Is anger thwarting your life goals?
Dr Loretta Poerio
Senior Mental Health Adviser, DVA
I want to talk about anger – a much-misunderstood emotion which helps us cope in many ways, but can also be used for less helpful purposes. Anger is useful in providing us the energy to deal with threats, whether physical or psychological. It becomes less helpful when anger becomes the habitual response to a world that is perceived as threatening. This can lead to problematic anger, with adverse impacts on us personally, our relationships, employment and social standing. Being able to regulate – note I did not say control – our emotions is a core requirement for our physical and mental wellbeing.
Emotions have been conceptualised as falling into four basic groups: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger, which are linked to three core experiences: reward (happiness), punishment (sadness), and stress (fear and anger). In this model, fear can explain the flight response; anger the frustration of thwarted goals; joy the sense of achievement; and sadness the experience of loss. Basic emotions evolved to ensure our survival, with fear and anger enabling us to flee for safety or fight to defend ourselves from danger.
Emotions range along a continuum rather than being an on/off phenomenon. The anger continuum ranges from mild annoyance through to intense rage that can lead to physical violence. It is the result of a chain reaction of physiological changes within our body connected to the flight-fight response. Central to this is the amygdala, the part of our brain that scans for, and reacts to, perceived threats in our environment. Importantly, these physiological changes include blocking access to the logical and rational problem-solving parts of the brain. This is the part of the brain that can calm us down when our emotions escalate and we become prone to reacting rather than reflecting. Does this sound familiar?
A number of myths surround our view of anger, one of which is that venting anger is good for us. Research shows that venting can actually escalate feelings of anger and the potential for aggressive behaviour. Suppressing anger is also not recommended: the old pressure cooker analogy comes to mind here.
Being able to take a step back (such as by counting to 10, or going for a walk), reflecting, and then appropriately expressing what is happening for you in a way that engages your higher-order problem-solving skills (pre-frontal cortex) may allow you to bring a different perspective to the situation. Then perhaps you can begin working through the issues that are triggering the strong emotional response.
The thing about anger is that it can be seen as the tip of a very big iceberg, hiding a range of emotions that we may not be comfortable expressing. Anger can hide experiences of fear, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, worry, sadness, and loss, among others. A poor communication style can also contribute to feelings of anger through being misinterpreted and engendering a lack of trust in the world and people around you.
Research in this area has found a strong association in military populations between anger and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as other mental health conditions. An Australian study looking at current and ex-serving military members found significant anger issues present in the population who seek treatment for PTSD. Further, studies of US and Australian veterans have indicated an association between problematic anger and suicidality. There is much more to learn about the role that anger, and especially problematic anger, plays in recovery from a range of mental health conditions.
If you, or those you love, think that anger could be managed better, then the suggestions below may be useful:
The first step is to increase awareness, both of the situations that trigger your anger and your body’s early warning signs (heart pounding, jaw clenching, chest tightening). This will provide information to manage difficult situations in your life more appropriately.
Acknowledging the issue that has triggered your anger to yourself and others. You may do this by writing down what is going on for you. Writing is a great way to engage the logical, problem-solving parts of the brain. It also provides a way to externalise your concerns and so clarify them to yourself.
Learn strategies to manage anger, such as learning to tolerate and accept feelings of discomfort as part of life, relaxation, taking time out, problem-solving, reframing and learning assertiveness skills. For example, learning to visualise a situation that would trigger anger and rehearsing how you could deal with it without becoming angry. Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling service runs a range of courses, including ‘Doing Anger Differently’. It also offers a range of fact sheets. You can contact Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or visit openarms.gov.au to find the full list.
These are the first steps to changing your behaviour. Acknowledging that this is an issue for you is key, as is the motivation to change. If anger is thwarting your ability to meet your valued goals, perhaps now is a good time to change strategies.
- Anger | Australian Psychological Society
- Control anger before it controls you | American Psychological Association
- Factsheet: Dealing with anger and impulsivity | Black Dog Institute
- P Ekman, Emotions revealed: Recognising faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life, Henry Holt & Company Inc, Owl Books, US, 2007
- David Forbes, Amy B. Adler, David Pedlar, Gordon J.G. Asmundson, for the MHRIC across the Five Eyes Nations. Problematic anger in military and veteran populations with and without PTSD: The elephant in the room. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 96 (2023) 102716
- Simeng Gu at al, A Model for Basic Emotions Using Observations of Behavior in Drosophila. Frontiers in Psychology, 24 April 2019, Sec. Emotion Science Volume 10 – 2019