skip to primary navigationskip to content

University Counselling Service

Student & Staff Counselling

Studying at Cambridge

 

Anger

Angry Feeling and Aggressive Behaviour

Everyone has angry feelings from time to time. Anger is a normal adaptive emotion and not in itself a problem; it is the behavioural response to anger that determines whether or not it is dysfunctional or problematic. In fact, in some situations anger empowers us to challenge injustice or to make necessary changes in our lives. However, at other times anger becomes aggression. Anger with aggression is usually a response to perceived threat, unfairness or injustice. Anger turned inwards may also result in a lack of appropriate assertiveness, stress, low mood or self-harm.

In our modern world, very few of us are exposed to the sorts of physical threat that anger and aggression originally evolved to cope with. We don't have to scare off sabre toothed tigers, defend our territory from invaders, protect our exclusive rights to our mate and demonstrate to others in our group that we are still worthy of respect - or do we?

For 'life threatening', substitute 'identity threatening'. In today's society some of the things that make people feel angry and stimulate aggressive thoughts are:

  • Perceived disrespectful treatment: Of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and needs
  • Perceived threat: To the continuation, or success of something to which we are strongly committed, e.g. one's partner, university course, lifestyle
  • Perceived unfairness
  • Perceived provocation or suspicion and hostility: "They" did that on purpose, just to "wind me up". The best form of defence is to attack before they do.

As you can see, apart from the sabre-toothed tiger, everything else is still there.

So when is anger a problem?

For some people anger is not a problem; they get angry, sort it out relatively quickly and then return to equilibrium and their normal state of viewing the world. Anger becomes problematic when it is too easily triggered or too prolonged, and then it impacts on concentration, mood, relationships, self-esteem, work and social life, and can result in aggression or violence to self or others.

For some people, dealing with angry feelings and their possible consequences is more of a problem than the situation that caused them, so they try to suppress anger but inevitably allow it out in covert ways. Because of this, they may be highly stressed inside, which in time may cause health problems and depression, and may lead to unhealthy coping behaviours such as self-harm, alcohol or substance misuse.

For a minority of people, anger is present almost all the time, constantly re-enforced by their negative interpretation of the things that happen to them and always just beneath the surface ready to explode. Because of this, they very easily get themselves into conflict situations, thus continuing to reinforce their negative interpretations. They are highly stressed and over time this increases the risk of physical and mental health problems.

As you can see, it is not having angry feelings that causes problems, but what you do about it and how you express it.

Another quite common situation that can cause angry feelings to become a problem is failure to adapt to a change in our situation, or in someone's attitude towards us.

Change makes us insecure until we have found a way to integrate it comfortably within our frames of reference. As a result of this, our perceptual faculties are working overtime to help us make sense of our changed environment as fast as possible. Examples of this are:

Breaks and endings

  • The end of a relationship, or a change in friendship group.
  • A change of living environment, (e.g. leaving home and coming to university).

Our sense of self identity

In our changed environment, it may not always be easy or possible to match how we see ourselves with the new situation. For instance we may no longer be able to boost our self-esteem by thinking of ourselves as the most important, or the cleverest. We may find that attitudes and ways of presenting ourselves that worked well in our previous environment cut no ice in the new one and we have to find other ways of promoting ourselves and relating to people.

When we enter a frame of reference that we define as threatening to a vital interest, we arouse the primitive centres of the brain that control the release of certain hormones enabling us to produce angry and aggressive responses. These centres do not stop to question the accuracy of a frame of reference. When we are angry, we totally accept the validity of our feelings. Yet we have all had the experience of discovering that our angry feelings of certainty were, in fact, mistaken. Such experiences should lead us to hold emotional feelings of certainty at arms' length and allow the possibility in a disagreement that we may be wrong.

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, some people seem unable to do this and maintain their feelings of anger in one form or another, sometimes for years. By translating them from one situation to another, often the person has not only forgotten when they started to have a problem with anger, but can no longer remember a time when they were not angry.

Others have so many situations that trigger angry feelings that they barely have time to relax before they are off again, frequently blaming others for "making them angry".

What are the long term effects of frequent or chronic anger

Frequent or chronic anger can have serious consequences for our health. In the long-term these include:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • increased cholesterol levels
  • damaged or blocked arteries
  • aggravated heart disease
  • increased susceptibility to infection, due to a depressed immune system
  • longer time to recover from major traumas to the body such as operations or accidents

This happens because of the biological responses that are triggered when we are angry:

  • extra adrenaline is secreted
  • the heart beats more rapidly and blood pressure rises
  • breathing becomes faster
  • the sympathetic nervous system diverts blood from the liver, stomach and intestines to the heart, central nervous system and the muscles
  • cortisol production is increased, depressing the immune system
  • men have an increased supply of testosterone

This leads to internal feelings:

  • of energy and warmth
  • an urge to shout and move quickly and forcefully

Other people observe:

  • rapid breathing and our eyes open widely with dilated pupils
  • our facial colour reddening, but perhaps then turning pale
  • our voice being louder and our speech quicker
  • our movements being quicker and our muscles tense (face contorted, fists clenched, shoulders hunched)

This state of heightened arousal puts great strain on the body. It is useful as a short-term emergency reaction, but not as a long-term personality trait or a lifestyle characteristic.

