If I were to ask you when was the last time you felt anger, my guess is that it would not take you long to identify a time relatively recently that you’ve felt that emotion. It have been related to some small trigger or could have been a major even that caused your anger, but either way anger is a super common emotion that most people experience pretty frequently as they go through their days. Anger is an emotion that is necessary and healthy to experience and to express, so long as it is expressed in an appropriate way! Theorists have long discussed the purpose of anger from an evolutionary perspective; it is thought that anger is an emotion that was developed as a protective mechanism to help people engage in “fight or flight” mode to either escape a situation or protect themselves from a threat. Now that we live in times that are less focused on surviving and fighting off prey, anger has continued to be a present and necessary emotion because it helps people set boundaries with one another and to help get their needs met in some ways.
But what about when anger is expressed in an extreme and counterproductive way? This is common for lots of people, who have learned early on in their development that the expression of anger either gets their needs/wants met, or helps them feel in control or protected. As a result, these people may use anger as a crutch that seems to alleviate their need to learn healthy emotional expression and coping skills that would have helped them to develop healthy social relationships with others. For some, they developed a pattern of using anger as a primary emotion, meaning that it is one of the first emotions they resort to, even in situations where a full anger response is not expected or necessary. This may mean outbursts, yelling, screaming, aggression (physical or verbal), or violence can occur with the slightest of triggers. Often these behaviors develop as a pattern when someone does not learn how to regulate emotions early in life and may need assistance in learning how to regulate these feelings and behaviors as an older child, teen, or even as an adult!
Mental health professionals often work with people on identifying the ways that their current angry behavior negatively impacts their life and can help them to develop positive coping skills to improve their emotional regulation and anger management skills. Many people never learned how to control their anger in their childhood or adolescence, and anger management therapy or training can help a person to develop the fundamental skills to do so, and to also improve their overall functioning throughout their lives. Below is a list of things to look for in treatment when seeking help in developing healthy patterns to manage anger and angry outbursts.
Anger Management Techniques
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)- CBT is often a technique first used by people who specialize in anger management, because it targets all the parts of an angry outburst: the thoughts that fuel anger, the feelings of anger that erupt from the thoughts, and the behavior that comes as a result of the feelings. CBT is designed to help people think about the way their thoughts can affect how angry they get, and how to train their brain to rethink and deescalate anger as a result.
- Mindfulness/Relaxation- Another technique that is often used to help with anger management is the teaching of mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Anger often derives from ruminating about the past or thinking about the future, fueling angry thoughts about whatever situation a person is dealing with. Mindfulness techniques help a person to stay centered and present in an effort to douse the fire that erupts when we get stuck thinking in the past or present. Relaxation skills such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and other forms of meditation are also key to helping a person physically relax their body so their mind is more inclined to follow suit.
- Communication Skills- People who struggle with managing their anger often experience guilt and discomfort when they have angry outbursts because they say and do things in the heat of the moment that they end up regretting. A mental health professional is skilled in helping a person recognize the negative communication patterns they engage in throughout their life and how that increases the likelihood of them blowing up and lashing out in anger. Working with someone on developing clear communication skills can help to decrease the build-up of anger and resentment that can lead to major angry outbursts later.
How to Find the Right Professional
If you feel like you’re experiencing significant difficulty in managing your anger, it is important to seek out a mental health professional who is specialized and experienced in helping people develop healthy responses to anger. Finding someone who helps people identify problematic behaviors and make healthy changes is the best way to see quick improvements in anger management. Group therapy can be helpful, in addition to individual treatment, because it can normalize that many people struggle with anger management and can help you to find accountability partners to help you stay on track and use the coping skills discussed in treatment. Often anger can also be a symptom of another mental health condition (anxiety or depression, to name a few), so getting a full assessment and diagnosis by a mental health professional is the best way to make sure that you are getting the best treatment for what you are struggling with.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events