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Anger Management

This is part of a series called No Bad Feelings, all about understanding, allowing and coping with difficult emotions. You might want to start with the first blog post which introduces the concept.

I'm starting these deeper dives into specific emotions with anger, in response to a poll on my Instagram stories about which emotions people struggle with the most. I hope to get to all of them in time, but let's start by tackling this fiery feeling.

Before I say anything more, take notice of what is happening in you body and in your mind as you read the word anger. What does being angry mean to you? Is there a difference when you consider your own anger versus other people's anger? Try to be curious about your answers and simply notice your responses. There's no right or wrong.

If your reaction when thinking of anger is negative, you're not alone, hence this blog post.

Why we dislike anger

It's common for anger to be labelled as a negative emotion; it's understandable that we might think that because anger can lead to negative and damaging behaviour. So it's the actions - usually the reactions - that are the problem, not the emotion itself. If you've witnessed or experienced violence, aggression or damaging impulsive behaviour as the result of someone's anger (or your own), you'd naturally make the assumption that anger is bad. However, it is very possible to feel angry and then choose if we act on it and if so how we do that in a way that is healthy and appropriate to the situation.

What is the purpose of anger?

Anger tends to occur when we experience, witness or hear about harm. Anger tells us this is wrong, and activates us to do something about it. If we think of it this way, we can see that without it we would be too passive or uncaring in situations where pain is inflicted. This is a healthy response so long as we express our anger in non harmful ways.

Another function of anger is to mask or distract from other emotions. This often happens unconsciously and is common when the original feeling is more painful or carries some social stigma, such as showing vulnerability.

Pain, in fact, is usually the trigger for anger - this is one of the reasons that anger is sometimes called a secondary emotion, because it is in response to pain. Just pain on it's own doesn't cause the anger, how we think about or interpret the pain is what causes the anger.

"When we deny ourselves the right to be angry, we deny our pain" - Brené Brown in Braving The Wilderness

Example 1: someone runs over your foot with their trolley in the supermarket and doesn't apologise. Your toe is hurting. Your first feeling is of pain, but then you think "that person is so rude!" and now you feel angry.

Example 2: you are late for an important meeting at work because the traffic was bad. You feel stupid for not setting off earlier and worry you'll look unprofessional. This feeling is really uncomfortable so now you're angry with yourself for feeling this way and creating this unpleasant situation.

Example 3: you're waiting for your date to arrive but they don't turn up. You feel rejected, despite not knowing the reason for the no show. Rejection - perceived or real - is very painful and affects your self worth so instead of feeling that you get angry at your date for being so insensitive and assume they are an awful person.

Pause and reflect: when did you last feel angry? What caused it? What other feelings were present?

What happens to us when we feel angry?

Anger is part of the stress response - the body becomes mobilised ready for action. This means increased heart rate, rapid breathing, higher body temperature (literally feeling fiery!), release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Circulation is diverted away from the gut to the muscles. These are all sensations to look out for to help you identify anger in the body.

As a short term response this is OK and can even be helpful. But you don't want to have this experience for long or too often as it can be damaging to your health.

How to cope with anger

1. Work on noticing when you are getting angry and do something about it before it gets too overwhelming. You could use the image of a thermometer to help you check in with your anger levels regularly.

2. Allow the feeling to be present. Know that feeing angry is OK and not the same as aggressive behaviour. You have a choice about what you do with this feeling.

3. Express your anger safely:

  • Ask a loved one if they're OK to listen to you rant for a few minutes

  • Write out your feelings

  • Cry

  • Do some upbeat exercise - run, dance, go to a boxing class etc

  • Punch a pillow

  • Scream (if you're worried about causing alarm do this on your own or into a pillow)

  • Consider future action e.g. putting a boundary in place, joining a peaceful protest, raising awareness of a cause, make a formal complaint etc

4. Get curious about your anger - what caused it? Was it masking other emotions? What is is protecting you/others from?

5. Practice calming activities regularly such as meditation, positive social interaction and spending time in nature.

6. If there is a deeper cause for your anger take steps towards dealing with that - you may need to make some changes in your life and get support to help you.

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