Anger is natural; how we react to it is learned
Watching my daughter and her friends play has been an interesting experience as a psychologist. Their emotional world is so simple, their anger so primal. If you are frustrated, you scream or throw something. If someone takes your toy, you yank it back or hit them.
Adults believe we handle our emotions much better than children. We also believe that adults help children learn to appropriately deal with their feelings – we are probably kidding ourselves. Emotions, especially anger, are as complicated for most adults as they are simple for children.
Anger is the least understood of our emotions and often causes the most problems. It is the most primitive of our feelings. When angry, our body goes through dramatic changes. Our pulse quickens, our blood pressure may rise, adrenaline enters the bloodstream, and our muscles may tense.
These physical changes, combined with a sense of being displeased, make us feel an urge to react. These changes in our body also cause our thinking to become less clear, often leading us to warped perceptions and therefore to bad conclusions and actions. Hence, when we react when we are angry, we can get ourselves into a lot of trouble.
The feelings underlying anger and aggression are actually fear of being vulnerable or weak. Anger, at least temporarily, makes us feel strong and in control. How we handle anger is usually learned in our families growing up.
Most of us get angry a couple of times a week, but each of us feels it and expresses it differently.
“Both men and women have been poorly served by the gender socialization they have received,” stated Sandra Thomas, Ph.D., a leading anger researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, “Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. That’s why when boys have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. For girls, acting out in that way is not encouraged. Women usually receive the message that anger is unpleasant and unfeminine. Therefore, their anger may be misdirected in passive-aggressive maneuvers such as sulking or destructive gossip.”
These gender differences persist into adulthood, when women are perceived as out of control, overly emotional or even “bitchy” when they express anger, while men are perceived as powerful and decisive when they do. Mental health experts are quick to point out that neither men nor women have it right when it comes to dealing with anger.
How do you know if you have an anger problem? For decades, anger has been one of the main reasons people seek out therapy. I see children, teenagers, adults, couples and families in my office, all there because anger is causing problems in their lives.
In less serious situations, people harshly criticize others, yell, or they are frequently irritable – none of which is particularly pleasant to be around. In more serious situations, people cause fear in others by intimidation, yelling, throwing things, threats, hitting, pushing or other aggression. These types of behaviors over the long haul tend to be “relationship killers.” And both the givers and receivers of ongoing, inappropriate anger tend to develop mental and physical health problems.
There is all kind of help out there for those with anger problems. In our community, there are anger-management groups and classes, individual therapy and support groups.
Whether you have an anger problem or not, most of us could improve how we deal with our anger. Research is beginning to show three important factors in appropriately dealing with anger: improving relaxation, thinking and skill development.
Relaxation techniques means knowing when you are growing agitated and taking steps to calm yourself down, such as using progressive relaxation or deep-breathing. Once relaxed, your thinking becomes clearer.
Experts note that the way we think when we are angry makes situations worse. When angry, we often jump to conclusions, assuming the actions of others are purposeful, deceptive or intentionally unkind. Thinking techniques encourage people to focus on thinking rationally through the problem, rather than reacting emotionally or impulsively.
Finally, skill development is learning what sets you off and trying to prevent it. It is also learning assertive communication, such as stating calmly and directly what is bothering you, in a non-assuming way. When talking with others, focus on solutions to the problem.
While anger is a primal and sometimes unavoidable reaction, how we react to it and how we allow it to affect us is learned. Whether female or male, gaining perspective on what makes you angry and why, learning effective techniques to manage anger, and learning how to minimize the effects of others’ anger on you can greatly improve your quality of life.
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.