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How to Respond to Anger

Many people view anger and emotions that are generally uncomfortable as an undesirable experience and one to be avoided.

I’m of the belief that, no matter how unpleasant, our emotions are an important source of information and should not be ignored. In this blog post, I will discuss the ways in which we might begin to see emotions like anger as a gift rather than something to be shoved down and avoided. The key is knowing how to respond to these emotions in an effective, rather than reactive way. 



Anger

Anger is an emotion, some would argue a secondary emotion, that tells us our boundaries have been crossed or violated in some way. When I say that anger is a secondary emotion, what I mean is that anger is often masking underlying hurt and pain; emotions that feel more vulnerable and often more scary to face. Anger is an emotion of movement; it gets things moving and keeps them from feeling stuck. Oftentimes, because anger appears to be more powerful than sadness, we may see many people in our culture more readily accessing anger than sadness or hurt, for example. 


Anger is also a useful emotion. I would argue that all emotions are incredibly useful and important, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us feel at times. If we did not have anger telling us when our boundaries had been violated or crossed, we might not feel motivated to protect ourselves in ways we need to protect ourselves in order to survive. Therein is the evolutionary advantage to anger. A caveman who lets someone from another clan steal the spoils of his hunt for the day will not be able to feed his family for long. If he does not feel motivated to anger to protect what is his, the consequences could be dire. He may need to be aggressive in order to protect what is his and prevent his family from starving. 


Fortunately, we live in a society where there is very little cause to experience anger and aggression in a way that perpetuates our survival like we needed to in the caveman days. For example, we can often get our basic needs for food and shelter met without having to go to war with a neighboring clan. This is not to undermine the struggles and violence people in poverty face every day in the United States or the white collar crimes that have led the majority of our population to struggle while a very small percentage of people hoard wealth (personally, I would not hesitate to invoke caveman rules of punishment on the CEO of an insurance company). My point is that often, in modern society, using aggression as a response to anger ends up being counterproductive, rather than productive. 


How to Respond to Anger Effectively 

One key to improving mastery over emotions, rather than feeling that emotions have mastered you is to use them effectively. Oftentimes people will either over-react to emotions in a way that may cause harm to themselves or others or they will under-react to emotions in a way that also causes harm to themselves and others. For example, the guy who is always picking fights at the bar with strangers is a very different presentation of “anger issues” than an assistant who repeatedly lets their boss say hurtful and cruel things to them only to return to work the next day with a smile and latte in hand. The truth is, both these caricatures have anger issues; they are both presenting in very different ways. 


The angry guy at the bar and the placating assistant both experience anger, the way they respond to that anger is opposite in nature. The guy at the bar feels that his anger is like a wild bronco he can’t tame. It takes him over and he doesn’t engage in any higher level brain function in order to process and confront that anger in a healthy way. He likely feels, in some ways, powerless to his emotions and urges. The placating assistant, on the other hand, is constantly brushing their anger under the rug, because if they confronted that anger, it might mean that they would have to look for a new job which is incredibly overwhelming and scary. The thought of not having a paycheck literally threatens their survival. 


Fortunately, in both these cases, there is a solution that involves confronting anger in a healthy way. The raging guy at the bar might benefit from taking a moment to process his anger more intentionally. He may notice himself becoming angry with a stranger at the bar and feeling slighted after this person bumped into him without apologizing. Instead of immediately acting on his anger by yelling at this person, he can take a few deep breaths, work to engage in some self-regulating skills which will ultimately soothe his nervous system and diminish the spike in cortisol and other stress hormones that are flooding his system. He can learn, over time, that he has more control than he thought over his body and his ability to respond to his emotions, rather than reacting thoughtlessly to them. Once in a space of regulation, he can deal with the solution in a more pragmatic way. Unconsciously, he may even begin to feel better about himself because most adults like to know they have mastery over their emotional experiences and aren’t a slave to their emotional urges. 


The placating assistant, on the other hand, may need to become more in-touch with their emotions. They have likely had friends and family angry on their behalf when they hear about how this person’s boss is treating them. They usually minimize and brush-off the impact this abusive behavior is having on them. They, ultimately, need support in becoming more in-touch with their emotional experiences and ways they are not being treated fairly. They may need to realize that in the immediate future, while looking for a job seems daunting, the long term consequences of being in close proximity to anyone who is emotionally, physically or otherwise abusive has a significant toll on one’s mental and even physical health. Studies have shown that a person’s longevity can even be impacted by being around someone who is abusive for a prolonged period of time. Whether the assistant faces the truth of their situation or not, at some point, they will experience consequences to the choice to avoid connecting with their anger. 


Once the assistant has connected with their anger, it may be difficult for them to “unsee” the negative ways in which the unfair treatment of them is causing serious problems in their life. Unfortunately, our society normalizes and even glamourizes abusive treatment in work, family and intimate relationships. We all have to undo programming around the ways in which harm and neglect are minimized, downplayed or satirized in order to prevent these behaviors from persisting.


Both solutions in these case examples encourage a response to anger, not a reaction to or avoidance of anger. Step one for many people, may be recognizing ways in which anger can be experienced in the body. Many people may not even know how to recognize anger when it shows up. Here are some ways in which anger is often experienced in the body: 


  • Feeling “hot” or like there is a spike in temperature

  • Tension in the jaw, fists or other parts of the body

  • Racing thoughts 

  • Queasy stomach

  • Difficulty sitting still

  • Psychological dissociation or the mind “going blank”


On a physiological level, anger makes us want to move, to propel forward. When I feel angry, the first thing I usually want to do is go for a walk while I’m processing my emotions so that I can meet that physiological need for movement. For others, lying down and taking deep breaths may be a more effective solution. The goal in either case is to help soothe the nervous system that is responding to this emotional experience by seeking movement and action. It is sometimes difficult to not react to anger when we feel it; it can be such a powerful and “hot” emotion, but I am convinced that every human has the capacity to do so as long as they have a mind that is capable of reason. 

 

Rather than fearing anger, my hope is that people can begin to see anger and any emotion that causes discomfort as a gift or a message that something in their world needs to be addressed. Anger is the smoke signal that tells us something in our lives needs attention and it only gets worse the longer it is avoided. I believe that if people generally felt more confident in how to respond to their anger when it arises, they would not engage in emotional avoidance so often. Interpersonally, it can be difficult to tell someone we love that they made us angry, but this too is a gift that helps protect the relationship from the detrimental effects of years of emotional avoidance and emotional dishonesty. It is important to remember that, for most humans, responding to emotions from a place of emotional regulation, rather than a space of emotional reactivity, is incredibly instrumental in creating a positive outcome. When feeling angry, following these steps can be very helpful: 


  1. Recognize (recognize that you are feeling angry) 

  2. Regulate (regulate your nervous system using a strategy that works for you)

  3. Respond (find a way to respond to the anger, addressing it in a way that will resolve the issue) 


I hope you found this blog post useful in increasing understanding of emotional experiences that can feel challenging. If you find that you are often struggling with recognizing and responding to emotions, therapy can be a helpful way to increase self-understanding and develop strategies for responding to emotions. Feel free to email me at drchelseatwisscounseling@gmail.com if you’d like to schedule an initial appointment. 


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