Anger management: Your questions answered

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Anger management: Your questions answered

Anger itself isn't a problem — it's how you handle it. Consider the nature of anger, as well as how to manage anger and what to do when you're confronted by someone whose anger is out of control.

What is anger?

Anger is a natural response to perceived threats. It's a warning bell that tells you when something is wrong. Anger causes your body to release adrenaline — the fight-or-flight hormone — which can increase muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. Anger might trigger or encompass other emotions, such as sadness, disappointment or frustration. Anger becomes a problem only when you don't manage it in a healthy way.

So it's not 'bad' to feel angry?

Being angry isn't always a bad or negative thing. Being angry can motivate people to listen to your concerns. It can prevent others from walking all over you. It can motivate you to get involved with causes that you care about. The key is managing your anger in a healthy way.

What causes people to get angry?

You might have many things to feel threatened about — from financial crises and peer pressure to drug addiction and war — and some people respond in a negative way. Still, most people don't walk around feeling mad all the time. When someone explodes with anger, there's usually a triggering event — such as a disagreement at work or being stuck in traffic — that brings a mix of simmering emotions to the boiling point.

Your personal history feeds your reactions to anger as well. That's why some people react so angrily to certain situations, such as losing a parking space, while others take it in stride. For example, if you were taught that being angry is a negative thing, you might not know how to express anger appropriately — so your frustrations simmer and make you miserable, or build up until you explode in an angry outburst. In other cases, changes in brain chemistry or underlying medical conditions can trigger angry outbursts.

What's the best way to handle anger?

When you're angry, you can choose to express or suppress the emotion. Here's the difference:

  • Expression. This is the act of conveying your anger. Expression ranges from a reasonable, rational discussion to a violent outburst.
  • Suppression. This is an attempt to hold in or ignore your anger. It also includes passive-aggressive responses — in which you don't express your anger constructively but instead scheme to retaliate.

Ideally, you'll choose constructive expression — stating your concerns and needs clearly and directly, without hurting others or trying to control them.

Can anger harm your health?

Some research suggests that inappropriately expressing anger — such as keeping anger pent up, seething with rage or having violent outbursts — can be harmful to your health. Such responses might aggravate chronic pain or lead to sleep difficulties or digestive problems. There's even some evidence that stress and hostility related to anger can lead to heart disease and heart attack.

When is professional help needed?

Learning to control anger is a challenge for everyone at times. Consider seeking help for anger issues if your anger seems out of control, causes you to do things you regret, hurts those around you or is taking a toll on your personal relationships. You might explore local anger management classes or anger management counseling. With professional help, you can:

  • Learn what anger is
  • Identify what triggers your anger
  • Recognize signs that you're becoming angry
  • Learn to respond to frustration and anger in a controlled, healthy way
  • Explore underlying feelings, such as sadness or depression

Anger management classes and counseling can be done individually, with your partner or other family members, or in a group. Request a referral from your doctor to a counselor specializing in anger management, or ask family and friends for recommendations. Your health insurer, employee assistance program (EAP), clergy, or state or local agencies also may offer recommendations.

What can you do if you're confronted by someone whose anger is out of control?

Usually, the most rational thing to do is to walk away. If you stay, the situation may escalate into violence. If leaving the situation is difficult or impossible, take reasonable precautions to protect yourself. Don't engage the other person in a manner that's likely to increase the angry behavior.

Last Updated: 2011-06-24
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