Anger is a learned response, so it can be unlearned. Or, the way that we express anger can be changed. Most people who are chronically angry are actually expressing a great deal of pain. Sometimes anger isn’t about the thing that is enraging us at the moment – other drivers, being on hold for 45 minutes, crowds, etc. – it’s about an incident from the past when we were mistreated or misunderstood or neglected. Often our response to anger triggers comes from our family of origin. The way we cope – or fail to cope – also comes from early life experiences.
The costs of anger are many:
Depression – It’s long been thought that depression is anger turned inward. It may be hard to say which came first as anger tends to isolate the angry person thus causing him to lose social supports.
Relationships – Chronic anger interferes with intimate relationships and family relationships. People who frequently express anger at home intimidate spouses and children. This leads to a loss of intimacy and a life of loneliness. Hostility erodes social relationships leading to the loss of a support network.
Employment – The angry employee may become isolated at work – even shunned by co-workers. Conflicts with co-workers, clients, and customers lead to disciplinary actions – which triggers more resentment and anger and possibly the loss of employment.
Health – for many years, it has been accepted that “unexpressed anger” led to high blood pressure. The same is true of cardiovascular disease in general. Research indicates that both unexpressed and expressed anger lead to coronary heart disease.
So, how do we treat anger? It became popular in the 90s and still is today, to send people to “Anger Management”. This consists of increasing coping skills, teaching better communication and conflict resolution. All good strategies. A good starting place could be finding out what is underneath the pain/anger. Seeking insight regarding real feelings of hurt that you have been carrying for years is a good first step. We can ask ourselves what we are feeling besides anger. Frequently the answer is anxiety, guilt, shame, a lack of worthiness, or rejection. We can start by accepting the feeling for what it is and just sitting with it. Ask what is really going on – do you feel helpless?
Even though we may feel helpless in general and helpless to change the way we manage our anger, we are not helpless. There are coping skills, communication skills and strategies to help us to conquer the old expressions of anger that have harmed us and harmed our relationships.