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What is Anger

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What is Anger?

Sometimes it seems like anger only makes things worse. So why do humans get angry?

How much control do we really have? Why do reactions vary so widely between people or even day to day for the same person? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of expressing ourselves? Understanding anger in all its forms and intensities, from annoyance to irritation to rage, can make a big difference in our ability to take a step back and process this powerful and complicated emotion.

A complex response

Anger is a normal emotion with a wide range of intensity, from mild irritation and frustration to rage. It is a reaction to a perceived threat to ourselves, our loved ones, our property, our self-image, or some part of our identity. Anger is a warning bell that tells us that something is wrong.

Anger has three components:

  • Physical reactions, usually starting with a rush of adrenaline and responses such as an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and tightening muscles; often known as the “fight or flight” response
  • The cognitive experience of anger, or how we perceive and think about what is making us angry. For example, we might think something that happened to us is wrong, unfair, and undeserved.
  • Behavior, or the way we express our anger. There is a wide range of behavior that signals anger. We may look and sound angry, turn red, raise our voices, clam up, slam doors, storm away, or otherwise signal to others that we are angry. We may also state that we are angry and why, ask for a time-out, request an apology, or ask for something to change.

Everyone experiences anger, and it can be healthy. It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and correct injustices. When we manage anger well, it prompts us to make positive changes in our lives and situations.

Mismanaged anger, on the other hand, is counterproductive and can be unhealthy. When anger is too intense, out of control, misdirected, and overly aggressive, it can lead to poor decision making and problem solving, create problems with relationships and at work, and can even affect your health.

Sources: Anger Research Consortium; American Psychological Association

Where anger comes from

Although anger is a universal human emotion, there are many variables involved in when we get angry, how angry we get, or how long we stay angry after experiencing a threatening, hurtful, or unexpected situation.

Families and culture
Our families and culture teach us how to express anger; we learn what is appropriate and what is not. Some cultures and families are more expressive about anger; others tend to suppress anger.


There are also gender differences in what is considered appropriate. For example, anger is seen as a masculine emotion, and boys and men are encouraged to act it out; girls and women are discouraged from appearing angry. All people, men and women, experience anger; they simply learn to manage it differently. Men tend to be more aggressive and impulsive in response to anger; women tend to talk more about their feelings of anger and stay angry longer. Women are also more likely to suppress anger. Ultimately, this socialization and the stereotypes behind them may not serve us well. Both men and women benefit from communicating their feelings clearly and respectfully and using problem-solving approaches in response to events that make us angry.

Response to situations
Anger can be very situational. If someone steps on your toe, you won’t necessarily get angry in response. It all matters whether your toe is already hurt, if you know the other person, what their intent was when they caused you pain, how they respond to your discomfort, and so on.

Influencing factors

Some of the factors that influence our anger response include:

  • The severity of the threat or harm
  • The relationship we have with someone who makes us angry and our interpretation of their intent
  • Our interpretation of circumstances surrounding the event
  • Our life experience and outlook on life
  • The environment in which we were raised
  • How much stress we’re experiencing
  • Genetics
  • Our overall mental health, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and some personality disorders

Different expressions of anger

When someone insults you, it’s natural to feel angry. The urge to launch a counterattack in a show of power is strong—especially when you experience injustice. In rare instances, an aggressive response can be a lifesaver. In our day-to-day interactions, however, our survival triggers can mean that we behave more strongly than a situation might warrant. That’s when we end up saying or doing things in the heat of the moment that we later regret.

Cultural influence
It’s not uncommon to struggle with anger. Society and culture play a role in the difficulty many of us have in managing this complex emotion. As a group, Americans tend to regard anger as a “bad” emotion, making it less acceptable to express than, say, sadness or anxiety. The result: we don’t always learn how to handle our anger constructively.

Tolerance levels
Some people also have a shorter fuse than others, what psychologists call a “low tolerance for frustration.” People with a low tolerance for frustration feel like they don’t deserve whatever barrier, inconvenience, or annoyance they are facing. They don’t take things in stride as easily as some, and may be particularly infuriated if something doesn’t seem fair, like being singled out for a common or minor mistake.

Family background
Family background can also play a role. If you come from a family that doesn’t communicate well or lacks structure and routine, you may not have had the opportunity to learn how to express anger assertively and constructively.

There are three basic approaches to responding to anger: expression, suppression, and management.

Expressing anger can range from having a calm, reasonable discussion about your feelings to blowing up. It can include everything from swearing when you stub your toe to road rage, yelling, punching a wall, or breaking something. Expressing anger can also be about talking through your feelings, negotiating an apology and change in the relationship, and taking action to change a situation or solve a problem.

