Conquer Anger Through Self-Awareness

“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels nor demons, heaven or hell.” Buddha Quotes

You don’t have to be an Angry Bird to know something about the challenge of controlling anger. Learning how to express anger is a normal part of self-development that none of us escapes. It is part of the maturation process. We are taught to turn our cries of frustration into the word no and then into complex verbalizations that communicates our upset and feelings about it. But, some people have trouble with this process that results in fixed personality patterns in which uncontrolled anger is a major continuing feature (Narcissistic Personality DisorderBorderline Personality Disorder).

But, you don’t have to have a personality disorder to have difficulties managing anger. Stress and health problems can temporarily undermine our ability to adequately cope with stressful problems. Chronic pain, physical disability, Premenstrual Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (Your Hormones), Chronic Fatigue , Fibromyalgia DisorderTemporal Lobe Epilepsy, allergies, migraines, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are physical conditions that have anger as a symptom.

Even if you don’t have a problem that predisposes you to angry reactions, life is still an ongoing lesson in anger management in which you will have many chances to learn how to turn your upset into a healthy expression of differences.

Anger Is A Warning Bell

Anger is a complex emotion that signals we feel afraid, violated, or threatened and can range from mild irritation to full-out rage, depending upon the size of the threat, in our minds. We may not be in touch with the feeling of threat that is beneath our anger; but, it is there and fueling our upset. Take for example, a coworker who gets promoted over you. You feel angry, because you were passed up for the promotion. But, at the root of your anger is a threat to your self-esteem and a fear of job security. Or, for example, a friend says negative things about you. Certainly, you dislike being bad-mouthed. But, the real threat is to your self-image and having opened yourself up to a person who has hurt you.

The greater the anger, the more pressure is on us to take a breather, calm down, and think through what is really bothering us. If we do not, there may be negative social, work or health consequences. Poorly managed anger can make us appear more self-centered, immature and out of control. It hurts our self-image and self-esteem and can lead to heart disease and other health-related problems, if chronic (Anger and Heart Disease; New York Times). Too, anger can negatively affect our work relations and job security. People who have chronic anger are more apt to be fired from their jobs, passed up for job promotions, make less pay, and have a history of highly-conflicted interpersonal relationships (American Psychological Association).

There’s no question about it, learning to better manage anger will serve us well physically, socially, and professionally.

Anger and the Fight-or-Flight Response to Stress

Anger is evolutionarily tied to the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response to stress. In less civilized times, we dealt with fears to our survival by fighting foes fist-to-fist or by running away. For cave men, this was easier to do, as matters of survival were clear-cut. We were either food for predators or they were food for us. Today, matters of survival extend beyond the threat of going hungry. Now, we have ideas, beliefs, and values, and the feelings that accompany them, that complicate the nature of threat to our survival and welfare. What is more, we have the added pressure of having to manage our anger, when we feel threatened. We cannot fight fist to fist or run away. We may be jailed, fired from employment, or abandoned by lovers and friends. Or, if we flee the threat, we may be judged incompetent problem-solvers or cowards.

We have to cope with our anger or else there will be hard-hitting consequences for the lack of self-control. Today, coping is the fight side of the fight-or-flight response to threatening circumstances.

Working Memory In Anger Management

We have to be able to reason through fears to cope with anger. You may recall in my article on Attention Deficit Disorder that at the heart of inhibition of anger and self-control is working memory. Working memory is the brain’s ability to give us a thinking space for processing what is happening to us in the moment. It lets us hold our thoughts on what is happening in our minds long enough to reason them through and to direct our behavior in constructive ways and stops distracting ideas from interfering with the process.

But, negative emotions, like anger, impair working memory. They over-excite the brain to the extent that nerve connections between emotions and working memory processes (brain’s frontal lobes) temporarily disconnect. Anger to the brain is like being on too much caffeine. When we are very angry, the brain gets so highly aroused that we lose the ability to think through what’s happening. We become one big ball of negative feeling!

