Luisa Williams, CEO & Founder of My Family Psychologist, joins us to share insights on anger responses and how to recognise when recurring anger may be caused by more persistent underlying problems.
Why am I so angry?
Life is full of twists and turns. Its challenges sometimes force us to change direction or adjust to a new reality which includes dealing with difficult emotions. If we don’t get the job we want, we might feel disappointed. If our relationship ends, we might experience pain and sadness.
Anger is an emotion some of us experience frequently. It can be triggered by being disrespected or treated unfairly. It might be triggered by unexpected situations that interrupt our goals. Or, it can be a response to stress. Imagine you’re late for work and stuck in traffic. This would make anyone at least slightly annoyed at a given moment. When anger is a response to an unpleasant situation, it likely comes and goes quite quickly without causing further issues.
While anger might seem like a straightforward emotion that’s an interpretation of whatever is going on in your life, it often implies there’s something else hidden underneath the surface. If you find yourself dealing with anger on a daily basis, your anger is likely a part of a bigger problem.
Unhealthy responses to anger
While anger is often a natural response, it can easily escalate and turn into an emotional outburst or even aggression. When our anger is triggered by the words or actions of other people, we might struggle to feel understood and take out our frustration on others to avoid being hurt more. Unhealthy anger can take on many forms:
Have you ever given someone a silent treatment because they made you angry instead of trying to talk things through? Have you ever pretended everything was fine when you were upset about something your loved one did? Passive aggression is a strategy that helps us avoid confrontation but only adds to the problem. While we might choose not to fully engage with anger to avoid being vulnerable, suppressed anger doesn’t go away and can turn abusive. When you act in a passive-aggressive way, you place your needs and pride above other people’s feelings. Your refusal to communicate increases frustration on both sides and makes you feel even more hostile.
Just like passive aggression, open aggression is a harmful way of expressing anger but it’s directly aimed at other people. It’s a way of confronting someone while disregarding their feelings. Examples include shouting, throwing things, sarcasm or violence. Releasing anger might feel powerful. It might make you feel in control while serving as protection that shields you from further getting hurt. But in reality, it puts a barrier between you and your loved one and hurts both of you.
Turning anger inwards
Anger is often intense and might be triggered by the way we feel towards ourselves. When someone lets us down, we might blame ourselves for trusting them and having high expectations or believing we were good enough. If anger is mixed with the feeling of guilt and shame it might be used as a form of punishment. For example, you might self-inflict an injury to deal with overwhelming emotions.
If you tend to deal with anger using the strategies above, you may struggle with self-control and expressing emotions in a healthy way. Anger aimed at yourself decreases your self-esteem. Anger aimed at other people shows disregard for their feelings and needs. It might make communication difficult. It might escalate and lead to undesired behaviours. It doesn’t only strain relationships with other people but can cause a range of health issues such as headaches, hypertension, insomnia, anxiety and digestion problems. Additionally, when we feel angry our body releases cortisol (the stress hormone) that increases our heart rate and blood pressure, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response. This causes inflammation and stress.
Anger and mental disorders
Anger can be connected to many other emotions like guilt, shame, anxiety, stress, feeling overwhelmed and irritability. It might be also related to underlying mental health issues some of which are described below.
Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED)
IED is marked by explosive outbursts that occur suddenly and often not in proportion to the situation. These might include verbal aggression, shouting, getting into fights, threatening, or assaulting others or property damage. The episodes are often marked by increased energy, racing thoughts, tingling, tremors, palpitations, or chest tightness. The cause of IED is unknown but the risk factors can be a history of abuse or having another mental disorder that is characterized by disruptive behaviours.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition which symptoms include inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviour. People with ADHD experience emotional dysregulation which makes it difficult for them to manage emotions and keep their intensity appropriate to the situation. The main risk factors for developing ADHD can be genetics, low level of activity in the brain parts responsible for attention and activity or prenatal exposure to alcohol or nicotine.
Personality disorders such as BPD
Borderline Personality Disorder is another disorder associated with emotional dysregulation. Individuals with BPD struggle to manage intense emotions which often seem an inappropriate response to a situation. Explosive anger experienced by someone with BPD is one of the diagnostic criteria and might be accompanied by shouting, aggression and even self-harm. The main cause of the disorder is a history of trauma or exposure to distress as a child.
Conduct Disorder is a pattern of antisocial behaviours in children that might involve property destruction, theft, deceptiveness, animal cruelty and aggression towards people. Children and teenagers with conduct disorder misbehave frequently and find it difficult to manage emotions. The possible causes include defects or injuries to certain brain areas linked to regulating emotions and behaviours, genetics, and a dysfunctional family environment.
If you feel like your anger is impossible to manage and takes over your life, we recommend seeking professional help.
Contact My Family Psychologist for a confidential chat.