Anger


Road rage, plane rage, even art-gallery rage (when an exhibition is too crowded) are becoming all too familiar terms and are just some of the forms that over-the-top anger can take in modern-day life. Excessive anger can have an obvious trigger or else seem to occur out of the blue; and it can ruin lives, as work and relationships suffer. Excessive anger always results from stress and essential emotional needs not being met. That’s why the pragmatic approach, which focuses on helping people in distress find healthy ways to meet their emotional needs, can really help to make a difference.

 

The ability to get angry is natural. It is part of the ancient ‘fight or flight’ survival mechanism, which evolved to help our long-distant ancestors survive when, faced with attack from wild animals or invading tribes, they either had to stand up for themselves or flee. The pulse races, adrenalin surges, breath gets fast and shallow, blood surges into the muscles of the legs and arms and the body gets flooded with stress hormones, all so that we are ready to take action if we decide to act aggressively to ward off something or someone. Once action has been taken, the feelings subside.

 

But, today, there are far fewer occasions when threat is as real and physical as just described. If we get frustrated or feel angry with the boss, we may have to keep those feelings to ourselves, which leaves them circulating with no obvious way of being discharged. Or we may become more and more wound up by little annoyances that build up over the day until we reach a point when, over something seemingly trifling, we snap. There are many other circumstances that can lead us to have lower tolerance for irritations – for instance, overtiredness, feeling ill or hungry, hormonal changes, chronic pain or addictive cravings.

 

Sometimes people have a tendency to anger because of chronic low self-esteem, which usually stems from abuse or neglect during childhood. As adults, they may never feel good or worthy enough and may tend to lash out, if they perceive themselves as slighted in any way. 

 

More often than is realised, aggression is triggered by fear and sometimes it is a long-forgotten fear. For instance, a man who, as a child, was locked in a tiny dark space under the stairs as a punishment, may lash out, seemingly inexplicably, at his wife when she wants him to check the space under their stairs for damp. This is because an ‘alarm system’ in our brain, called the amygdala, accesses our emotional memories and, on the basis of previous experience, alerts us to anything that may represent a risk. Because the stair cupboard experience was so traumatic and frightening, it stays ‘live’, causing the man to experience terror all over again, usually without knowing why. Sometimes, too, repeated and seemingly inexplicable anger outbursts stem from ‘pattern matching’ to a shocking situation in childhood, when anger was felt but, at the time, suppressed.

 

Fortunately, people can be helped to deal with their anger, whatever its cause. In the pragmatic approach we show people how to calm themselves down quickly (this is essential, as high emotional arousal dramatically interferes with our ability to think clearly, stopping us listening to reason); encourage them to take exercise (doing enjoyable physical activity is a great way to discharge accumulated stress); help them to examine and change their self-talk – having hostile thoughts only harms us; and look at situations from other people’s perspectives as well as their own.

 

Simple, effective techniques can be used to help resolve anger outbursts arising from incidents in the past, so that these cease to occur in the future.

 

Finally, we can help people explore what needs are not being met in their lives, which may be fuelling anger – for instance, a lack of a sense of achievement or status or control or connection with others may cause feelings of inferiority and hostility. Experiencing uncontrollable or excessive anger always means that something is not working well in a person’s life. No one is naturally an ‘angry’ person; they are just, temporarily, overcome by anger and can learn how to cease to be its victim. 

 

Pragmatic Therapy integrates the human givens approach with established evidence-based treatments approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Special thanks to Denise Winn, Editor of the Human Givens Journal, for her assistance with the self-help articles on this website.