There is probably not a person alive who hasn’t experienced anger in one or more situations. It is a natural reaction to someone who has been hurt in some real, or even perceived situation, but it need not control your life or your emotions in a negative way. Michael McDonald, psychosocial rehabilitation specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Behavioral Health Center, answers some relevant questions about anger and how to manage the emotion more effectively.
Q. In what ways is anger a natural and healthy emotion to have?
A. Anger is often the emotion that people would like to pretend they do not feel. However, anger is just like all other emotions in that it is perfectly normal, and experienced by everyone. Anger is, at times, an essential part of the human experience, and can allow us to notice when something is wrong in our lives. Experiencing anger is often an alert that we are feeling threatened, scared, provoked, or upset. Being able to recognize anger can lead to a greater understanding of a presenting problem. Anger can also be used as a great motivator when utilized appropriately in order to achieve goals.
Q. Are there different kinds of anger?
A. While anger is a universal emotion that all people experience, they do so in different ways. We have all heard people describe what can seem like anger to others as, “frustration, hurt, disappointment or annoyances.” People experience — and express — anger in their own unique way. Some may act out towards others, some turn their anger inwards, in any one or more of a series of self-destructive behaviors. Anger itself can be muted or explosive, depending on the situation during which it occurs and the person experiencing it.
Q. At what point can anger become a problem for a person?
A. If anger is allowed to flourish, unchecked, it can lead to various issues in a person’s life. Anger that goes unresolved can often become rage, a seemingly uncontrollable emotion that can be directed at oneself or the outside world, sometimes with disastrous consequences. When anger is allowed to build up in this way, it can cause new problems to occur as a result.
Q. What are the effects of excessive anger — to the individual and those around him?
A. Anger is a stressful emotion to experience and that stress can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, muscle ache/pain, increased blood pressure/heart rate and so on. Emotionally, it can lead to increased anxiety, difficulty in regulating other emotions, and increased issues with interpersonal relationships. Anger can have significant effects on relationships with others, often distancing those around us who may care for us.
Q. What is the best way for a person to handle anger?
A. Anger is not something that we can avoid entirely, as again, it is simply an emotion. It is important that we are comfortable experiencing anger, and there are a number of ways for an individual to help manage the emotion. Some of the more common approaches include relaxation techniques, changing our environment, exercise, improving communication, and applying problem-solving techniques to a stressful situation. Engaging in deep breathing exercises or meditation can also be helpful, as is distancing from an anger-inducing situation in order to gain perspective and make better choices going forward.
Q. At what point is professional help needed?
A. If anger becomes overwhelming, or if you feel it is affecting your life in a negative way, it is important to seek professional help. When anger becomes the only emotion you can easily experience, or if it becomes an automatic response to ambiguous events, it could be a sign that it is time to reach out to a psychotherapist, counselor, or other clinician.
Q. How is anger management handled in a therapeutic setting?
A. It may entail many different things. Often therapists can work with a patient to understand his or her relationship between anger, its causes, and subsequent behavioral reactions. With certain therapeutic techniques, the patient can learn what triggers to avoid, and what outcomes to be mindful of in order to change his or her reaction to a situation that elicits anger. Mental health professionals have expertise in working with patients to teach anger management skills such as progressive muscle relaxation, or to help identify distorted thinking patterns that can increase the potential to react angrily to a specific situation. The goal is to reduce the frequency and intensity of the anger response in those that have difficulty in coping with the emotion in their day-to-day lives.