Quick to Anger

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 22-year-old girl and I’m a medical student. My problem is that I get angry SO FAST! I don’t know how to control my anger and I feel really bad when I keep my rage inside!

Psychologist’s Reply

Anger is one of those common emotional states that historically brings on behaviors that we can regret and that cause us and those around us discomfort and pain. Many of those I work with who struggle with their anger relate, like you, that it often comes on fast and strong. There are many sources that can bring on anger and rage. For many, common contributors to anger include stress and depression. Being a medical student, I’m sure you can identify with the stress aspect, but depression can often be a source as well. Often we think depression keeps us sad and lethargic, far from anger. However, anger and depression can be closely associated.

With depression often comes two very important collaborating emotions — fear and pain. Anger is often a secondary emotion to a response we are already having. Fear can arouse anger when we are in our fight or flight response to some stressor. Pain can be a bit more complex. Often under our anger are feelings of hurt and emotional pain. This emotional state is quite — well, painful. Sometimes I think to avoid or escape this emotional state we jump up to anger to search for relief. Most of my clients will tell me it is easier to feel angry than feel sad, depressed, and hurt. Unfortunately, a lot of us will take the anger and then turn it back in on ourselves because expressing our anger feels guilty or we are forced to stuff it down because others or environments around us prohibit us from expressing it. Turning our anger back inward creates more depression, more depression leads to more anger, and so on. Dealing directly with our sources of pain negates the need to escape into anger.

Anger coming on so quickly is often the problem. Before we know it, we’ve said or done something that we regret. One of the first things to do to break the anger cycle is a very simple strategy that is actually tough to master. STOP. Stop what you’re doing, stop what you’re thinking, stop everything. Anger is like a shallow but powerful river we are caught up in. We have to be able to stand up and face the current and not allow ourselves to be swept downstream. I’m not saying stop the anger; we don’t just turn it off. I’m saying stop everything else. Stop and just focus on breathing. Breath. Just focus on that to give yourself an opportunity to break free of the current and avoid getting swept over the anger falls ahead. Once you do that, you’ve given yourself a few seconds to take advantage of other ways to cope — beathing, relaxing, leaving, changing your perspective, counting to 10, etc. From studies of physiology and anger, we know that it takes our body about 20 minutes before it really begins to calm down. Take advantage of that time before you come back to the person or situation that has triggered you.

Here are some more tips:

Rant.
Many people feel that they are out of control with their anger. Giving yourself permission to rant is in a way staying in control. Venting how you feel can also let you discharge this uncomfortable emotion.
You don’t have to explode.
Some people have learned that fighting and violence, and extreme reactions to anger, are normal and acceptable. Perhaps they grew up with examples of extreme anger and others who were out of control with their feelings. It’s important to know that these extreme reactions are not the norm.
Explore and find thinking that triggers your anger to help with future anger events.
Often it is our own thoughts that encourage our anger. Look for words like “should” and “must;” “always” and “never” are also common ones. If you can identify thoughts in your head that use those words, you can likely find irrational thoughts that have triggered you. Examples can be “He should have known better!” or “They are always like that to me.”

Overall, if you can teach yourself to stop and manage what you feel under your anger you’re doing well. There are plenty of books and writing on anger management out there. Find the ones that fit and work for you. Many with anger issues can manage it with support and practice. If you still struggle, seeing a therapist can be a more effective way to do so.

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