It takes a calm body to access the thinking space that the brain provides for regulating strong emotions through reasoning processes.

Anger Management Recommendations

Traditional anger management therapy has a poor success rate, because of its short time frame (4 to 8 weeks) and its band-aid approach to understanding anger. Anger gets its blood supply, so to speak, from many areas of our functioning. Physiology, ideas tied to ego, thinking patterns, self-esteem, personality vulnerabilities, and health problems make anger a very complex experience.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to appreciate everything that may be contributing to our anger. The following treatment recommendations make you aware of the various areas of functioning that may be contributing to your anger problem. The more areas of functioning that you treat, the more chance you have of regulating angry responses into healthy self-expressions.

1. Befriend anger. The right attitude toward anger is the first step to learning how to constructively manage it. Take a dispassionate interest in how anger operates in you so you can examine the body, mind, and feeling patterns that lead you to feeling hurt, rejected and devalued, and in defense of the ideas, beliefs and values that you hold.

Anger is a normal and useful human emotion. It’s not a virus that we need to keep at bay or protect ourselves against. When healthily expressed, anger allows us to healthily air differences, set boundaries, get better understanding, and grow relationships to deeper, more meaningful levels. Approach anger with curiosity and openness. This is the first step to conquering its potential for destructiveness in your life.

2. Become aware of your body’s arousal level. High body arousal produces chemicals and hormones that agitate the brain, stimulate negative feelings, and impair working memory. One of the first things you should do when you are feeling very angry is to take a moment to deep breathe. By slowing down breathing, you lower body and brain arousal, secure the connections between feeling and reasoning processes, and lessen the chance for saying and doing things that you may regret later.

When you make stress management and relaxation exercises part of your daily routine, it’s easier to stay calm in stressful situations. These exercises teach you how to observe subtle shifts in your biology so you know when your body’s arousal level is increasing, self-awareness and self-control are shutting down, and you are at risk for angry, impulsive reactions. A heads-up on rising body tension lets you cut off negative emotions at the pass, so that they don’t get the best of you. You’ll be happy to see how much anger you let go of when your body is relaxed and centered.

3. Unmask the fear behind your anger. Examine the emotional conflicts that are most apt to threaten you and make you angry. All of us have emotional conflicts from the past. Some of us yearn to be recognized, valued, and taken seriously by people, especially our loved ones. Others of us may have beliefs and values so deeply tied to our identity that having them challenged feels like a personal assault on us.

To get ahold of our anger, we have to become familiar with the fears it masks in us. Take a look at my post that describes the various fears that hide behind anger (Masks of Anger). Know your hot buttons so that anger doesn’t unexpectedly creep up and get the best of you.

4. Examine all or nothing thinking. All or nothing thinking sets us up to feel angry when people or circumstances conflict with these ideas. Maintaining all or nothing ideas and beliefs about who we are or the meaning of a situation can evoke powerful emotions in us, when countered. We are not questioning the right to a belief here. It is more the insistence that no other belief has a right to exist.

Over-identifying with ideas of the ego is always at the root of all or nothing thinking. Our self-image, religion, politics, culture, nationality, beliefs, and values are reference points that ground us in the world. But, they can become powerful stimuli for aggression in us, when our investment in their rightness gives little room for other people’s observations and opinions.

We can learn a lot about ourselves through our anger. Anger informs. Its usefulness or destructiveness depends upon how we cope with it. Hence, don’t treat anger like a virus to be avoided. Own it, study it, and work on all areas of your life that contributes to its unhealthy expression.

I hope you liked my post today and that it gives you some new tools to think about and to manage your anger. If you did, please let me know by selecting the Like icon that immediately follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s post to let your friends know about it.

Have a calm, centered, and self-aware day. Warmly Deborah.

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9 Responses to “Conquer Anger Through Self-Awareness”

  1. avatar deana says:

    That’s the best explanation of working memory I have ever come across, and have come across tons of them because of what I do for a living. Gonna use it in my work from now on, in reports and when explaining deficits to parents. Excellent article!

