of different articles, books, blog posts, and other resources devoted to anger management specifically. There are many different “tools” for managing anger, and fortunately many are relatively simple to understand and practice. The key is trying out many of these different tools and figuring out which ones work most effectively for you. Taking a brief “time out” to step away from conflict and let anger dissipate is effective for some people, but not everyone, and there are certainly times when “stepping away” is not practical or not possible, for example. The more effective tools you have in your psychological “toolbox,” the more options you’ll have for when anger arises or when it builds to an unhealthy or distressing amount. A helpful place to start might be on Psychology Today, as there are plenty of articles written about anger from qualified psychologists, and it’s a handy resource for finding mental health providers in your area.

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Daniel Deason

Dr. Daniel Deason is a licensed and practicing psychologist, presently working with military veterans. He has worked in a variety of clinical settings, often in roles working with LGBTQ+ identifying clients. In his free time, he enjoys video games, obscure documentaries, and sports. He currently resides in Chicago.