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Anger, why it happens and how to manage it

In this blog entry we’ll be talking about anger, why it’s a secondary emotion, why it’s a useful emotion, and ways of dealing with anger.  

Sue Parker Hall wrote the book ‘Anger, Rage and Relationship an Emphatic Approach to Anger Management’ (2009), which has a lot of insight into anger. This quote from it, “I sat with anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.” helps us to understand this emotion, because sometimes anger itself isn’t the primary emotion that the person is experiencing. It can just be a by-product and is a secondary emotion. The difficulty the person is having is an underlying issue which sometimes they aren’t aware of.  

Anger is a basic human emotion and it’s experienced by everybody at some time in their life. It’s typically triggered by an emotional hurt, an unpleasant feeling that occurs when we think we’ve been injured, mistreated, contradicted in our long-held beliefs or when we are faced with obstacles that keep us from attaining our personal goals. It’s explosive and all-encompassing, so once it takes hold of us, it can sometimes take time for us to reset ourselves and calm down. 

Anger is also a useful emotion. Rosa Parks, the 42 year-old black seamstress, who took her seat on a bus in segregated America in December 1956, demonstrated her defiance when she refused to give up her seat for a white person. Rightfully angry, the black population boycotted the bus company for a whole year, choosing to walk home. This single action was the spark that ignited the black civil rights movement in the USA, which shows how, when anger is clearly channeled, we can see how much it can change things. 

In 2006, The Boiling Point report on people’s anger was carried out in the UK and, despite being quite old, reveals how prevalent anger is there. 

  • 65% of office workers had experienced office rage. 
  • 45% of staff regularly lost their temper at work. 
  • 53% of  people had been victims of bullying at work. 
  • 65% of people expressed their anger over the phone (26% in writing and 9% face to face). 
  • In the European Union, Britain was the top road rage country. 
  • 5% had had a fight with their neighbour. 
  • Almost 30% of people polled said they had a close friend or family member who had trouble controlling their anger. 
  • More than 10% said they had trouble controlling their own anger.
  • 25% said they worried about how angry they felt sometimes. 
  • 20% said they had ended a relationship or friendship, because of how that person behaved when they were angry. 
  • Those who sought help, did so from health professionals such as a counsellor, therapist, GP or nurse, rather than from friends, family, social workers, employers of voluntary  organizations. 

In Spain it is thought that the situation is similar. More than 10% of the population admit they have a problem controlling their anger, but fewer than one in seven seek help to solve the problem. This means that, as a general rule, the population does not know how to manage this emotion, which is detrimental to family relationships, work, and the well-being of the people around them.

Anger can be seen as a bodyguard emotion which protects other emotions such as fear, embarrassment or rejection and prevents them from being seen. It can leave a person feeling isolated and misunderstood. It also has another function, linked to aggression, which is something most people want to avoid. When people get angry, there’s a natural tendency for people to link anger and violence, but that’s not always the case. 

Anger can be used to protect and cover up other vulnerable feelings such as shame, fear or loss. When we feel under threat or attack, anger rushes out and pushes people away. As the old saying goes ‘attack is the best form of defence’. It is a secondary emotion and is generated when other emotions become uncontrollable. 

We can view it as an iceberg, with underlying or triggering emotions which can be hard to identify underneath. Rather than being alert for clues in a person’s narrative, trying to pick up on their sadness, excitement or embarrassment and reflecting that back to them, linking it to their emotions, it’s necessary to listen to what they’re saying, their words, to try and find out what’s made them angry. If we listen to someone who’s angry for long enough, we can usually gauge why they’re angry. Once we identify the primary emotion, and can name it, it usually helps us to manage it better. When we expose that underlying emotion, the anger often disappears, as there is no need for it anymore and the bodyguard disappears, thereby de-escalating difficult situations. 

Triggers for anger can include feeling:

  • threatened or attacked
  • frustrated or powerless
  • as if we’re being discounted or being treated unfairly
  • as if individuals do not respect our feelings or possessions. 
  • historic experiences, such as: abuse, neglect and loss. 

All of these things can trigger anger and sometimes we have to be careful to avoid triggering someone’s anger without realising it. 

A disorganised attachment is when a child needs to be loved by the primary caregiver, wants love or wants to be attached to them, but is terrified or repulsed by the caregiver because of how they have been treated by them. As a result, they experience conflict within themselves and when they get close to someone they love, this fear surfaces. In some cases, it can become reactive attachment, when children attack people close to them because they want to be loved, but when they express that emotion they also experience an overwhelming desire to protect themselves, leading to anger and in some cases aggression. Psychology Today states that, ‘People who get attached in a disorganised way oscillate from two biological drives whenever the opportunity to attach comes about in life: the need to belong (to love and connect with others) and the need to survive (to protect oneself).’ So, it’s important to consider addressing attachment when someone talks about their anger. 

