Anger: Definition, causes, types, and treatments
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Anger is a normal, healthy emotion that arises in response to a perceived threat, provocation, or injustice. However, how you manage and express your anger may be unhealthy or harmful to yourself or others.
Anger is related to the body’s acute stress response. In response to a threat, the body will direct its energy toward preparing to fight or flee. Anger is part of this fight response and is often accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, rapid heart rate, and increased lung capacity.
That doesn’t mean that every time you’re angry, your body is telling you to punch someone. The body’s fight-or-flight response can dissipate without ever fighting or running away. However, your body’s excess energy needs to go somewhere. If it’s not expressed or released in a healthy way, it may result in physical and mental stress.
You may have heard the phrase “Anger is a secondary emotion.” While this can be true in some cases, it’s important not to forget that anger is a primary emotion as well.
Primary emotions are automatic, instinctual feelings all humans have. These include anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, and surprise. If a friend stands you up on a lunch date, for example, you’ll probably feel both surprise and sadness.
Secondary emotions occur when we feel another emotion in response to a primary emotion. Anger can be a secondary emotion as well as a primary one. When anger is a secondary emotion, it’s often masking a more vulnerable feeling. For example, you may feel angry that the friend who stood you up hurt your feelings.
Some people say that anger is a secondary emotion to try to delegitimize people’s anger as merely a cover-up for other emotions. While it’s true that anger can mask emotions like pain, fear, and shame, it can also be a useful, healthy emotion in its own right.
On the spectrum of anger, annoyance typically resides on the lower side. Annoyance can be sharp, even painful, but it is often fleeting. Strong reactions to annoyance are usually viewed as inappropriate and may be indicative of anger management problems.
Moral outrage is a type of anger that often feels good, healthy, and even productive. After all, we typically feel it after witnessing or being the victim of an injustice. Something wrong has happened, maybe even something evil—isn’t anger the correct response?
While anger is often appropriate in response to injustice, it can sometimes become unhealthy, depending on how we use it. Some people use moral outrage as a way to make themselves feel superior to others. Moral outrage can lead the way to judgment and the desire for retaliation, even vengeance, which can quickly escalate to abuse or violence.
Moral outrage can be productive if we let it guide us toward justice and healing. However, it can quickly overwhelm us if we use it to harm others or elevate ourselves.
Assertive anger is a healthy, balanced expression of anger recommended by mental health experts. With assertive anger, you can express your point of view with confidence, and you can communicate how you’re feeling clearly without trying to intentionally hurt others.
Although you are assertive with your experience, you do not elevate yourself to a place of superiority. Rejecting superiority or outrage enables you to listen to others and potentially change your point of view. It also allows you to seek healing and justice instead of seeking being “right” or vindicated.
Passive anger occurs when you refuse to admit or acknowledge your anger. Although this can sometimes be an intentional tactic to harm others (known as passive-aggression), it can also be an unintentional denial to yourself. Some people truly believe they’re not angry, even as they are sulking or snapping at others. Passive anger can be just as harmful to yourself and to others as more confrontational forms of anger.
Aggressive anger intends to inflict physical or mental harm. The target of your aggression may be another person, or it may be yourself. Outward signs of aggressive anger include:
Aggressive anger that’s directed inward at yourself may look like:
- Negative self-talk
- Denying yourself necessary care activities, such as eating, washing, or sleeping
- Suicidal intention
Uncontrolled anger, also known as rage, is at the highest end of the anger spectrum. Rage results in a number of dangerous and harmful behaviors, including fighting, bullying, abuse, assault, and violence. Rage is never a healthy response to a perceived threat or provocation.
Persistent anger that goes unexpressed, unaddressed, or untreated can take a toll on your physical health, increasing your risk for:
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Chronic pain
- Lower immunity
- Poor decision-making that leads to injury
- Substance abuse or addiction
Anger may be an indicator of an undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorder or related condition, such as:
● Bipolar disorder
● Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
● Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
● Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
● Personality disorders
- Practice self-care: Self-care is at the core of your physical, mental, and emotional health. Without basic care activities like eating regularly, getting enough sleep, and taking your prescribed medications, you are not well equipped to handle the stressors of life and are more prone to mishandle your anger. By practicing self-care, you give yourself a baseline of health from which to make good choices.
- Learn to self-regulate: Self-regulation is the ability to observe, manage, and adapt your emotions and behaviors to suit the situation. A key component of self-regulation is stress management. If you can learn to self-regulate and manage your stress, you will be able to choose healthier responses to situations that trigger your anger.
- Consider different perspectives: Empathy and compassion can help you view a frustrating situation from another point of view. By considering a different perspective, you may realize that anger is not the most helpful or appropriate response to the situation.
- Take a break: Stepping away from a situation and taking deep breaths can help you make better choices. It can also help you physically manage your anger by lowering your heart rate and calming your body’s stress response.
- Choose assertive anger: There are times where it’s healthy and appropriate to express your anger. Assertive anger can help you communicate your experience clearly while still being open to the experiences of others.
- Seek professional help: If you’re struggling to manage your anger in healthy ways, anger management therapy may help.
If you need help addressing your anger, you’re not alone. There are many ways you can seek professional help for anger management:
- Take anger management classes: Anger management classes can be court-ordered for people whose anger has crossed the line into criminal behavior, but they are also open to anyone struggling with anger. With anger management classes, you can learn how to express your anger in healthy ways and control aggressive impulses.
- Find a therapist: You can seek individual treatment from a therapist who specializes in anger management. Click here to find an anger management therapist near you.
Anger can feel good for a number of reasons. Studies have shown that swearing out loud, for example, can literally alleviate your perception of physical pain. For the same reason, many people turn to anger in an attempt to alleviate mental or emotional distress.
Anger is a healthy, natural emotion that is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we express it and manage it. It’s important to choose healthy expressions of anger instead of unhealthy expressions that may be harmful to ourselves or others.
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