Anger management: How to tame your temper

Anger can be a harmful beast – to yourself and to others. Here’s how to spot the signs that your anger has turned unhealthy, and what to do about it.

Modern life can make us hot under the collar, whether it’s traffic snarls, technology fails or family fall-outs.

But letting our anger spill over can ruin relationships, undermine our professionalism and, in extreme cases, escalate into violence.

So why do some people blow up at the smallest provocation, while others manage to remain zen?

And how do we put a lid on our anger when it bubbles to the surface?

Understanding anger and its causes

Anger is a normal human reaction that ranges from “mild annoyance to intense rage”, according to the Australian Psychological Society, and is not always cause for concern.

In fact, when expressed in a healthy way, it can drive us to make positive changes in our lives and become more assertive.

Psychologist and coach Dr Darryl Cross says anger is often triggered by perceptions of injustice in our lives, or feelings that we’ve been treated unfairly.

“The two common areas that people tend to argue about within relationships are money and the in-laws,” he says.

“However, more widely, the most common trigger for anger is the notion that’s somehow or other, ‘it’s not fair’.

“That tends to trigger annoyance leading to anger… whether it’s someone cutting us off in traffic, jumping in front of us in a queue, taking a jibe or a shot at us, or trying to make us look small.”

He says the problem lies not so much in the situation but how we respond to it, making it important to be “vigilant about our thoughts”.

“In the same way that happy thoughts create feelings of happiness, negative or angry thoughts create feelings of annoyance and anger,” he says.

When does anger become unhealthy?

Dr Cross says a failure to monitor and control anger can lead to long-term regret.

One big outburst of anger can permanently ruin our relationships and put our professional lives in peril.

“Of course, it is natural to be angry,” he says.

“But people with high emotional intelligence, and those who are successful in life, are skilled in being able to monitor their emotions so that their anger does not get out of control and cause further sabotage or chaos.

“If individuals cannot emotionally monitor their anger, then the best strategy is to remove themselves from the situation and then come back when they are more in control.”

Counsellor and author Lisa Bondareko says when we allow anger to sit in the driver’s seat, it influences our lives, relationships, decisions and behaviours.

“Anger can become like an angry toddler throwing a tantrum demanding our attention when it is unresolved,” she says.

“It just depends whether we are willing to do the work to get out of the passenger seat.”

She says it’s important to acknowledge anger and understand it, before doing the “trench work” to resolve it.

“Often many of us choose to ignore, supress and avoid the emotion of anger,” she says.

“It often hijacks and diverts attention from the core issue like disappointment, loss, pain, regret, sadness, stress, grief or being overwhelmed.

“But unresolved anger can be like poison.”

anger management

Why is it harder for some people to control their anger?

Dr Cross says some people appear to live life on an even keel, letting daily grievances slide like water off a duck’s back.

Others will flare at the smallest affront, displaying a lack tolerance and patience.

“Some people, due to their upbringing, tend to have a frail ego and lack self-confidence, and as a result, it doesn’t take much to set them off or to trigger a reaction including anger,” he says.

“They are more vulnerable to life’s ups and downs.”

He says a succession of issues such as illness, relationship breakdowns, financial hardship and family problems can also wear down a person’s resolve.

“In this respect, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that it was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ – meaning that a final negative or unfortunate event finally push them over into anger or resentment,” he says.

Tips to manage feelings of anger

  • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your feelings, and other people’s actions do not control us.
  • Recognise the early warning signs of increasing tension or conflict, like raising your voice, holding your breath or breathing quickly.
  • Accept that the most likely reason for your anger is your belief that you have been treated unfairly. Generally speaking, it’s not the end of the world – so why become so indignant, angry and vengeful?

Written by Elissa Doherty.