Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy

Anger is a subject that everybody understands. We all experience it from time to time. But nevertheless, most people find it an uncomfortable emotion, and many people fear it, believing that anger is always harmful.
Actually, anger does not need to be hurtful—in fact, it is but one of the various ways that we internally become alerted to something in our lives that needs to be dealt with. The reason many people are ill at ease over the possibility of experiencing their own or someone else’s anger is that very often in their past they have experienced anger as harsh, punishing, blaming or attacking. Sadly, that is the way a lot of people use their anger, and do not realize that such an intense expression is rarely warranted or that there are more effective ways to handle angry feelings.

Anger is a bodily sensation—our bodies tighten and contract, and sometimes we find our stomach or teeth clenching. It is also a feeling.  Anger is accompanied by a situation (outwardly or an inner scenario)—either current, anticipated or remembered. It is how we are currently viewing a circumstance that is triggering the experience of anger. In the clutch of the feelings, it can be very hard to remember that our way of looking at something may not be the only way of seeing it, because intense emotion makes that sort of reasoning very difficult.

The way we express our anger is largely a matter of habit, much of it learned by way of our interactions with others. We grew up watching the grownups around us get angry (or suppress it), we went to school with other kids who had ways of expressing their anger that we took in, and in the expression of our own anger over our lifetime, we have inadvertently had some forms of anger expression reinforced more than others (depending upon the responses of those around us). Some people learned to yell and shout, others learned to hit, while yet others learned to stuff it inside and feel miserable in private.

As adults, most people tend to handle anger in the ways they have learned over their lifetimes. Assuming that people are born with different temperaments—some more calm, others more easily aroused, the style of one’s handling of anger is still largely acquired habit. And that is good news, because with some work, people can learn to convert ineffective or explosive anger into something more helpful and productive.  Learning that anger can be a useful signal to change something, and learning to find ways to communicate that need to others in a manner that will not threaten them, or leave them feeling defensive, is a skill that can be acquired.

Now it must be noted that there are some conditions under which anger is made worse—such as drinking or using drugs. Some kinds of depression lead to more irritability, and long-standing patterns of explosive anger exchanges between people tend to more easily break out and escalate. People who feel trapped, misunderstood or defensive sometimes use anger to manage the underlying feelings. Anger can also be used as a form of power or coercion—something often seen in domestic abuse situations.

Most anger, though, is the garden variety—our everyday frustrations and obstacles. If we are using our anger wisely, it can be helpful to guide us through conflicts and situations that seem to block our way to things. However, anyone who experiences either unremitting anger, chronic anger, helpless/futile anger, or explosive and sometimes violent forms of anger, needs to have help in learning better ways to handle situations. Anger is something that, when used cautiously, helps situations improve. But when it is ineffectual or even hurtful to one’s self or others, it is putting people at risk physically, emotionally, and in relationships.

Psychotherapy is a good place to work on anger issues. Here you can explore what factors trigger the anger, and learn better methods of expression for a more helpful way of dealing with life stresses. Sometimes individual therapy is the most appropriate way to learn improved anger skills, but at other times, couple or family therapy is more effective. If you feel you (or someone you are close to) has an anger problem, having an evaluation for treatment would be recommended.

Copyright Kathi Whitten 2009