  2. avatar Dr. Deborah says:

    Thank you Dr. Deana, what a wonderful complement. I’m honored. Warmly Deborah.

  3. avatar azmobaidullah says:

    WOW! Deborah you expalained the issues so simply and exactly.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Azmobaldullah, thank you so much. I’m always hoping to explain the issues in a natural way. So, you pay me a very nice complement. But, most importantly, I’m glad you found the article interesting. Glad to say hello to you today. Warmly Deborah.

  4. This is a great article, Debbie. You have communicated a complex interactional process so very well.
    Sal Maddi

  5. avatar Qasim Ahmad Ilyas says:

    You have been dedicatedly writing about the issues more-in-generally prevalent in our society and helping all to diagnose and cure the symptoms so that they may enjoy the healthy life.
    However Dr. Deborah, I need a little more information about those who are having problems of high blood pressure, unstable diabetes, and heart problems- these are common problems in Pakistan and one who develops HBP and he is very likely to have cardiac problems soon. In addition, they develop not only other biological problems but also psychological and social problems. Anger is one of them and it is most frequently reported here in Pakistan besides other issues.
    What could be appropriate devices that we need to be develop so that the growing anger and frustration could be minimize while dealing with biological/physical diseases mention above?
    Hope to read the best answer.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Quasim, I wish I could help you with these types of physical problems but I am not a medical doctor. I am a clinical psychologist. Still however, many of my articles give exercises for reducing stress that negatively affects physical problems like blood pressure and blood sugar management. Medical doctors give medications to treat problems like this and medicine can be a needed treatment in many cases. But, still with or without medication, it is very important to manage our physical stress through exercise, deep breathing, eating healthily, and other stress management exercises so you can control symptoms through healthy behaviors. This can be very helpful in sometimes reducing the amount of medication that one takes and also managing the symptoms so that you do not worsen.

      Thank you again Quasim. You ask a very good question that I wish I could say more about. Warm regards, Deborah.

  6. avatar G R Shaffer says:

    Dear Deborah,
    I have anger issues and have passed them on to one of my 9 yr old twin sons.
    Watching him fly into a rage over routine failures (games, shoelaces, sports, homework, computers, etc) is like looking into a mirror.
    Admittedly, Jack has his share of crosses to bear; some undiagnosed hearing issues, he’s left handed, has a fraternal twin brother who has always been six months more advanced and his parents are stressed out…no hitting or other abuse…just too much yelling.
    Though we still have a good relationship, I think that it has been damaged by my anger (he is quiet at school, doesn’t like to share, and rarely says I love you). How can I begin to repair this damage?
    I’ve been trying to understand and practice Buddhism and that has helped very much.
    Also, my stress levels are significantly lower than when Jack was five and six years old.
    And Jack and I do work with breathing, Dr. Siegel’s “The Whole Brained Child,” and “Don’t be an Angry Bird.”
    I am mostly worried about his feeling loved.
    Thanks so much,

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Gunter, I’m sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. From your description, I can tell you are a very thoughtful person Gunter. Your insights into your own anger, exploration of ideas and practices to help you, and now concern for your son show me your dedication to personal growth and loving. You are now a good role model for Jack. It’s absolutely wonderful that you do deep breathing with Jack-not only to help him to control his biology but what a great experience to have with his father. I love that you are introducing him now to all of this. Keep this up Gunter, he will keep learning. Also, get him to put language to his frustrations and emotions. The more he can keep his body arousal at a normal level through deep breathing and apply language to his frustrations, the healthier he will become emotionally.

      How you are handling this problem is so loving that I just know Jack is feeling this and will some day recognize it fully. In the meantime, just love him as you do, hug him and let him know that many, many good people have this problem that he can overcome.

      Thank you Gunter. Let me know how it all goes. Warmly Deborah.


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