Understanding the Nature of Anger

Anger is a powerful, perfectly normal emotion that everyone feels at one time or another. Anger experts say that anger develops more often in the family—in marriage and with children—than in any other human relationship. However, anger in relationships can turn ugly, leading to the physical and emotional abuse of those whom God expects us to love and serve. Family life can be like a tale of two cities-the best of times and the worst of times-where we act out emotionally our best and our worst selves. A second common setting for anger episodes is at work, with colleagues and supervisors. As a consequence, more people are injured-physically or emotionally– by the angry actions of someone they live or work with than by strangers.Anger is probably the most poorly handled emotion in our society. It is the detonator of road rage on the freeway, flare-ups in the sports arena, violence at school and domestic abuse in homes. Anger is a source of many legal problems and many psychophysical diseases such as headaches, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and chronic pain. Science has just recently begun to recognize the contribution anger makes to these and other diseases.

If we are going to curb contention in family life, it’s important to understand and regulate the emotion that fuels it.

Defining Anger
According to anger scholar Charles Spielberger, anger is “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.” It is a basic human emotion triggered by some provocation or one’s thoughts about the event. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Thus, when we begin to sense that we are becoming mildly irritated, we know that the emotion of anger is brewing.

Many things can provoke angry feelings. People (such as a boss reminding you of a deadline for the fourth time this week) or daily events (such as getting dawdling kids off to school; a traffic jam; a canceled flight) might initiate anger. Worrying about personal problems or recalling events that were tragic or upsetting can also set off angry feelings.

Because anger feelings are triggered, it follows that it is a secondary emotion rather than a primary emotion. This means that anger is actually a response to a feeling that preceded it. For example, we may become angry at someone who actually hurt our feelings or offended us. We may develop anger in response to feeling forced, trapped or pressured.

When we become angry it is also a signal that something needs changing. For example, if the primary emotion triggering the anger was feelings of injustice over housekeeping, we can negotiate a fairer, more equitable approach to caring for the house. Social reformers like Martin Luther King and Gandhi aroused their faculties, including their sense and anger over injustices, to bring about the reforms they were seeking.

Three Expressions of Anger

According to Spielberger, anger is typically expressed in three ways, two of them destructive. First, it may be directed outward in aggressive ways. When angry, you might feel like screaming, punching someone, smashing something, or throwing a chair or book across the room. Instead of solving the problem, these destructive expressions of anger usually make the problem worse. A recent study showed that, contrary to popular belief, “venting anger” through physical aggression, such as by punching a bag or a pillow, actually increased aggressive behavior.

A second expression of anger is directed inward, through holding in or suppressing angry feelings. This mode of expression can also be destructive: if anger is not allowed some form of constructive expression, it can increase the risks of high blood pressure, depression, suicide, gastrointestinal problems, and drug or alcohol use. Unexpressed anger can also contribute to other problems, such as passive-aggressive behavior, hostility and cynicism toward others, and increased use of put-downs and criticism.

A third mode of anger expression is the control of anger. Pop psychology once promoted the philosophy of “letting it all hang out.” During its heyday, this approach led many clinicians and others to recommend that people freely communicate their anger. But research has shown that, far from solving problems, unbridled expression of anger makes matters worse. It is wise to control or manage the expression of anger in constructive ways.

Controlling anger doesn’t mean ignoring the emotion. Instead, it involves first calming oneself so the emotion can be used to achieve constructive ends, such as solving problems and restoring emotional connections with others.

For Further Reading:

Anger Kills: 17 Strategies for Controlling the Hostility that Can Harm Your Health
By Redford and Virginia Williams.

Additional Websites

APA On-line