Anger and violence

We all get angry sometimes. 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.

Time to read: 18 minutes

 

Do I have a problem with anger?

If you think you have a problem with anger, ask yourself:

  • Do you get angry a lot? Do you get angry 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?

Anger is often a way of showing that we feel frustrated or think 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. While you may exhibit anger, 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 brief and ‘explosive’, like 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. In these situations, it's important to understand what you are feeling and how you can control your response.
  • Long-term anger can turn into resentment. This type of anger tends to be the result of thinking negative thoughts over and over again. It may end in revenge fantasies. In these situations, it's important to think through the issue and think calmly about the event that has made you resentful so you can move on.

Why do I get so angry?

Anger is part of your survival instinct. It allows you to react quickly to unexpected threats.

Reacting to a threat with immediate action (rather than freezing) is an important part of military training. In combat situations, this may mean the difference between life and death. It can help you to cope with threats by giving you the energy to respond quickly, protect yourself and your mates, and keep you going in the face of danger.

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 were dangerous or life-threatening.

For example, your wife might forget to buy milk, which 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 and you may become angry.

For some veterans, anger can be related to another mental health problem like depression, alcohol, drug use, or posttraumatic stress disorder.

Posttraumatic stress disorder is linked to anger because if you feel wound up all the time, it doesn’t take much to push you over the edge and trigger an angry outburst.

Anger is also a way to avoid other unpleasant feelings like embarrassment, guilt, anxiety or depression.

Some people use alcohol or other substances to try to manage their anger, but end up finding that it has the opposite effect.

RECOGNISE

Read Phil’s story...

“It was only a few days after I got home that the first shock came. We were driving down the road when a guy just looked across at me and I had this angry outburst like, ‘Have another look mate and I’ll rip your head off.’ Something like that. I’m normally such a passive person and my wife just went, ‘Holy s**t Phil! What was that?’” - A bit naive (PDF, 1.70MB).

What can I do about it?

You may be exhibiting anger but it may be the result of other issues that are affecting your quality of life, such as chronic pain, lack of sleep or even poor diet making you tired.

Anger will often get better on its own once other problems become less severe through treatment. For example, drinking too much has been linked to anger and violence. Reducing alcohol consumption could dramatically reduce anger.

Self-help

These strategies will help you understand and better manage your anger. For some people, these tools may be all that's needed. Professional support is available for veterans who feel they may require more support.

Take time out

In the heat of the moment, anger can quickly get out of control.

If it does, take a timeout.

By taking time out, you're making a choice to leave a situation before you lose control. Remember 'the four Rs':

  • Recognise early warning signs that your anger is about to get out of control. Maybe you get sweaty, red in the face or you clench your fists. If you start doing these things, recognise what is happening.
  • Retreat from the situation. Go for a walk, sit outside, play with the dog. Create distance between you and whatever is making you angry. If you are away from the problem, it will be harder for it to make you angrier. There's nothing wrong with walking away from a bad situation.
  • 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 to a problem and view things from a different perspective if you’re calm.
  • Return once you’ve calmed down. Only return when you and are sure you can handle the situation without your anger overwhelming you again. If your anger starts returns, start the process again: recognise, retreat, relax and return.

Relax

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. This makes it harder to being the process of controlling your emotions. So the first step is learning to recognise tension. Do parts of your body feel tired or ache? Are you grinding your teeth or clenching your fists?

Being able to release tension is a really effective way of managing anger. One simple strategy is to deliberately tense each of your muscle groups (arms, face, back, stomach, legs) in turn, and then relax them completely.

TAKE ACTION

Release tension and relax your body and mind when you’re angry

Anger often leads to muscle tension, which in turn can lead to aches, pains, fatigue and difficulty thinking clearly.

TheIsometrics tool teaches you to release stress in your body by focusing on the areas of your body that feel tense. This is a good tool if you’re short of time.

If you have more time, the Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool teaches you to tense and relax each of the muscle groups in your body so you can calm down and think clearly when you’re angry.

