Managing anger

Dr. Adisa Azubuike

Managing our emotions is a learned and lifelong skill.  We often think that our emotions are easily handled without any deep thought or practice but just as we need to feed, exercise, and take care of our body, we need to feed, exercise and take care of our mind. One of the more difficult, misunderstood, and bedeviling emotions for many of us, is the emotion of anger.

For many of us, anger rules the day. We have a hard time not being angry around our children, significant others, family, friends, work colleagues, and strangers.  Anger, often called a ‘negative’ emotion, has an upside for many of us that can be quite seductive. Because for many, when we get very angry, in the words of Dr. William Davies, one of the foremost experts on anger, “we feel very alive, very energized, and very right. What makes it such a dangerous emotion is that it seriously impairs our judgement so, although we may be absolutely  convinced we are right in ‘the heat of the moment’ we find later that we were totally wrong.” This is one of the reasons when we are angry, we (all of us) can be susceptible to extreme behaviors that are not representative of our usual behavior or personality – for example, obscene  and prolonged verbal rants, physically threatening posturing, and crimes of passion.

When we get angry, the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions and often seen as part of our ‘primitive brain,’ takes over. In essence this small part of the brain takes complete control of the rest of the brain without any thinking, planning, or rational part of the brain becoming involved. This is why you often hear many people talk about being angry as  “losing their temper, losing it, exploding, being out of control, going ‘bazodee’,  or mad with rage.” As Dr. Davies puts it, “So when we ‘lose it’ this is quite a major event inside our head. … because the ‘it’ that we are losing  is ‘control of ourselves’. The control we normally have is through the thinking, executive –function part of the brain (cerebral cortex) and it is indeed this that we lose when the amygdala hijacks the whole process.” So we have to learn ways to prevent, mitigate, and intervene when we are out of control with anger, and this is the learning and practicing of the needed lifelong skill or skills.

Anger has triggers, appraisals, beliefs, judgements, inhibitions, and responses. Much, if not all, of our behavior is based on beliefs. If we have beliefs that god is good, god is vengeful, god is graceful and forgiving, or even if there is a god, then these beliefs can change how we see and react in the world. If we believe that people are inherently good and positive, or people are bad and exploitive, then again we will be more apt to respond in a certain way. Beliefs also affect our appraisals and judgements. Did my boss mean to humiliate me when he corrected me in front of my colleagues? Did my child disobey me because he doesn’t respect me, is willful or careless? Did my wife disrespect me by smiling and talking to that attractive man at the party last night? Or did that TTC bus driver had to insist on all the money when I was only missing a dime of the bus fare? When we try to decipher the reason for some slight or transgression, we are engaging in appraisal and judgement. We are trying to understand our triggers—what makes us angry. Do I get angry too quickly and over-react? Do I have enough internal and external inhibitions—ideas of morality and consequences—to modify my angry reactions? And can my angry responses be more measured, proportional, and controlled?

One great and enduring myth about anger, is that it is better to express your anger than keep it in. Supposedly, if you keep in your anger in it will significant hurt you. But how is it better for you or the people around you to spew, rant, cuss, threaten, or assault than to give yourself time to allow the angry feelings to ebb and in so doing minimize regret? When anger is kept in and given time, it can dissipate. If you stoke it, and ruminate over the slight or perceived transgression, it doesn’t go away, but even if it doesn’t, your inhibitions(internal or external) can  prevent you from taking action if you give yourself some time.

So how do you better manage your anger? You first have to do what is important for your overall ideal health: sleep adequately; eat healthy; exercise consistently; reduce your drinking of alcohol to one beer or one drink per day; and reduce your caffeine intake to less than three cups a day. You can also identify your triggers, re-evaluate your beliefs about you and the world; use a person who handles her anger well as a role model to emulate when you are getting angry; talk to a trusted someone, friend, family or therapist to check if you are correct in your angry stance or feelings.You have to allow yourself to follow this person’s advice and not seek others that may agree with you, and, as always, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.


(Dr. Adisa Azubuike is a Toronto- based registered psychologist specializing in the treatment of depression, anxiety, anger, and trauma in children, adolescents, and adults.)