Managing Anger

Soothing Anger

What do you think of when you think of “anger”? Is anger an emotion that you primarily experience under the surface, or is it an emotion that shows on our faces and in our bodies? Most likely, the image that comes up for you is someone with a mad face and clenched fists. Maybe even a little steam coming out of their ears. Anger is an incredibly outward emotion much of the time.

But anger is often what psychologists call a “secondary” emotion; an emotion that comes up as a result of other, primary emotions. Shame, guilt, sadness, loss—there’s a litany of feelings we can have that may manifest outwardly as anger. Think about the last time you were piping hot angry. What came before that emotion? How did it manifest? Was there another emotion at the root of it?

To be certain, anger is adaptive… to a point. After all, it’s an integral piece of our “fight or flight” response—anger helps hype us up if our instincts choose to stay and fight. Are you imagining a caveman with balled fists, ready to box a T-Rex? Well, now you are. Anyway, anger is an emotion that is helpful to survival, to an extent. But when it becomes the dominant emotion we experience, anger can be incredibly taxing on the body. Because it manifests as a stress response, chronic anger can increase blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke, increase headaches and eye strain, decrease the immune system and metabolism, and even increase your risk of cancer.

And anger is an emotion we may experience more of when we begin to remove alcohol from our lives, because we are suddenly feeling so much after numbing it with alcohol for so long. You may even be feeling anger about the decision to remove alcohol from your life. These are very common reactions, and you are not less than for feeling this way.

So what do we do about anger when it comes up for us? First and foremost, we must attend to it before it puts us at risk for using alcohol again. Anger can be an intense trigger to drink, and when we’re aware of the power it has, we can intervene before it takes control of our higher brain functioning.

One way to address anger is to identify the primary emotion at work. It’s possible that anger is the one and only emotion you’re feeling, but it’s more likely a manifestation of something else. Have you ever heard the term “hangry”? That’s “hungry” and “angry” smashed together: you’re angry because you’re hungry. When we’re able to treat the root cause of the anger, we’re able to move through it more easily.

Consider a young child who has their arms crossed and a scowl on their face. How does it go when you tell them to lighten up, to quit being angry? If they’re anything like my five-year-old, it doesn’t go well. Instead, try understanding why they’re angry in the first place. Did I forget to read them a book like I said I would? Did they get their feelings hurt when their sibling took their toy? When we identify the primary emotion, we can treat the anger instead of putting a bandaid on it.

Next time you feel your emotional temperature rise and that anger flourish, take a pause and see if you can identify the primary emotion at work. You just might be surprised by just what brought up the anger, and you’ll probably be more equipped to handle it. This is where the healing begins.

Benson, K. (November, 2016.) The Anger Iceberg. The Gottman Institute.
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. (2017) How Anger Affects the Brain and Body [Infographic].