We all get angry sometimes; it's part of being human. But if anger is expressed in ways that are harmful to ourselves or someone else, or persists for a long time, it can become a problem.
Do I have a problem with anger?
Some helpful questions to ask yourself to figure out if you might have an anger problem include:
- Do you get angry a lot - more often than most people do?
- When you get angry, do you go over and over the situation in your mind and seethe all day?
- When you get angry, does the anger feel so strong that you feel like you might explode or lose control?
- When you get angry, do you become physically or verbally aggressive?
- Do you find that anger affects your relationships with your friends or family?
- Do you find anger interferes with your ability to study or work?
What is problematic anger?
People often mean different things when they talk about anger. Anger is often a way of showing that we feel frustrated or like we’ve been treated unfairly, but it can also be driven by other feelings like sadness or feeling unsafe or threatened. For example, you might become angry with your son for crossing the road without looking when really, you’re not so much angry as afraid for his safety. Anger can vary in intensity and in the length of time it lasts for.
- It can be short term and ‘explosive’ in nature, when a person flies into a rage. When people experience this type of anger they tend to have strong physical reactions. They might start sweating or feel their muscles tense up or their heart race. Some people can become aggressive or violent when they get angry like this, and end up hurting or threatening other people or damaging things.
- It can be longer term anger or resentment. This type of anger tends to be the result of thinking negative thoughts over and over again – for example, replaying frustrating events over and over again or constantly having revenge fantasies.
Why do I get so angry?
In a life and death situation, anger can be very helpful. It helps you to cope with threat by giving you the energy to get moving, protect yourself and your mates, and keep going in the face of danger. Anger is part of your survival instinct; it allows you to react quickly to unexpected threats, which can mean the difference between life and death.
Reacting to a threat with immediate action, (rather than freezing) is an important part of military training. The problem is, a lot of veterans have trouble turning off that survival instinct once they get home. This can mean reacting to everyday situations as if they might be dangerous or life-threatening. So for example, your wife might forget to buy milk, which to her is a minor inconvenience. But if forgetfulness ‘pushes a button’ for you, a reminder that forgetting something in a combat situation can get you killed, you’re more likely to over-react with anger.
For some veterans, anger can be related to another mental health problem like depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcohol and other drug use. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, some people get angry as a way of avoiding other unpleasant feelings like embarrassment, guilt, anxiety or depression. Some people use alcohol or other substances to try and manage their anger, but end up finding that it has the opposite effect. Posttraumatic stress disorder is particularly linked with anger because if you feel wound up and on edge all the time, it doesn’t take much to trigger an angry outburst.
What can I do about it?
Getting treatment for any other mental health problems you might have is an important step in managing your anger. Anger will often get better on its own once other problems are less severe, and during treatment for PTSD or other disorders you’ll probably learn some skills that help you deal with intense feelings like anger.
If you think you might have a problem with anger and would like to try and get it under control, some of the strategies below should help. For some people, these strategies might be all that's needed. For others, they can be a useful addition to getting professional help.
Take time out
It’s easy in the heat of the moment for your anger to build up to the point where it’s out of control; by taking time out you make a choice to leave the situation before that happens. A simple memory aid to help you remember the steps of a good time out is “the four Rs”:
- Recognise – early warning signs that your anger is about to get out of control. Maybe you get sweaty, get red in the face or you clench your fists.
- Retreat – from the situation. Go for a walk, sit outside, play with the dog… Just spend a bit of time alone.
- Relax – while you’re away from the situation do things that will calm you down both physically and mentally. You’ll be more likely to come up with a logical solution or at least be able to view things from a different perspective if you’re calm.
- Return – once you’ve calmed down and are sure you can handle the situation without your anger overwhelming you again.
When we get angry our muscles tense up, ready for a fight. If you’re angry a lot, you’ll probably be pretty tense all the time and won’t even notice it, so the first stop is learning to recognise tension. Ask yourself, for example, do parts of your body feel tired or achey? Being able to release tension is a really effective way of managing anger. One simple strategy for doing that is to deliberately tense each of your muscle groups (e.g., arms, face, back, stomach, legs) in turn, and then relax them completely. . The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool on the High Res website and app can help you learn how to release tension in your muscles when you’re angry.
