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Anger, Constructive or Destructive?

Anger, Constructive or Destructive?


by Hazel Thompson

Anger is an emotion. Like any emotion it acts as an indicator of what’s happening in our lives. Anger is an alert or signal to something not being right in our lives. If we listen to the signal that anger is telling us we can respond by considering what may need to change, what choices we have and what actions or management strategies we may need to take to ‘right’ or improve our lives.

Anger serves to preserve the integrity of the ‘self’. On a personal level anger can motivate us to address ‘issues’ in our lives, consider if our beliefs or values are being compromised too much, if we are doing more than we comfortably can, if we are being taken advantage of, or if we are stifling our own growth in particular situations. Anger can motivate us to change jobs, get fit, leave unhealthy relationships.

On a society level, all the social Justice / civil rights / human rights movements have been fuelled by anger to gain more equality, fairness and respect, mainly based on peaceful, yet assertive protest.

Anger itself, if kept as an emotion is not problematic, even though it may be uncomfortable to experience. It can be difficult to manage because of its biological base that impacts on our body responses, its association with violence and a lack of knowledge about ‘how to deal with’ angry feelings. It is a powerful emotion that few are skilled to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’ to. In my experience, due to societal stereotyping, anger can be particularly challenging for women who may be defined as ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’, ‘drama queen’ (and many more) if they show anger. For men, there can be more acceptance of anger as ‘powerful’, ‘assertive’ or ‘masculine’.

Anger is an emotion. Use of anger in damaging, destructive or violent ways is an action.

This is the fundamental difference between anger and violence. They can be linked if anger boils over into damaging or violent behaviour. A common perception is that if you get angry enough it will lead to violence. Anger has many levels to it, from lower levels such as irritation and annoyance up to fury and rage but all levels remain an emotion and because of the fundamental difference of anger as emotion, violence as action, even rage doesn’t inevitably lead to violence, although it may be more challenging to manage.
At a biological level, anger begins in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with identifying threats to our well-being. When threats are perceived, the amygdala triggers the process of bodily preparation to self-protect. This is the fight /flight/freeze mechanism and the fight part is recognised as anger. The amygdala is so efficient at detecting threats that it gets us reacting before the prefrontal cortex, the ‘control centre’ or regulator of aggression and the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgement, is able to evaluate the reasonableness of our reaction and its consequences. However, it is possible to develop skills to inhibit and manage anger, to train our minds to temper and diffuse it, or transform it into a more productive power; for the prefrontal cortex to take executive control over the biological impulse.

(Note: This is a ‘general’ article re anger and its basic principles. Other hormones/hormonal imbalances / background experiences can have an influence in individual circumstances).

Anger is inevitably triggered by an unpleasant situation or conflict. We will sense shifts in our body and mind. If we can manage to ‘hold’ these body/mind responses in the moment or remove ourselves from the situation, it is a great step in regaining executive control before our fight/flight mechanism has us over-reacting in ways we may later regret. Very few things need to be sorted out exactly in the moment and it is often wiser to delay a response until we are thinking in a clear rather than reactive way. By allowing a moment of time for our prefrontal cortex to ‘come back on line’ we create space for CHOICE in what we do with the anger. We can then further de-escalate and recover/calm ourselves in ways such as:
  • physical exercise (which releases ‘feel-good’ endorphins)
  • shaking our bodies (imagine literally shaking off the anger)
  • cool shower
  • changing physiology by deep breathing, progressive body relaxation
  • managing own ‘self-talk’
  • cleaning
  • gardening
  • talking to someone who will be useful to help us clarify what’s going on
  • writing
  • painting
  • listening to music…..
It is always useful to have an anger management plan made beforehand as it can be hard to create one at the time of anger when it is fuelling our responses. Anger management plans are individual with different things working for different people.

By taking charge of ourselves we are better able to understand and process the anger.

When we have calmed we may then consider what to do (if anything) about the situation that triggered anger… What was the anger alerting us to? Is there something we need to change in our own life? Is there something to resolve with another person? Do I want to do this? Is this possible? What is the best approach? What did I contribute to the situation? Or does the current anger link into ‘older’ anger that may need some attention to settle?

Conflicts are more easily and respectfully resolved when the individuals involved in it are calm. Significant differences can be overcome with an attitude of open listening, a view to understand the other’s perspective and a willingness to be flexible unless it compromises values that are important to us. At such times even agreeing to disagree can restore a sense of settled-ness and harmony.

(Note: Managing anger is easy to talk and write about. I know from my own experience and from those I work with that the practice of managing anger is not as easy but takes commitment, discipline and practice).

Article posted 5 March 2019

Hazel Thompson article on anger
Hazel Thompson is a professional counsellor with a private practice in Auckland
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