Module Two: Understanding Anger

Before we discuss specific anger management strategies, it is helpful to first understand the nature of anger. While most are familiar with this emotion, not everyone is aware of its underlying dynamics. In this module, we will discuss the cycle of anger, the fight or flight response, and common myths about anger.

The Cycle of Anger

Anger is a natural emotion that usually stems from perceived threat or loss. It’s a pervasive emotion; it affects our body, thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Anger is often described in terms of its intensity, frequency, duration, threshold, and expression.

Anger typically follows a predictable pattern: a cycle. Understanding the cycle of anger can help us understand our own anger reactions, and those of others. It can also help us in considering the most appropriate response.

Illustrated below are the five phases of the anger cycle: trigger, escalation, crisis, recovery, and depression.

  1. The Trigger Phase

    The trigger phase happens when we perceive a threat or loss, and our body prepares to respond. In this phase, there is a subtle change from an individual’s normal/ adaptive state into his stressed state. Anger triggers differ from person to person and can come from both the environment or from our thought processes.

  2. The Escalation Phase

    In the escalation phase, there is the progressive appearance of the anger response. In this phase, our body prepares for a crisis after perceiving the trigger. This preparation is mostly physical, and is manifested through symptoms like rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and raised blood pressure. Once the escalation phase is reached there is less chance of calming down, as this is the phase where the body prepares for fight or flight (to be discussed later).

  3. The Crisis Phase

    As previously mentioned, the escalation phase is progressive, and it is in the crisis phase that the anger reaction reaches its peak. In the crisis phase, our body is on full alert, prepared to take action in response to the trigger. During this phase, logic and rationality may be limited, if not impaired because the anger instinct takes over. In extreme cases, the crisis phase means that a person may be a serious danger to himself or to other people.

  4. The Recovery Phase

    The recovery phase happens when the anger has been spent or at least controlled, and there is now a steady return to a person’s normal/ adaptive state. In this stage, reasoning and awareness of one’s self returns. If the right intervention is applied, the return to normalcy progresses smoothly. However, an inappropriate intervention can re-ignite the anger and serve as a new trigger.

  5. The Depression Phase

    The depression phase marks a return to a person’s normal/ adaptive ways. Physically, this stage marks below normal vital signs, such as heart rate, so that the body can recover equilibrium. A person’s full use of his faculties return at this point, and the new awareness helps a person assess what just occurred. Consequently, this stage may be marked by embarrassment, guilt, regret, and or depression.

After the depression phase is a return to a normal or adaptive phase. A new trigger, however, can start the entire cycle all over again.

Below is an example of a person going through the five stages of the anger cycle.

Josephine came home from work to see dirty plates left in the sink (trigger phase). She started to wash them, but as she was doing so she kept thinking about how inconsiderate her children are for not cleaning after themselves. She was already tired from work and does not need the extra chore. She felt the heat in her neck and the tremble in her hands as she’s washing the dishes (escalation phase).

Feeling like she can’t keep it to herself any longer, she stormed up the room to confront her kids. In a raised voice, she asked them how difficult could it be to wash the dishes. She told them that they are getting punished for their lack of responsibility (crisis phase).

Having gotten the words out, she felt calmer, and her heartbeat slowly returned to normal. She saw that her kids are busy with homework when she had interrupted them. She was also better able to hear their reasoning, as they apologized (recovery phase).

Josephine regretted yelling at her children and told them that she’s simply tired and it’s not their fault (depression phase).

NOTE: How long each phase lasts differ from person to person. Some people also skip certain phases, or else they go through them privately and/ or unconsciously.

Understanding Fight or Flight

The Fight or Flight theory, formulated by Walter Cannon, describes how people react to a perceived threat. Basically, when faced with something that can harm us, we either aggress (fight) or withdraw (flight). It is believed that this reaction is an ingrained instinct geared towards survival.

The fight or flight instinct is manifested in bodily ways. When faced with a threat, our body releases the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These chemicals are designed to take us to a state of alertness and action. They result in increased energy, heart rate, slowed digestion, and above normal strength.

Understanding the fight or flight instinct can help us understand the dynamics of our anger response. The following are some of the implications of the fight and flight theory on anger management:

First, the theory underscores how anger is but a natural response. There is no morality to anger. Anger is a result of perceived harm to self, whether physical or emotional.

Second, this theory reminds us of the need to stay in control. When we are angry, our rational self gets overridden by a basic survival instinct. There’s a need to act immediately. This instinct can then result in aggressiveness, over-reactivity, and hypervigilance, which are all contrary to the rational and deliberate response. Conscious effort towards self-awareness and control is needed so that this instinct does not overpower us.

Common Myths about Anger

Here are five common myths about anger:

  1. Anger is a bad emotion.

    There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion; they are instinctual reactions and we don’t make conscious decisions for them to come. In fact, some anger reactions are appropriate, such as the anger against discrimination, injustice, and abuse. What can be judged as positive or negative/ healthy or unhealthy is how we react to anger.

  2. Anger needs to be ‘unleashed’ for it to go away.

    It’s true that anger needs to be expressed in order for symptoms to be relieved. However, expressing anger in verbally or physically aggressive ways are not the only way to ‘unleash’ anger. Nor is anger an excuse for a person to be aggressive. The expression of anger can be tempered by rationality and forethought.

    Note that venting anger does not necessarily result in the anger disappearing, although venting can relieve the symptoms. At times, processing personal experiences, seeing concrete change and genuine forgiveness are needed for anger to go away.

  3. Ignoring anger will make it go away.

    Generally, all kinds of emotions do not disappear when ignored. The anger just gets temporarily shelved, and will likely find other ways of getting expressed. It can get projected to another person, transformed into a physical symptom, or built up for a bigger future blow up. Some of our behaviours may even be unconscious ways of expressing anger.

    While there are situations when it’s inadvisable to express your anger immediately, the very least you can do is acknowledge that it exists.

  4. You can’t control your anger.

    This myth is related to the second one. As discussed earlier, the fight and flight instinct can make anger an overwhelming emotion. However, this instinct does not mean that you’re but a slave to your impulses. Awareness of anger dynamics and a conscious effort to rise above your anger can help you regain control of your reactions.

  5. If I don’t get angry, people will think I am a pushover.

    It’s true that a person can lose credibility is he makes rules and then ignores violations. However, anger is not the only way a person can show that there are consequences to violations. In fact, the most effective way of instilling discipline in others is to have a calm, non-emotional approach to dealing with rule-breakers. Calm and rationality can communicate strength too.