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool is available on the High Res app to use on the go.

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 so 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.

Start by asking yourself if there’s another way of looking at the situation. Could you have misunderstood an event, what someone said or misinterpreted their motivations?

TAKE ACTION

Think about things differently when you’re angry

Use the Challenge Your Thoughts tool to help you to notice your thoughts in situations that upset or bother you. Then you can start to challenge and change any unhelpful thoughts.

This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go.

Put things in perspective

When we’re angry, we tend to act without thinking. Especially if we get caught up in the adrenaline rush of anger.

You might find yourself blowing things out of proportion, and then you 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? Is this issue my problem?”

In other words: does this matter? Is it worth it? Why do I care?

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 probably isn't worth getting upset about.

TAKE ACTION

Get Better Control of Your Anger

Use the Defusing Anger tool to plan which strategies you'll use when you get angry. These strategies will help you to change your physical reactions, behaviours and thoughts.

This tool is available on the High Res app to use on the go.

Does your anger turn to violence

Getting angry is bad enough. Yelling or threatening can destroy relationships and create fear in a household. But when anger turns to violence, the results can be deadly.

Violence and aggression are not just about physically lashing out. It can include things you say, such as threats, and intimidating acts.

If you hit something or someone, if you break things deliberately, or if you become verbally aggressive and threatening, you have a problem with violence.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you worried about the impact of your behaviour on your mates, family, partner or children?
  • Do you feel guilty and feel like you need to make amends for your behaviour?
  • Is your partner, a family member, friend or colleague afraid of you?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you and those close to you might benefit from professional help.

You can manage and change you aggressive and violent behaviours with the right support.

If anger is making you violent

Violence can be part of an anger cycle.

Anger can build up gradually, without us being aware of our increasing level of emotion. This is the escalation phase. Even if it is very high, you can learn to deal with your anger in the escalation phase.

If you don't learn how to identify the early warning signs and deal with your anger, it may progress into violence and aggression. That might mean breaking or hitting things, or punching someone during the explosion phase. This is when you can do serious damage to people, property and your life.

In the next stage of the cycle – the post-explosion phase – you may feel ashamed and guilty. You may suffer the consequences of your violent behaviour such as loss of your job, or legal and financial problems, or you may lose friends and loved ones.

What you can do about it

Self-help

Putting an end to violent behaviour involves taking responsibility for your anger so that you don’t let the explosion phase of the anger cycle happen.

the warning signs of rising anger and dealing with it well before your breaking point:

  • Be more aware of the triggers: what sets off your anger?
  • Watch for signs that your anger is building up: what are your particular signals? Can you identify what happens in your body? What you are thinking? As your anger escalates, how does your behaviour change?
  • Monitor your anger level. Try rating it on a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 is perfectly calm and 10 is your worst anger level. Keep track of your feelings as your anger build up
  • Try to express what is upsetting you calmly and assertively BEFORE the anger gets too high. If you can’t do that, or it doesn’t seem to work, take a time out. Leave the situation for a few minutes: walk away, go to the toilet, count slowly from 100 to zero or go outside. You should try to create distance between you and whatever is making you angry. There's nothing wrong with walking away from a tense situation.
  • Learn to stop your anger from escalating by finding more helpful ways of thinking, or learning strategies to defuse anger.

TAKE ACTION

When you’re angry, think about things differently to prevent violent and aggressive behaviour

The way we think influences the way we feel.

Thinking in an unhelpful way can make you feel angrier and increases the chances you’ll lash out at others.

Use the Challenge Your Thoughts tool to help you identify your unhelpful thoughts in situations that upset or bother you, and then start to change these thoughts.

TAKE ACTION

Take responsibility for your anger to prevent violent and aggressive behaviour

Use the Defusing Anger tool to plan which strategies to use when you are angry. These strategies will help you change your physical reactions, behaviours and thoughts.