What shall I do if I think I may have a problem with expressing or controlling anger

If after reading this, you think that you may have a problem either being in touch with, or controlling your anger, there are some things that you can do to help yourself.

  • Remind yourself that the goal is to deal with the angry feelings through confronting the source, to effect a change that will reduce your angry feelings without resulting in destructive consequences for others and yourself.
  • This means developing control over your angry responses and not let them develop into a destructive force.
  • Suppressing and refusing to acknowledge angry feelings does not make them go away. They may not have been made visible, but the long-term health result is the same as if you had been yelling your head off; you can't fool your body. You still need to find a way to express anger appropriately and effectively.
  • If you are at all worried by your anger, or some of the things that have happened because of it, you can speak to your college nurse or GP, or to a counsellor.
  • If your anger responses have become too entrenched for you to work on without help, the Counselling service can help you to develop new ways of coping with and expressing your angry feelings that are less painful.

Two ways of starting this process for yourself

Reframing

This is the term used to describe the placing of a new frame of reference around our thoughts. Instead of developing negative and unhelpful thoughts and scenarios to fuel our anger into unmanageable proportions, try looking for valid alternative explanations, for example:

"My partner is stubborn and doesn't care if I'm upset"
might become:
"This demonstrates my partner's ability to stand up for themselves and not be bullied by me or anyone else. It may mean that I have to do a bit more negotiating, but it also means that they are not going to be swayed by everything that is said to them and that I can rely on the things they say."

"My friend is usually late, if she really liked and respected me she would not keep me hanging around"
might become:
"This is part of her easy-going nature that I like so much. She is like that with everyone and doesn't mean any harm by it."

"This house is a mess and out of all of us who live here, I'm the only one who cares or does anything"
might become:
"Actually, it's not dirty or unhygienic. It's just a house with a relaxed lived-in atmosphere. Maybe if I stop looking for things to get upset about I can relax in it too."

Use the L.I.F.E. model to transform emotionally fraught situations

  • L - listen to the other person attentively and allow them the space to either confirm or modify your frame of reference by feeding back to them what you understand the situation to be.
  • Use "I"statements and tell the person just what it is that is making you angry, without blaming them and escalating the conflict. For example: "I feel angry when you make arrangements without telling me and expect me to go along or get left behind. I feel as if you have no respect for me". Rather than 'You have no respect for me, it's no wonder I get so angry".
  • F - freedom. Allow people the freedom to deal with their problems as they see fit. It's no good getting cross because they can't see the wisdom of your approach; it just makes things worse.
  • E - everyone's a winner! Continue to negotiate until both sides feel they have been heard and have got something out of the situation. Going for one-up-manship or making someone feel a loser is only storing up future trouble.

Using the L.I.F.E. model will give you a framework to help you to address things that make you angry quickly without escalating the situation into a conflict. 'Stewing' in your angry feelings, or 'swallowing' them in order to pretend that it doesn't matter, can lead to the development of depression and feelings of hopelessness, or 'temper explosions' which in extreme cases can be linked to violent outbursts. Once a person is in either of these cycles it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a balanced and peaceful lifestyle.

Anger and depression

As mentioned above, angry outbursts, irritability and developing a short temper can also be symptoms that mask depression. Sometimes when we feel depressed, we feel angry that things are going so wrong for us, angry that we are in so much emotional pain and angry at the seeming hopelessness of our situation. We may have been discouraged from showing the helpless vulnerable sides of ourselves when we were younger, but we still have the urge to express how we feel. Anger often feels a more acceptable way to us of expressing emotional pain than crying, or asking directly for help.

The problem is that angry expressions sometimes drive people away and put them off wanting to try to understand the problems we may be facing. We are then left feeling isolated, which increases our angry feelings and deepens our depression.

If you think that you may be in a cycle like this, it is important to realise that being angry is not a helpful strategy for beating depression and that you need to find someone you can talk to.

Remember: some physical conditions lower the threshold for triggering anger

  • Over-tiredness
  • Hunger
  • Sexual frustration
  • Hormonal changes due to puberty, pre-menstruation, menopause and child birth
  • Physical craving for addictive substances such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or other drugs
  • Intoxication
  • Physical illness
  • Living with chronic or acute pain
  • Dementia

Although people may blame their inability to manage their anger on the above factors, it should be noted that many people with these conditions still succeed in controlling their anger. Every person who is capable of mental concentration and who is motivated to learn can be taught to manage angry and aggressive feelings.

Out of control, you are at the mercy of your anger. You need a new kind of relationship with your emotions; one where you run them, instead of them running you.