View from Red (1937) by Paul Klee. Public Domain
Anger is a fuel that’s dangerous when out of control. But managed well, it can energise you to identify and confront problems
by Ryan Martin
View from Red (1937) by Paul Klee. Public Domain
is a professor of psychology and an associate dean for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He hosts the popular psychology podcast Psychology and Stuff and is the author of Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change (2021).
Edited by Lucy Foulkes
When I tell people that I research and write about anger, they routinely say: ‘I don’t get angry.’ They explain that they never yell, scream, hit or behave in otherwise hostile ways towards others. But what they actually mean is that they don’t get aggressive. Once we talk it through, they realise that they actually get angry pretty often (most people do, several times a week to several times a day).
Anger is an emotion, characterised by an intense feeling of displeasure. It ranges from the frustration you might feel when you can’t find your car keys to the intense rage you feel when you or someone you care about is treated terribly. Like any emotion, it includes a physiological response (including increased heart rate and muscle tension), typical thoughts (such as blaming others or wanting revenge), and predictable behaviour (such as a desire to lash out either verbally or physically). Importantly, even though there is often a desire to act in this way, most people don’t. They might feel an urge to yell or scream but instead they might pout, cry, ruminate, breathe deeply or embrace some other strategy to express anger in a nonviolent way. This is why people might not realise how often they feel angry. Individuals express their sadness in very different ways; the same is true of anger.
People often attribute their anger directly to external events: ‘I got mad because of the traffic.’ ‘When my boss undermined me, it made me so mad.’ In fact, a better explanation is that anger emerges from three interacting factors: a provocation, the person’s interpretation of the provocation, and their mood at the time.
The provocation is the trigger. It’s what happened right before you got angry, the thing that ‘made’ you mad. Maybe you were cut off in traffic, insulted by a coworker, or had your wifi drop out while you were in the middle of working. Some situations are particularly likely to provoke anger: ones in which your goals are blocked or something slows you down – ie, things that make you feel frustrated – or situations where you experience unfairness or injustice.
But before you actually get angry, you interpret that provocation. You decide what it means to you, and whether or not you can cope with it. Imagine that you’re insulted by a coworker during a meeting. You might interpret that what he said was unfair and unreasonable, and feel yourself starting to get angry. At this point, you decide if you can cope; essentially, you decide how much it matters that he insulted you. If you think something like: ‘No one listens to this person anyway so it’s no big deal,’ you will get less angry than if you think something like: ‘This is terrible. My boss was in that meeting and now she thinks I’m an idiot.’
These thoughts we have when provoked matter a great deal. When you catastrophise (ie, blow things out of proportion), overgeneralise (ie, take a small thing and make it part of a larger pattern of events), or label people in highly inflammatory ways, you become angrier than you otherwise would. Imagine, for instance, how angry you might feel if, after getting held up at a red light on your way to work, you say to yourself: ‘This is going to ruin my entire day’ (catastrophising); ‘This always happens to me’ (overgeneralising); or ‘Whoever timed these lights is a complete idiot’ (inflammatory labelling).
These thoughts, though, are more common when we’re in particular moods. This is the third piece of the ‘why we get mad’ formula. The mood we’re in when the provocation strikes is known as ‘the pre-anger state’ and when we’re tired, stressed, hungry, already angry or in some other negative state, the provocation makes us angrier than it otherwise would. This is one of the reasons why something that doesn’t bother us one day can bother us the next. Being able to think about your anger in this way – to understand why you get mad – allows you to take the next steps to develop a healthier relationship with your anger. When you understand your anger, you can better manage it, and use it in more productive ways.
Understand your anger
The first step towards being angry in a healthy way is to understand where the anger is coming from. Not just the obvious, surface-level reasons, but the full picture. You can do this by applying the model above and exploring the provocation, your interpretation, and your pre-anger state, but also by asking yourself the following three questions:
Prevent anger from happening in the first place
The other benefit of having a full understanding of your anger is that it will allow you to intervene in multiple places to manage how you feel. At this point, we have identified three different components of the anger experience (provocation, interpretation, the pre-anger state), and you can intervene at all stages to decrease and manage anger.
Firstly, you can avoid some common provocations when you decide it’s best to do so. Sometimes, things happen that can’t be avoided, of course, but there are other times when you might unnecessarily do things that you know cause anger. You don’t always need to invite these negative experiences into your life. For example, you can choose to ignore or hide irritating political Facebook posts, or choose a different route to work to avoid common traffic frustrations. While it’s not always healthy to avoid common frustrations, it isn’t always healthy to approach them either.
You can also manage anger by reappraising the provocations that can’t be avoided. In other words, evaluate your thoughts and ask yourself if they’re reasonable or accurate. When a restaurant gets your order wrong, you can consider what the real consequence is going to be. Will it ruin your day, or will you be able to adjust? When someone makes a mistake at work, you can ask yourself if that makes them a ‘total idiot’ or if this represents a simple mistake that they’ll work to correct. The goal here, though, shouldn’t be to lie to yourself and pretend things are fine when they’re not. The goal should be to embrace thoughts that are accurate and representative of what’s actually happening around you.
Lastly, you can get to know your pre-anger state. Once you’ve identified patterns regarding when you’re most likely to get angry (such as when you’re tired, hungry or feeling rushed), you can take steps to avoid getting into these states. By planning ahead, you can often make sure you’re well rested, avoid letting yourself get too hungry, and try to stay ahead of schedule so you don’t feel rushed. Even when this isn’t possible, though, just knowing that you tend to get angry in these states is valuable. When you find yourself tired and irritable, just acknowledging it to yourself by saying ‘everything seems worse right now because I’m tired’ can go a long way to mitigating unwanted frustration.