TAKE ACTION

Use problem solving to prevent violent and aggressive behaviour

If you are having trouble dealing with a problem in your life, it can cause you to feel angry and put you at risk of becoming violent.

Use the Problem Solving tool to work through the problem step-by-step and find the best solution.

You might also find the tips for managing anger helpful.

When you’re starting out, it’s a good idea to learn and practice helpful thinking skills in a situation that irritates you but isn’t too overwhelming. Once you’ve learned the skills you can use them in more anger-provoking situations. With practice, you’ll be able to apply these skills as situations arise.

High Res app to use on the go.

Manage violent behaviour

You might find that you’re more prone to violent and aggressive behaviour in certain situations. It pays to develop skills and strategies to manage situations that are risky for you, and identify the situations that set you off.

You should also think ahead to limit triggers and tools which might make violent episodes catastrophic:

  • Limit your access to weapons.
  • Limit the time you spend with other people who are likely to be violent or encourage violence.
  • Think about the places you go and situations you put yourself in. Perhaps you need to limit your time around certain people, venues, places or situations until you are able to control your anger and aggressive behaviour.

A good first step is to manage risky moods by exercising regularly, eating well and getting enough sleep. If you can reduce your stress levels you will be able to think more clearly.

TAKE ACTION

Improve your sleep to help manage violent and aggressive behaviour

If you are feeling tired you’ll tend to feel more irritable, angry and prone to violence.

Use the Healthy Sleeping tool and answer some questions about your typical sleeping behaviours, and get tailored advice and tips to improve your sleep.

TAKE ACTION

Get active to help manage violent and aggressive behaviour

Physical activity is a great way to improve your mood and help you manage stress.

Choose activities that are the most appealing to you and are relatively easy to do. Once you’re in the habit of being active you can try some more challenging activities.

Consider getting treatment and support for any physical or mental health condition you are experiencing. Having a mental health problem might sap the strength you have to manage your violence so it’s important to get on top of problem as soon as possible.

The Physical Activities tool has tips for getting started and staying active.

TAKE ACTION

Manage your drinking to reduce the risk of violence

Alcohol is the number one risk factor for violent behaviour.

In stressful situations, you are far more likely to react violently if you have been drinking. Alcohol also makes it harder to control violent behaviour.

The Right Mix website can help you develop an action plan for managing your alcohol consumption. If you take other drugs , you should also try to cut back on them as well as they may increase aggression and chance of violence.

Make an action plan before you start making changes to give yourself the best chance of sticking to your goals.

Use the ON TRACK with The Right Mix app to manage your drinking.

Getting help

If you or a friend/family member is concerned about your violent behaviour, seek professional help:

  • A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome problems with violence. A GP can help with a thorough assessment of the problem and make referrals for specialist care if necessary.
  • Contact Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling (formerly VVCS) on 1800 011 046 for free and confidential counselling 24/7. This service provides specialised counselling services for veterans and their families.
  • Search the AT-Ease website to learn about a range of professional care services available to current and former serving members.
  • 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.
  • 1800 RESPECT provides a telephone and online counselling service to assist people experiencing the effects of sexual assault, domestic or family violence.
  • Relationships Australia offers a broad range of services to individuals, families and communities throughout the country, including family violence prevention programs . Core services include counselling, mediation and family dispute resolution. Contact your state-based Relationships Australia service on 1300 364 277.
  • 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.

Older veterans

Older veterans, even those who have been having problems with anger since they came home from Vietnam, can learn to manage their anger.

It’s worth getting your anger under control as soon as you can, because it is harder to change ingrained habits.

Anger is also associated with 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, so it's really important to help 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.

They may only talk to their doctor about their anger because a family member has asked them to. Just remember: if your loved one is angry a lot, it’s a sign that they’re struggling with something.

A good first step is to find out exactly what the problem is. It’s important to stay calm 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! If necessary to set some limits around how much anger you are prepared to tolerate.

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.

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 .

Physical violence

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.