Why We Get Angry And What To Do About It

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

In the Disney film Inside Out, Riley — the young protagonist of the film — deals with five emotions: Joy, sadness anger, fear and disgust. In the movie, each emotion actually exists as a living character, and the interplay between Riley and the characters (literally, her emotions) is captivating as well as entertaining.

One striking thing about the characters is how quickly each becomes the dominant force in a scene. As adults, we might relate to this phenomenon — we might marvel at how quickly something prompts us to feel joyful or sad. One emotion in particular that might seem to rise quickly and at times perplexingly, is anger. Often, we know exactly why we’re sad or joyful. But anger can be a much more complex emotion.

In an article for the American Psychological Association (APA), the complexities of anger are explored in depth. To begin, It’s important to simply acknowledge that “Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a specific person (such as a coworker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a canceled flight), or your anger could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems.” And, importantly, “Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings.”

Expressing a response to anger is where the waters begins to get muddied. “The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively,” according to the APA. “Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.” Furthermore, suppressing anger can lead to all kinds of problems, from a tendency to disturbing, passive-aggressive behavior to latent hostility to people and even life itself. The solution, then, is to express anger in a socially and psychologically healthy manner.

A good first step in managing and expressing your anger is by reducing your intensity of feeling. In this sense, anger is like anxiety or fear, and the same techniques for reducing these emotions work for anger. Try breathing deeply and slowly, or repeating a calming word to yourself (“easy… easy”), or visualizing a beautiful and serene setting where you were happy.

Another good goal in anger management involves some self-reflection about how you typically react to an irritating situation. Do you curse, or anticipate the worst — oh, now I’m screwed. To change your behavior and your response to anger, APA suggests “cognitive restructuring,” or simply changing how you think. Instead of cursing or imagining how bad the situation is, acknowledge your anger in a rational way: “it’s frustrating, and it’s understandable that I’m upset about it, but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.”

Managing anger can only go so far, though, in coping with reality. Life is filled with all kinds of problems — difficult people, problems in your professional life that you cannot control, societal ills that may affect you directly. Getting angry about some of these things is inevitable. The folks at APA recognize this and advise that “Not all anger is misplaced, and often it’s a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn’t always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle and face the problem.”

APA dives even deeper into the subject, touching on the role of communication in defusing situations that you may be angry about, using humor to deal with anger and changing your environment to simply get away from the source of your anger. Read more about APA’s advice here.