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Managing anger when it feels out of control

Main Line Health November 28, 2016 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

Anger is a normal and healthy emotion. In fact, it’s crucial to our survival.

Anger lets us know when we're in danger and when we need to defend and protect ourselves. It is an emotional component of our instinctual physiological reactions. When we are angry, our heart rate increases, our breathing gets heavier, we sweat more and our fight-or-flight instinct kicks into high gear. Anger is also an internal warning signal that tells us to watch out, to assert ourselves and/or to protect others. It’s important to listen to our this warning signal rather than minimize or dismiss it.

Reactive or impulsive anger, anger control issues, anger management issues or toxic anger are dysfunctional ways of coping with and expressing anger. Dysfunctional anger is best illustrated when the degree of anger felt and exhibited is inappropriate to the circumstances, lasts too long and occurs too often. After all, not every circumstance warrants an angry response. Rarely is it helpful to lash out at every person that causes us to feel anger or every situation that irritates us. Anger becomes toxic and dysfunctional when it works against our best interest more often than not.

With that being said, we should not repress our feelings of anger. It's okay to be angry! No one sails through life without feeling anger. Situations will arise where we will feel we are being unjustly treated or unplanned events will happen that require us to change our expected life course.

However, repressed anger is bad for us. It contributes to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. For these reasons, it is important to work on understanding the "why and what" that causes us to be angry and the "how to" constructively express it.

Below are four tips for tackling anger:

  1. Simplify your life – If you find you are quick to get irritable or angry when you feel frustrated, simplifying your life should help. Evaluate what responsibilities you can give up so that you have less reasons to be angry.
  2. Practice better communication skills – When they are angry, people tend to jump to conclusions before they have all the facts. Learn to listen to other people by slowing down and not responding too quickly when you're angry.
  3. Own your anger – If you cope with anger by repressing it, learn to be able to identify when you feel angry and give yourself permission to feel that way. Individuals who repress anger feel powerless and hopeless. Simply giving yourself permission to feel anger is a big step in learning how to effectively tackle and find solutions to problems. Allowing ourselves to be angry also increases feelings of empowerment and self-esteem.
  4. Acknowledge what can’t be changed – Lingering and chronic anger can seriously affect our health and overall happiness. If the situation causing your anger is beyond your control, try to resolve it by shifting your mindset. We can’t change people or situations, but we can certainly change the way we think about them.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples, and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.