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Deciphering Anger: What it’s Trying to Tell You

Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services

Anger is a valuable emotion that alerts you to problems in your life so you can effectively solve them and build the sort of life you desire. Anger arises in many contexts, and ranges from mild irritation or frustration to all-consuming rage. Even boredom is a mild form of anger arising from dissatisfaction with our current circumstances.

Although natural, anger is often not an emotion we are comfortable with or have been taught to manage skillfully. While usually seen as negative, anger is as important to our health as a fever. Like a fever alerts us that we have a problem with infection, anger is the body’s way of signaling something is wrong and creating energy to help begin addressing the problem.

Unfortunately, too many of us simply act on our anger rather than addressing the problem it is alerting us to. Avoided or simply acted upon anger leaves the underlying issue unaddressed causing the anger to recur with increased intensity.

 

What’s under your anger?

Typically, we experience an emotion like fear, loss, or sadness first. These emotions create feelings of vulnerability and loss of control which make us uncomfortable. One way we sometimes deal with this discomfort is by subconsciously shifting into the emotion of anger.

Unlike fear and sadness, anger provides a surge of energy and makes us feel powerful and in charge rather than vulnerable and helpless. This subconscious shift can make it difficult to identify anger’s function in our lives.

For example, it’s easier for me to tell my spouse, “You always watch TV and avoid doing any housework,” than it is to figure out what is under my anger and address the underlying issue. Or, when parenting my teen, it can be easier to yell about how irresponsible he is when he breaks curfew than to own how scared I become when he’s late.

 

Tuning in to what anger is telling you

The next time you are feeling anger, instead of “taking the aspirin” of stuffing or simply acting upon the anger, consider deciphering anger. 

1. Suspend your desire to act upon your anger. Although acting upon anger without identifying why it is present may feel good for a moment or two, it usually causes us to behave in ways we regret later and seldom helps to address the underlying issue fueling the anger.

2. Check what’s underneath your anger. Call a time-out and take time to identify the underlying emotion which triggered the anger. Ask yourself, “If anger was like the congealed fat on the top of the roast in my refrigerator and I could skim it off, what would be underneath?” This gives you a way to begin exploring the thoughts and feelings fueling your anger. The shift from the underlying emotions of fear, sadness, or loss happens rapidly so it takes deliberate thought to identify what lies beneath the anger.

3. Think about how you can address what’s underneath. Once you have identified the underlying emotion, ask yourself, “What would help me address this emotion effectively?”

If I am angry with my spouse for sitting on the couch while I clean, the underlying emotion might be fear…fear the relationship is always going to be off-balance in this way…fear my partner does not value me or sees me as a servant…fear my need for downtime won’t be met. By identifying the fear, I can decide how to talk about this with my partner rather than simply blowing up about not having help cleaning.

4. Give yourself space to calm down. Anger releases chemicals preparing you to flee, fight, or freeze so you won’t be hurt. These chemicals take a while to dissipate, and you can’t think clearly until they do. By deliberately taking time to calm down, you give your brain time to move from the instinctual “protective” mode into problem solving mode.

5. Work the problem. Anger tells you a problem exists. Taking time to work out a solution eliminates the need for anger similarly to how taking an antibiotic kills an ear infection and eliminates the need for the fever. If you avoid resolving the underlying issue, anger will continue popping up to warn you there is a problem you need to address.

 

Learn more from Pine Rest about managing anger at pinerest.org/anger.

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