Today, someone cut in front of me in a drive-thru line and I got angry. The line was long, and I had already been in it for a while. The person cut in front of me and therefore cut the five people behind me as well. I honked. They did not move. So, I sat in my car feeling angry. Then, I started to wonder why I was angry about it. Was it because I now had to wait even longer? Was it because they violated basic social norms that we learned in kindergarten about lines? Was it because during the coronavirus pandemic everything already sucks, and this person made it suck more?
After honking at them did not work, I briefly ran through a list of things I could do to make the point about how one should never cut in line. Fortunately, the rational part of my brain kicked in and told me all those ideas were terrible, immature and would not only violate social distancing, but general human decency as well. So, reason prevailed. But what happens in our brain when reason does not prevail, and our anger takes over?
What is anger?
Anger is a response to a threat. The threat may be real or perceived. Feeling that we have been wronged or losing our patience are some common reasons that people get angry. However, people also have unique triggers for anger, informed by their upbringing, past experiences and beliefs.
Anger is an important emotion that may motivate us to share our concerns, seek justice or prevent others from causing us or our loved one’s harm. So, there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry; in fact, it makes you human. When anger is felt frequently or intensely it can be uncomfortable. For some, there may be medical problems, substance use issues or mental health concerns underlying the anger.
How anger affects the body
When we become angry, our adrenal glands flood the body with adrenaline and cortisol. Our muscles will tighten and there will be an increase in our heart rate and our blood pressure. We may get hot or flushed. Physiological changes take place in our body when we feel angry. For those that get angry frequently, these changes can have adverse effects on the body including bowel problems, ulcers, hypertension and strokes. Research has even shown that anger is a risk factor for heart disease. So, while occasional anger may be beneficial to us, frequent, intense anger can take a toll on our bodies.
Conversely, some people have difficulty ever expressing anger at all. When this is the case, people “stuff down” their anger, keeping it pent up. This approach does not benefit our mental health or physical health either. Some studies have shown that keeping anger bottled up can worsen chronic pain.
Anger versus aggression
Anger is a feeling. Aggression is a behavior. Anger and aggression are not necessarily synonymous. It is possible, and even healthy, to feel angry and not express aggression. Aggressive behaviors are usually considered intentional behaviors meant to harm or frighten someone. Many of us want to respond with aggression when we are angered, but most of us do not actually. We stop, we think, and we do not react aggressively. Some individuals may stop themselves from reacting aggressively, but they cannot let go of the anger. They may ruminate on it and continue with an angry mood long after the event has ended.
When people do respond with aggression, it can be frightening for everyone involved, even the aggressor. People with anger control difficulties sometimes report feeling out of control and feel shame or embarrassment after the fact.
Five ways to begin controlling your anger
1. Avoidance. When possible, avoid situations that you know will be intensely angering, or allow partners or colleagues to intervene when able.
2. Relaxation. Find something that relaxes you and do it often. Sitting quietly, listening to music, deep breathing—give several things a try if you aren’t sure what will work for you.
3. Cognitive Restructuring. Minimize your all or nothing thinking, and your assumptions about people. For example, “she always does that”, or “he meant to screw me over”.
4. Be assertive. Express anger calmly and without demeaning anyone.
5. Consider what is worth your time and energy; both are limited resources.
When to seek support in managing your anger
If your anger is intense, frequent or accompanied by aggression, getting support may be beneficial. Additionally, if your relationships or job have been adversely affected by your anger, or your substance use has increased, you may want to consider if getting help is right for you. Feeling out of control can be incredibly uncomfortable. Excessive anger or feelings of rage can hold you back from living the life you want. Change is possible.
About the Author: Kimberly May, LPC, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by drug and alcohol use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as gambling, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.