Suppression involves holding anger in, letting it go, or changing your focus to something else. Suppression can mean seething and bottling up your emotions, and refusing to talk to someone and ending a relationship. It can lead to a sense of something “eating away” at you inside. It can also be a positive choice to let something go and forget about it, take a time-out, or avoid and ignore the irritation.

Neither extreme -- blowing up or holding it in -- is healthy. Managing anger well is about acknowledging anger as a normal emotion, paying attention to it, and making choices that allow us to improve our situations.

The best tactics for anger management are:

  • Delay, such as counting to 10 to allow the arousal from anger to dissipate (Thomas Jefferson said if you are really angry, count to 100!)
  • Relaxation, such as taking deep breaths or listening to calming music
  • Distraction, such as working on a crossword puzzle or taking a walk to get your mind off the situation causing the anger
  • Doing something incompatible with anger and aggression, such as petting a puppy, kissing a lover, watching a comedy, or helping someone in need

Anger's effects on your well-being and health

According to the Anger Research Consortium, most people feel a little angry a few times a week and as many as a third of us feel angry daily.

Whether reacting to unfairness, standing up for ourselves, or seeking a solution we are less frustrated with, anger facilitates change in our lives. On the flip side, anger’s power over us makes it difficult to control. When our anger gets the better of us and we feel out of control, or seem scary to others (and ourselves), it’s not uncommon to suffer the consequences, including serious impacts on relationships, health, work performance, and overall quality of life.

Crossing the line
When does anger cross the line from being a useful warning system for protecting ourselves to becoming harmful? Anger is harmful when it affects your ability to function well in daily life and hurts your health, relationships, and job.

Anger is harmful when:

  • You get angrier than the situation calls for
  • You can’t cool off quickly, making it hard to move on
  • You feel angry all the time or many times a day
  • You’re not always sure why you’re angry, or with whom
  • You have a ‘hair trigger’ response and find yourself angry with those closest to you for very little reason
  • You turn to physical or verbal aggression
  • You lose jobs, friends, or intimate relationships because of your anger
  • You turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with feeling angry

Physical responses
It’s hard to imagine that a feeling could cause so many physical responses. In addition to the immediate “fight or flight” impact that anger has on our bodies, there are many and serious long-term health impacts that occur when we don’t manage this emotion effectively. Anger at any age is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. And unmanaged anger can lead to many of the physical effects of stress, such as headaches, sleep difficulties, high blood pressure, fatigue, or digestive problems.

Relationship impact
Beyond personal health problems, anger—when poorly managed—continually surfaces in our relationships. We may not realize we are breeding fear, anxiety, and anger in the people we care about most. Not only that, but our own emotional patterns can create a cycle of guilt, and regret leading to more frustration and anger. The impact is both immediate and long term, from success at work and the happiness of your marriage to your child’s ability to succeed in school and make friends. Long-term patterns of anger can affect the way children eventually behave in their own adult relationships and how they parent their own children.

Common misconceptions

It’s bad to feel angry.
While anger usually makes us feel bad, it’s an emotion, and is not in itself bad. It also serves as a warning to let us know when a situation is not right. Anger can also be a strong motivator to speak up and make change.

Venting anger either physically or verbally will let you get it all out and help you be less angry.

Researchers have found that venting is the worst strategy for managing anger. It tends to escalate a situation, and displaying anger in ways that are supposed to “let off steam” don’t help over the long term and may even lead to increased aggression. Even hitting a pillow has been shown to do more harm than good in processing anger and moving forward. On the other hand, pausing to allow some of the physical and emotional intensity to subside can help in choosing the most appropriate response to a situation that makes you angry.

Ignoring anger makes it go away.

Anger is generally a response to an unexpected or uncontrollable situation. Ignoring the situation will not make it go away and may mean that people won’t stand up for themselves when they should. It also can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, lashing out, or stress and health problems.

Anger is not controllable.

It’s true that feelings of anger are natural and beyond our control. However, how we respond is entirely up to us. We learn how to respond to the anger we feel. If we habitually respond quickly and heatedly, it’s a matter of relearning how to stop and think in order to make more rational choices.

People respect you when you are angry, it shows you mean business.

Being louder or angrier in a discussion may put people on edge, but it does nothing to help people see your point of view or earn their admiration. In fact, people will likely become defensive and shut down instead of listening to what you say. Being a skilled communicator, having good ideas, and being able to approach disagreements objectively are all more likely to win the respect of others.

Anger is only a problem when it’s openly expressed.

Expressing anger does not have to be a problem. Anger can be expressed assertively in a very healthy and respectful way. It’s when a reaction is aggressive and beyond what a situation warrants that problems arise. Likewise, unacknowledged anger can also lead to problems with relationships, health, and well-being.

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