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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Shaw

Learn to respond to anger in a healthier way!

Anger has many negative connotations, but it’s not always a negative emotion. Believe it or not, there are times when anger is beneficial to our mental and emotional health.

Anger is an emotion just like happiness or sadness. It’s a way to communicate to ourselves and with others that something is bothering us. Sometimes it’s a useful signal, alerting us to something or someone that is dangerous. Anger can give us a sense of purpose or control over a particular situation and it can also relieve tension. It some instances it might energise us or motivate us to make a change or take a stance. What’s important is the distinction between anger and aggression. Anger can, but doesn't always, lead to aggression or violence. So while we can recognise anger as a legitimate emotion, aggression is where the problems really start.

What happens in our brain and body when we become angry - what physiological process occurs?

The physiological process is really something everyone can recognise. When we get angry, our adrenaline and heart rate increase, which leads us to experience our hands trembling, sweating etc. Some people grind their teeth, others clench their fists.

Anger triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Other emotions that trigger this response include fear, excitement and anxiety. The adrenal glands flood the body with the stress hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises and the skin perspires. The mind is sharpened and focused.

The Cerebral Cortex is the thinking part of the brain where logic and judgment reside. You can think of the Cortex as the strategy centre of the brain. The emotional centre of the brain is the Limbic system. It is considered to be more primitive than the Cortex. When someone is experiencing and expressing anger, he or she is not using the thinking (Cortex) part of the brain, but primarily, the more reactionary (Limbic) centre of the brain.

Why do some people anger more quickly than others and more often?

There’s a variety of reasons why this might happen. Biological, environmental and social factors all combine to affect a person’s experience of anger. Some people are better at recognising or identifying situations that make them angry and so are better equipped to handle it. Everyone is different and has a different experience in life which might lend them to feeling anger easier than other people.

As with most behaviours, anger can become a learned habit over time, and as a result, anger can become an individual’s most natural or immediate response to situations.

Anger can serve as an immediate solution to gain control over a situation or protect against a person’s vulnerabilities – in the short term it can work, but its impact in the long term is often far from helpful or healthy. However, as anger is a learned behaviour, it means we can unlearn it and develop different ways to think about (and act on) our anger.

What are the differences between male and female anger in terms of intensity of anger triggers and how that anger manifests?

There is a large misconception that only men show anger and aggression. Gender socialisation labels men and women differently when it comes to anger. Some examples include; women are seen to be the peacemakers or nurturers and aren't necessarily expected to express anger in the same way men do. Men often express anger as a way to gain or assert control and express frustrations. Women may tend to withdraw rather than confront. But these are all stereotypes; every person’s experience and history is different and the emotion affects both genders equally.

How can I reduce my anger and angry responses?

The most important tip I give my clients is the most simple, but one many of us forget! Breathe. Take a moment to take in a couple of deep, deep breaths. We have found that this is the most effective method for managing anger.

Learn to positively disengage. If you find yourself in a heated situation with someone, and you can feel yourself getting angry, say the following ‘I am feeling angry/upset/frustrated but I would like to continue this conversation, can we meet back in 10 minutes?’ In that time, go for a walk and clear your head. This is a particularly good strategy with a partner as it shows maturity and also a willingness to work things out.

Learn to identify situations that make you angry (such as road rage) and devise a plan on how to deal when that situation arises, so you are better prepared and less likely to ‘fly off the handle’ and potentially do or say something you might regret. If you find it difficult to realise what makes you angry, keep a diary for a week and notice what occurs when you get angry.

However if you find that your anger is really affecting you and those around you, you might like to seek help from one of our psychologists. You may also find benefit in attending a local mindfulness training course like those offered by our friends at the Melbourne Meditation Centre.

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