Anger is primal, and it’s one of the first emotions small children learn to express. It’s common to see small children throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want, and everyone has seen tiny kids break into physical expressions of anger when they feel particularly affronted.
We never grow out of anger, but we can learn how to manage it better as we get older.
Humans are hardwired to feel anger when they experience a personal affront, if they are hurt or in need, if they witness or experience an injustice, or if they feel a need to protect something. This anger can be incredibly useful. When we express our anger appropriately, we can expose an issue that is bothering us. After the issue is exposed, it can be solved, and the anger can dissipate.
For some people, however, anger may linger long after the original affront has taken place.
When a person struggles with anger, insults or incidents that happened months or even years ago remain fresh, and new issues bring about rapid, intense, overwhelming responses. In other cases, anger remains constant, operating at low-levels, festering in everyday life.
Some people view everything that happens to them as an insult, and they respond to all issues with an overwhelming sense of anger. Others may stay angry or irritable and simply not know why. When anger gets out of hand in these ways, it’s time to seek treatment.
The human brain likes to categorize situations as either good or bad. If a situation is good, the brain can flood the body with feel-good chemicals and prepare the body to be receptive to the wonderful things that are about to occur.
If a situation is bad, the brain may increase the fight-or-flight response and prepare the body for something terrible that may take place. Anger allows the body to make this calculation quite quickly. When a person is insulted, in danger, disregarded, or otherwise abused, anger flows and the body knows something bad has happened or is about to happen.
The pupils dilate, allowing the person to take in more light in order to see during a fight. The pulse races, the reflexes quicken, and the body moves blood from the gut to the extremities, so the person can run or engage in combat. Anger just makes this process quicker.
These situations might also give rise to shame or guilt, as most causes of anger have some sort of aspect of blame to them. If a situation comes about that is totally our own fault, we may feel guilt, shame, or anger at ourselves. If a situation comes about because of the actions of someone else, we often feel anger.
People who are angry might shout or say brash things, or, they may stay tense with quiet anger. They may get quickly angry, or they might get angry later when they think back on what has happened. In either case, people who appropriately physically express their anger tend to calm back down afterward.
They might talk directly to the person who has upset them, they may exercise or engage in physical activity, or they might tell other supportive people about the problem and express their emotions away from the event in a safe place.
People who have depression, anxiety, or another form of mental illness tend to bottle up their emotions, feeding their mental illnesses instead of dealing with the issue, and they suffer as a result. It’s not always bad to express anger. In fact, it can be dangerous not to do so.
People who do not handle anger well tend to express their anger inappropriately. They may become extremely angry at a moment’s notice, and they may express an intense amount of anger over a small infraction.
People with a particular anger problem, known as intermittent explosive disorder, may scream and throw things when they are faced with a small infraction. Someone cuts in line, and someone with an intermittent explosive disorder may throw things or get into fistfights and cause severe injuries.3
Other people with anger problems may feel intense anger all of the time, even when they are not faced with a particular anger-provoking situation.
They may constantly feel as though they are under attack, even when nothing is happening at that moment. They may seem irritable and angry, ready to burst with aggression at any time. Or, they may seem placid and calm on the outside while they stew on the inside with the memories of things that happened long ago.
Mental health can have an impact on anger and angry feelings as well. Some forms of mental illnesses can cause anger. For example, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or even certain anxiety disorders can cause a person to feel intense amounts of anger at times. People who have depression may also express the depression as anger, through sudden angry outbursts or anger at self, or worse, in actions of self-harm.
People with anger struggles are flooded with fight-or-flight hormones most or all of the time, and they may feel serious health consequences as a result.
Anger problems don’t simply appear on their own. Usually, they’re caused by a person’s inability to express anger. Perhaps the person learned to bottle things up when he or she was a child, or perhaps the person is rewarded for staying cool in a crisis, and learns to keep quiet to get that reward.
Since the anger is not expressed, it grows and seethes, until it takes on a life of its own. In other words, some anger disorders are simply learned behaviors that have become entrenched habits. Since the person doesn’t know how to express anger in the right way, anger behaviors are always inappropriate.4
Living with someone who is prone to angry outbursts can be incredibly difficult. The person might be tempted to lash out at any moment over any small infraction, and family members and friends may respond by “walking on eggshells” around the person. Over time, the family may begin to exclude the anger-prone person from activities, in the hopes that this can prevent an outburst. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the best way to deal with unhealthy anger in a family unit.
People who stay angry and allow anger to impact their lives and relationships need to learn how to express their anger. It is important to put safety first when dealing with an angry person, but it is also important to put a plan in place so everyone can feel comfortable in their own home and with their loved ones.
Living with an angry person can be incredibly stressful. In addition, the angry person could engage in a conflict with someone else who also has violent tendencies. Violent tendencies can lead to legal trouble, which means financial and emotional distress for the whole family.
Encouraging a person with an anger disorder to let it out and yell at the man at the front of the line isn’t a great idea when that man is large and has an anger problem of his own. Someone could end up in the hospital, and the other person could end up in jail. The best way to help someone with an anger disorder is to enroll that person in anger management treatment.
Often, however, a person who stays angry will not believe that therapies will help, or he or she may not believe that therapies are appropriate or necessary. By holding an intervention and explaining how the anger disorder is influencing the whole family, loved ones can make the issue clear and help the person get the help needed to leave anger behind.
By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP, Contributing Writer
1 Graham, S., Chandler, C., et. al. Pity, Anger, and Guilt: An Attributional Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 8, Issue 2, pp. 226 – 232. 1982.
2 Riley, W. T., Treiber, F. A., et.al. Anger and hostility in depression. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 1989.
3 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print.
4 Diamond, S. Anger Disorder: What It Is and What We Can Do About It. Psychology Today. 3 Apr 2009.