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  • Lemuel Tan

Anger: A Helpful Emotion

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

There is this comedic scene from “Anger Management” where Dave (played by Adam Sandler) and his psychiatrist, Dr. Rydell, (played by Jack Nicholson) were traveling in a car together. Dave had just driven past a red light much to the disappointment of Dr. Rydell. Dave tells his psychiatrist that he is flustered and is late for work resulting in his psychiatrist literally pulling the brakes in the car and removing the keys from the engine. He then asks Dave to “unfluster” and re-center himself. Dr. Rydell then recommends Dave to sing a song to help him calm down. Dave struggles at first but relents and starts sings “I am pretty, Oh so Pretty, I feel pretty and witty and gay….” while the other drivers shout at him as he remains stationary on the road.

We all face moments of frustration and anger. Some appear to have better control and regulation over it while others appear to just go from zero to a hundred in a heart beat.

Anger is in fact a very normal feeling. Contrary to what most people would think, it is actually a helpful emotion (in fact all emotions are helpful!), especially if it is allowed to be expressed and recognized correctly. Anger becomes unhelpful and unhealthy when it becomes suppressed and ignored. Anger can be triggered externally or internally. For example, we can be angry because of a cancelled flight or just the thought of a cancelled flight.

Anger can be quite instinctive. It is an adaptive way to manage threats. It allows us to fight and defend ourselves. A certain level of anger is therefore necessary for a healthy functioning life. However, we cannot just lash out at every person, object or situation that makes us angry and there appears to be some form of paradox between the function and processing of anger.

Everyone deals with anger differently. The three broad/general methods of anger management that people use are:

Expressing Assertively expressing your anger and telling others how you feel. This is not the same as being aggressive or demanding. This is suggested to be the best way of dealing with anger.

Suppressing Holding on to the anger or ignoring it. By inhibiting anger we attempt to construct positive behaviours/responses. The problem with this is that if we continually inhibit or ignore the anger, it starts turning inward creating physical and psychological problems.

Calming Controlling your internal physiological responses while controlling your outward behavior. For example: Using breathing exercises to help calm your heart-rate down while using noticing and grounding strategies to help you notice where the anger is on your body.

Anger due to its undesired social response may appear to be an unhelpful emotion. Think about the time when you were asked to control your anger as a child or not to be angry. We have been taught that anger is bad and unhealthy. Some would even consider it as an opposite feeling of happy or love. The thing with anger is that it needs to be expressed appropriately. Some then proceed to say that it is therefore important that you express your anger all the time. Anger research has actually shown that allowing us to let lose all the anger can actually be unhelpful. Borrowing from neuro-psychology of the concept “neurons that fire together wire together”, this would suggest that allowing yourself to express anger readily and easily may result in one unintentionally reinforcing the expression of anger as an unhelpful coping mechanism. The best way of dealing with anger is to acknowledge it and allow it to be channeled in healthy ways. These include the following:

- Listening to music - Some find it helpful to listen to angry music when they are angry as it resonates with their feeling.

- Engage in activities – Walking, dancing, cleaning your house. Physiological activities help provide an avenue for the penned-up cortisol and adrenaline.

- Talking about it with safe people – Telling people how and why you feel angry allows you to sit with the anger while letting others know what you feel. Having someone who has a good listening ear is important.

- Grounding and mindfulness – Learning how to sit with the feeling and acknowledge it without being caught up by the emotion. This is a skill that can be acquired over time and it would not be recommended for those attending their first session.

- Write it out – Sitting with the anger and writing how you feel about it and other hidden emotions. You will be surprised to find out what else is hiding under the Anger Iceberg. People who journal about their feelings tend to be less reactive to them when they arise.

- Time-out – Taking a break. Allowing yourself to cool off and disengage from the situation. It does not help when I, you, and everyone become angry. Avoidance can be helpful to cool things down so we can return to things that really matter to us.

As you read this, you may begin to realise that there is no one way or right way to manage anger. In fact, many a times, I would remind my clients that it is about what you do with the emotion that counts. If you think about it, we have close to zero control of our emotions, they will come when they want to come. I prefer the concept of "Anger Awareness" instead of "Anger Management". It is recognizing and acknowledging that anger is a normal emotion and that it is okay to express and process it in an appropriate and healthy way.

Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.

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