Helping you get through tough times

Anger management

Anger is an emotion, just that. It’s a normal feeling with benefits as well as drawbacks. While it can be quite complex, managing anger is a skill which can be learned.

Arms crossedWe all feel angry at times. As an emotion it can range from a mild feeling of irritability to a full-blown outburst.

Anger can be:

  • energising
  • empowering
  • justifying
  • relieving.

It can also be:

  • eruptive
  • scary
  • destructive
  • venomous
  • all-consuming.

Characteristics of anger

Positive functions of anger:

  • Energy – can give strength and determination to face challenges
  • A cue for action – may signify something unjust or threatening is happening
  • Communication – constructive expression of anger can help to work through and resolve conflicts.

Negative functions of anger:

  • Disruption – interferes with our ability to focus and think clearly, impairing judgement
  • Defensive – can create hostility
  • Aggression – acting out our feelings can cause us to be hurtful to ourselves or others.

Anger can cause us to become irritable, impatient, and perhaps behave aggressively. But if we bottle it up or experience it silently, it can cause other emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.

Anger becomes a real problem when:

  • you feel angry all the time
  • it impairs concentration, performance and interpersonal relationships
  • it’s persistent or doesn’t settle, causing continuous agitation
  • it results in aggressive behaviour towards self or others.

What causes anger?

A combination of four main factors can contribute to an anger experience.

1. External events or “Triggers”

A trigger is something that creates an emotional reaction. The feeling of frustration when you can’t get something done for example. Also things like getting annoyed at something or a perceived injustice or unfairness.

2. Thoughts and perceptions

Thoughts about past events can make us angry again. This may then cause us to become sensitive to situations. It may not really be the event itself that angers us but the significance it has for us.

We can also have strong expectations of how things “ought to be” or engage in negative self-talk and over-think things.

3. Arousal and activation

Physically we can feel different when angry. Blood pressure can rise, we may feel hot, have a faster heart-beat or breathing and muscles can tense. These symptoms can be scary and overwhelming.

Anger arousal can be a product of too much tension. It’s always useful to take time out, maybe remove yourself from the situation, let yourself settle to help you think more clearly.

4. Behaviour

Work or study that involves deadlines, pressure and demands for productivity may be risk areas for anger.

Pressures can lead to feelings of impatience and irritability, or our behaviour may become aggressive.This response is an attempt to overcome a sense of powerlessness or frustration.

Find out more about communication styles and how they affect us.

Anger management

Learning to understand the source of anger and how to express it constructively can be hugely beneficial.

In situations where anger is unproductive, anger management is a step towards wellbeing.

Having awareness, acknowledging and regulating our feelings helps us to defuse anger reactions. It can limit the hurt we may cause ourselves and others.

The process of anger management includes:

  • Increased awareness of triggers
  • Improving assertiveness and problem solving skills
  • Relaxation training
  • Challenging angry thoughts and self-talk
  • Heightened awareness of our feelings, behaviours and the results of anger outbursts
  • Being more prepared for provocation, ”this may upset me but I know how to deal with it”
  • Learning mechanisms to use during confrontation, “stay calm, pause and breathe, take time out”
  • Defusing physical tension in the body, breathing slowly and deeply exhaling for example
  • Reflecting on how we handle situations and considering what might work better next time
  • Talking to someone about how you feel.


Thinking about how anger issues are managed when growing up can help to make us aware of causes, behaviours and patterns. This can help with understanding and learning new ways of dealing with emotions and situations in the present.

Some questions to help with reflection:

  • How was anger expressed at home?
  • How was I disciplined and by whom?
  • How did I respond to the discipline?
  • What role did I take in the family?
  • What was the one phrase I recall hearing the most?
  • What feelings, thoughts and behaviours do I carry now?
  • What purpose do those behaviours serve today?
  • What would it be to change those behaviours? What could be different?

How to reduce the impact of triggers

  • Remove yourself from the situation if you can
  • Breathe out … count to ten
  • Check for body tension, hands wrists, shoulders, neck, and jaw, try relax the tension
  • Focus on something to distract yourself, put on music or go for a run for example
  • Watch out for wind up thoughts or negative self-talk
  • Manage or think of strategies when the anger is at a low level
  • Talk to a counsellor if you think anger might be an issue for you.

Resources and reading material:

  • Managing anger, by Helen O Neill Whurr (1999)
  • Overcoming anger and irritability, by William Davies Robinson (2000)
  • Responsible assertive behaviour, by Lange and Jakubowski
  • Anger, stress and coping with provocation: client instruction manual, by Ray Novaco (1999).

With thanks to Yvonne Tone, student counselling service Trinity College Dublin.

This article was last reviewed on 03 May 2017

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