Identify unhelpful thoughts
It might seem like your anger is caused by other people or events, but actually it’s the way you think about those events that determines how you react. People with anger problems tend to think in ways that fuel their anger. For example, you might jump to conclusions (“My wife has been on the phone a lot, she must be having an affair”), exaggerate the importance of small things (“Our son can’t make it to the BBQ, so we might as well cancel the whole thing”), or think in black and white (“He didn’t do that perfectly, so what he did do is useless”). If you can recognise some of your unhelpful thinking patterns, you're in a good position to start challenging them. Ask yourself what the evidence is that what you’re thinking is right, and if there’s any other way of looking at things. The Thoughts tools on the High Res website and app can help you find more helpful and productive ways of thinking.
Put things in perspective
When we’re angry, we tend to act without thinking. You might find yourself blowing things out of proportion, and then feel guilty or embarrassed about it later. When you’re getting angry about something, stop and ask yourself “is this really worth getting upset about? Am I over reacting here? Is this my problem?”. Try rating the situation on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means the issue is trivial and really has no effect on you, and 10 means the situation is life threatening. Anything that scores a 5 or less on that scale is probably not worth getting upset over.
If you’ve tried all of these strategies but are still having problems with anger, you might benefit from getting additional support.
- A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome anger problems, as he or she can manage your general health and make referrals for specialists if necessary.
- This website has information on a range of professional care that is available to current and former serving members.
- Relationships Australia offers a broad range of services to individuals, families and communities throughout the country. Core services include counselling, mediation, and family dispute resolution. Contact your state-based Relationships Australia service on 1300 364 277.
- Family violence prevention programs are run by Relationships Australia, and include a range of services to assist those with violence and or abuse issues in their relationships including family violence programs for perpetrators.
- The High Res website and app features a Defusing/Controlling Anger tool which can help you select strategies to better control your anger so you can stay focused and make the best choices in difficult situations.
- The After Deployment US website has information, assessments, workshops, videos, and other resources related to anger.
Anger issues and Vietnam veterans
For many Vietnam veterans, the experience of coming home after the war was devastating. Instead of being welcomed home as heroes, or acknowledged for their service, vocal opposition to the war meant that many veterans felt hated, shunned, and judged. This divide between ‘them’ (civilians and the government) and ‘us’ (veterans) prevented a lot of Vietnam veterans from being able to reintegrate into the community. A lot of Vietnam veterans say that they left the war only to have to deal with another enemy at home.
Even veterans who have been having problems with anger since they came home from Vietnam can learn to manage their anger. But it’s worth getting your anger under control as soon as you can, because the older we get, the harder it is to change ingrained habits. So putting off dealing with your anger issues might actually be making it harder for you to change when you eventually decide you’re ready to. And like a lot of things in life, the longer you try and ignore your anger problems, the more trouble they’re likely to cause. Left unaddressed, anger is associated with some serious health problems, like high blood pressure, digestive problems, even heart attack or stroke. These kinds of problems also become more likely as we age, so for ageing veterans with long term anger problems, the risks are multiplied.
Issues for partners and families
Partners and families are seriously affected by anger and aggression, and are really important in helping people deal with anger problems. Often the person who is angry or aggressive might not recognise there’s a problem, or feel that it needs treatment, and will only talk to their doctor about their anger because a family member has asked them to.
Remember that if your loved one is angry a lot, it’s a sign that they’re struggling with something. A good first step is to try and find out exactly what that is. It’s important to try and stay calm yourself, and be open to listening to what the other person has to say. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they’re saying, or tolerate aggression!
Regardless of what the anger is really about, it’s not nice being on the receiving end of it, so it’s important to look after yourself (and other family members). It can be helpful to get support to learn some relaxation strategies, and come up with some ways of managing your own emotions and reactions (like going for a walk to calm down before trying to talk to your partner). You might also find it helps to talk to someone else that you trust, to get another perspective, and if necessary to set some limits around how much anger you are prepared to tolerate. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to family members or friends, you could talk to your GP, or find out more about the range of services available for families.
Some people with anger and aggression problems can become physically violent. Violence often starts slowly, with what seem like small instances of acting in violent ways. A verbal threat, for example, or a push during an argument. As time goes on, the violence may get more intense and happen more often. Violence might be a problem if you:
- Feel afraid of your partner or family member
- Feel like you need to avoid certain topics or ‘walk on eggshells’ so that you don’t set your partner or family member off
- Feel like you can’t do anything right
- Believe that you deserve to be hurt or treated badly
- Feel helpless or emotionally numb.
It’s quite common for people who act violently to say things like “my anger took over, I couldn’t help myself”. But even though it might feel like anger is uncontrollable, everyone can learn to control how they express it. Physical violence is never an acceptable outlet for anger. If you think your safety may be at risk, remove yourself from the situation and seek help. If you feel like you are in immediate danger, contact the police on 000.
- “Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which ones to surf.”