Try ‘traditional’ anger-management approaches
The fourth component of anger is the actual emotional feeling produced by these interactions: that intense feeling of frustration or rage. When it comes to tackling anger, this is where many people believe they need to intervene. You see evidence of this in the commonly advocated anger-management strategies, which involve relaxation, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, counting to 10 or meditation. These approaches are largely about decreasing angry feelings once they’ve occurred. While I don’t think this is all you should do – the above approaches are important too – they do work. When you’re angry, relaxation approaches have the effect of decreasing unwanted emotional and physiological arousal such as increased heartrate and muscle tension. It’s worth noting that the popular suggestion of punching a pillow or punch-bag (what we call ‘catharsis’), on the other hand, is a terrible idea. In fact, research on catharsis has shown not only that it doesn’t decrease anger in those moments, but that it will actually increase the likelihood of later aggression.
Use your anger productively
I think of anger as a fuel that can energise you to solve problems. Like any fuel, though, it can be unstable. If it gets out of control, you can blow up in a way that’s dangerous to yourself or those around you. For this reason, the first step to using your anger productively is knowing when it’s become a problem for you.
Anger can be expressed in a near-infinite number of ways, and some of them have serious and potentially catastrophic consequences. People who are chronically angry are more likely to get into physical and verbal fights, drive recklessly, damage property, and abuse alcohol and other drugs. If you experience such serious negative consequences because of your anger, you should seek professional help and advice.
However, though you might be tempted to categorise expressions of anger as either good or bad, or healthy or unhealthy, there is never a single right thing to do when you’re angry. For instance, there are certainly times when holding in your anger is the best option because expressing it might be risky or unsafe, but suppression can have mental and physical health consequences if you gravitate towards it too often. The best thing to do when you’re angry always depends on context.
At its core, your anger is telling you that there’s a problem. One way to productively express it is to use the energy it provides to solve that problem. This might include addressing relatively small issues in your life that lead to frequent frustrations: the mild irritation you feel when you frequently misplace your wallet might encourage you to develop a better system to track it; the leaky tap in your kitchen might annoy you into fixing it. Or there might be bigger issues: using your anger might also mean asserting yourself by having a meaningful but maybe difficult conversation with someone in your life. If you feel ignored at work, or are treated poorly by a family member, your anger might help you stand up for yourself. Being able to communicate your anger to people in productive ways is an important skill. It can be challenging to maintain professionalism and stay on topic when you’re angry, but communicating how you’re feeling, along with listening to others in those moments, can be another valuable way that your anger can serve you.
One of the most valuable ways to understand, manage, and use your anger is to keep a mood log. A mood log is a cognitive-behavioural therapy tool, used for identifying the relationships between your feelings, thoughts and situations. They’re often used to help people explore the thoughts they’re having and how to modify those thoughts – but you can also use one to understand how you tend to think and behave when you’re angry. Specifically, they can help you track anger-provoking situations, pre-provocation moods, and the thoughts and behaviours that follow.
Using a mood log for a week or two will allow you to see patterns in all three aspects of your anger experience. You might notice that you get angry most often when your goals are blocked or when you see others being mistreated. You might identify that you’re prone to particular types of thoughts such as blaming or catastrophising. You might notice that you have a typical way of expressing your anger, and you can consider whether it’s productive.
Using this approach, I have seen people identify both surface-level problems with their anger (eg, ‘I get angry most often in the morning when I’m feeling rushed’) and deeper-level problems (eg, ‘I get angry when people challenge my authority at work because it makes me feel insecure and unappreciated’). The former speaks to a relatively simple solution in that you can take proactive steps to give yourself more time in the morning or find ways to relax in the moment. The latter might require a more intensive approach. It might speak to more significant difficulties you have with self-esteem that likely lead to other challenges beyond maladaptive anger – or it might encourage you to address certain issues with your colleagues.
Used in the right way, anger is a useful and powerful force in your life. Like all emotions, its existence is rooted in our evolutionary history: anger helped alert our ancestors to injustice, and then helped provide them with the energy they needed to confront that injustice. How is it that something which brings such benefit can also cause so much destruction? Well, like any fuel, when handled poorly, anger can be destructive and harmful. But, when properly controlled and managed, it can be a valuable source of energy – helping us recognise what’s happening around us, and helping us understand ourselves.
My website All the Rage offers a variety of anger-management tips, reviews of recent research, and mood logs and surveys to help you better understand your anger.
The American Psychological Association has a variety of helpful resources for dealing with anger, including a list of their publications related to this topic.
The book Mindfulness for Anger Management: Transformative Skills for Overcoming Anger and Managing Powerful Emotions (2018) by the American clinical psychologist Stephen Dansiger offers valuable skills for those who need assistance in dealing specifically with anger-inducing thoughts.
My TED talk ‘Why We Get Mad – and Why It’s Healthy’ (2018) provides concrete examples of the reasons we get angry, including the types of thoughts we have that lead to anger.
The interactive tool the Atlas of Emotions from the American psychologist Paul Ekman offers a fascinating look at the relationships among common emotions, including anger.
My book Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change (2021) explains in detail what anger is and why people get angry, including the biology of anger, the common consequences of anger, and how to express it in positive ways.