The Problem of Anger

Anger seems to be a pervasive emotion. Doctors meet up with angry patients regularly. Pastors and counsellors encounter angry people trying to deal with personal problems or problems in the family and at work. Parents and teachers see children who seem angry at their siblings, angry at the system, angry at their parents, or angry for no particular reason. Yet, the problem of anger often goes unaddressed, and it seldom just goes away.

Is Anger Harmful?

The answer: Not all the time. In fact, anger has its positive aspects. Consider the following three points: (1) The capacity to feel anger is natural; it is built into our bodies and is important for moderating our physical and emotional levels or for us to "fight" with an elevated level of energy; (2) Anger is a signal that something is wrong. Like pain, anger signals a need for correction. Long-term suppression of these signals may be emotionally and socially harmful. Anger may be the last emotion to resist numbness and despair, and is thus a survival mechanism, a last ditch attempt to make good; (3) Anger warns others to be careful. Anger serves as the "relationship cue" that helps to indicate tension and even danger. Getting angry when expressing grief is a typical example of such "relationship cue" anger.

Being Angry All The Time

Yet there is a serious down side to anger. First, anger can open a gateway to a spiral of despair. Getting angry on a frequent basis increases our sensitivity to things that make us angry (Step 1). Accompanying increased sensitivity is a reduced ability to manage anger (Step 2), followed by an increase in the intensity of vented anger (Step 3). The usual relief that follows anger is reduced with each incident of anger (Step 4), leading to a greater sensitivity to situations of anger (Step 1).

Second, chronic anger chokes out other feelings and becomes a solution for most problems. If there is an awareness of chronic anger, then the person goes into a guilt-binge cycle, that is, unsuccessfully suppressing anger because of guilt feelings, then getting intensely angry without reserve, and then returning to anger suppression. This cycle prevents the person from learning other ways to express feelings.

And third, the chronically angry person nurtures a social and emotional environment that promotes anger. Blame, vengeance, unkindness, sarcasm, cynicism, and a critical spirit pervade the most meaningful social exchanges, while withdrawal, depression and loneliness characterizes non-social periods. Physical aggression against self or others then becomes a constant threat.

Why Are You Angry?

It is often difficult to explain a feeling as intense as anger. However, there are some specific antecedents of anger that are well documented.

(1) Substance Abuse. Alcohol intoxication and withdrawal, withdrawal from tranquilizers and barbiturates, and use of cocaine, marijuana, anabolic steroids, PCP (Phencyclidine), and amphetamines all produce degrees of irritability, anger, hostility and sometimes aggression.

(2) Depression. A characteristic sign of depression (and burnout) is a general mood of irritability, and frustration that sometimes expresses itself as self-blame, joylessness and despair.

(3) Anxiety. Like depression, anxiety also accompanies irritability and anger responses. The high levels of activity may translate into violent, aggressive expression and lowered tolerance of others.

(4) A history of abuse. Abusive backgrounds often produce angry people. Even children who come from physically or emotionally abusive families tend to exhibit a great deal of anger, often accompanied by aggression.

(5) Grief. Anger is a common response when dealing with an intense loss. Such losses may come in numerous forms: death, divorce, marital separation, breakdown of the family, financial failure, failure to achieve a significant goal, embarrassment (loss of "face"), and loss of health (especially terminal illness).

An Anger Kept

The 19th century poet William Blake wrote with great insight: "I was angry with my friend; I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe; I told it not, my wrath did grow." We examined earlier that anger that is vented may not entirely constitute the answer to anger resolution, since it may merely increase our sensitivity to the situations that make us angry. Yet, keeping anger in may not be the answer either. In fact, angering inwards merely increases emotional strain to a breaking point.

Consider the following expressions of angering inward:

(1) Bitterness. Bitterness is often defined as "anger that is retained", and has two general effects. First, it spreads anger around to those in close association with the angry person; and second, it increases the number of issues over which the person becomes angry.

(2) Hatred. Hatred may be defined as "anger that is hardened". The anger may express itself through seeming coolness, and even activity that appears very directed. Yet, both the apathy and activity generated by hatred often constitute some destructive intent.

Angering No More

With the stack seemingly loaded against the one who angers, it would not be inappropriate to ask, "Can I really cease angering?" Fortunately, there is a hopeful answer to the problem.

First, figure out the source of your anger. You may require a psychologist or a qualified counsellor to help you identify the sources, since some of these sources may not be immediately evident. They may range from a physiological root to an emotional one; some problems may reside in the past, and others are factors that are current and easily observable.

Second, stop anger where it begins. Learn to express anger by describing your feelings and the situation or behaviour that made you angry when or shortly after the situation occurs. Do not lapse into making statements about attitude, character or intent. For example, your spouse forgets to pay the VISA bill for the third consecutive month. Express your anger appropriately: "This is the third time you forgot to pay the VISA bill (the behaviour). I get really frustrated when you do this (your feelings)." Here is an inappropriate expression of anger: "I knew it! I feel you're irresponsible and careless (character assumption). You just don't listen to what I say, do you (attitude assumption)? You're just doing this to hurt me (intent assumption)." Notice that the words "I feel" in the second example do not really serve the function of expressing feelings.

Third, be willing to release your anger. Hanging on to anger can only exacerbate its effects on you and those you love. Often, anger destroys the angry person and affects a good number of innocent victims before it injures its intended target. Hence, letting go of anger does not mean that you are letting the offender go free; it simply means that you are granting yourself liberty from anger's clutches.

Seeking Help

Chronic anger is often an indicator that help is required. Since the antecedents of anger are often multifaceted, a network of mental and medical health professionals would usually be needed in order for all the possible factors leading to chronic anger to be treated. Allow a counsellor or your family physician to help you set up that network for you through their systems of referral.

Anger management programs must be selected carefully on the recommendation of a psychologist, a qualified counsellor or a physician knowledgeable in the field of anger treatment. While many anger management programs have numerous worthwhile qualities, some programs may not serve to address the issues at the core of an individual's chronic anger.

Above all, be aware that chronic anger is not a problem simply to be ignored. Seek help.

"Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity." (Ephesians 4:26, 27. The NASV Bible)

Author: T. Quek

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    Copyright © 2002 Timothy Quek, Ph.D.