All of a person’s emotions should be welcome. We can feel sadness, joy, or loss but also anger. Having to hold anger back can make people angrier. So, when talking to someone with a lot of anger we can say, ‘Look, you can get as angry as you want as long as you don’t hurt me or trash the room.’ They usually respect this if you give them the permission to be angry, but with a respectful boundary.

Peter Van Den Berg co-facilitated anger management groups at the private hospital in Roehampton and his work was discussed in the ‘Boiling Point’ report. It states that, ‘The group uses role-play and practical tools for expressing and managing anger. Van den Berg has devised a mnemonic ‘ASDA’.’ The acronym represents:

  • Appropriate: using the appropriate expression of anger at the right time, in the right place, towards the right person and in the right amount. It’s important in  terms of helping us to manage our anger, so we can reflect and learn to use our anger in an appropriate way. 
  • Spontaneous: not suppressing our anger. The secret is letting a little out, learning to express what’s going on for us and discovering how our voice can stop it building up to a point where we explode. 
  • Direct: being direct and saying why we feel anger. ‘I feel angry because …’. 
  • Assertive: being assertive, expressing ourselves, respecting other people’s rights as well as our own, instead of being passive or aggressive. 

ASDA is a kind of personal development, getting us into a position where we can find our voice to be able to say what’s going on for us in an articulate way, in order to make our voice heard and to understand that people are listening to us. 

Rage is a period of extreme or violent anger.  In her book, Parker Hall suggests that in relation to child development, rage predates anger as a pre-verbal cognitive coping mechanism that provides a survival  mechanism or ‘a self-care system (Kalsched, 1996) which is mobilised in earliest infancy, primarily as a cry for help (hot rage) when the holding environment (Winnicott, 1965) fails and infants needs are not met’. If a child doesn’t have the ability to articulate what is going on and they get really enraged, this can carry on all throughout their life. It connects with  attachment, because our attachment styles and the way that we connect with other  people are all to do with how we managed that childhood rage when we didn’t have a voice, when we couldn’t articulate it or couldn’t escape. When we look at anger, there’s always some form of attachment issue in the background. If we listen to the narrative of angry people, we find out that their anger is due to their childhood or what happened to them as children, with the involvement of either one or both parents. We need to separate rage and anger, and think of rage as the actual base of the anger.

It’s important to see anger as an effect, not a cause. The cause lies somewhere else. Parker Hall says, ‘In my opinion, how rage is defined is very important to how relevant people perceive the help to be and how well they engage. In my experience, those I’ve worked with immediately resonate with my speculation that probably emotions were not thought to be very important in early life and that probably lots of things have happened to them that they’ve not been able to come to terms with or feel through’. Psychoeducation (learning the mechanics of how we behave to help us learn how to heal) is helpful when working with anger, as it can help us to see if it resonates with us. Once we acknowledge this, we can understand what we’re going through and that we’re being understood and listened to. 

There are some cultural experiences that can cause anger. Unprocessed trauma  produces unconscious rage, which presents as anger. Trauma can come from a variety of experiences: the soldier returning from conflict, the refugee fleeing  persecution, or the adult who carries a frightened child within them. We see anger in people in a cultural as well as therapeutic context, so we need to understand  the external elements that have contributed to a person’s anger. 

We can think of anger as not being a demon that needs to be tamed, but as a wound that needs to be healed. Nearly every angry person is a wounded person. Their behaviour may not be useful for them or others, but their anger comes from some wound deep in their history. 

Some ways of dealing with anger:

  • Resolve problems from the past. If you feel able to understand what makes you feel angry, you will be able to resolve past issues and prevent this feeling from building up again in the future. Seek help from a therapist if you can’t seem to do this alone. Having someone listen to us without judgment can calm us enough to be able to talk about the underlying issue.
  • Be constructive, not destructive. When you are irritated about something, try to regulate your emotions and tell the people around you why you are angry. If you speak calmly and make requests rather than demands, others will respect your arguments and listen to you.
  • Calm down. When you start to feel anger starting to grow inside you, stop and think for a moment. This will give you time to reflect on the situation and consider what is the best behaviour to respond to it. As they say, “Take a deep breath and count to ten before you speak.”
  • Remove yourself. If you feel so angry that you cannot speak or feel that you may be violent towards another person or thing, it is best to leave the situation. Try to find out what makes you feel angry so you will know when to leave the situation aside.


‘Preparing to Work with Anger’ (Lees-Oakes 2020). Lees-Oakes R 2020, ‘Anger iceberg’, delivered 7th July 2020.

Sanitas: problemas de ira

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