Do you have difficulties coping with anger?

Dr. Robert Fraum, Ph.D

Robert M. Fraum, Ph. D., a licensed New York psychologist providing anger management therapy, discusses symptoms of an anger management problem. He defines dysfunctional anger and discusses aggressive behavior including verbal abuse, intimidation, and brow beating. He discusses covert, manipulative, retaliatory, obsessive, and repressed anger and other types of anger. He reviews psychological disorders which produce anger symptoms including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. Dr. Fraum is available for anger management therapy in midtown NYC and White Plains, NY.

Do you have excessive anger or problems coping with your anger? Does your manner of expressing anger cause harm to you or those you care about? Are there signs that you need help dealing with your anger?

I will discuss normal anger and then define an anger management problem. We will look at a variety of signs and symptoms of problems coping with anger. We will cover a range from physical aggression to passive-aggressive behavior, dysfunctional styles of expressing anger, and psychological disorders with symptoms of anger. You may recognize a particular problematic behavior pattern that needs to be addressed.

What is "healthy anger?"

Healthy anger is deliberate, proportional, and responsive to a clear and present need. Healthy anger is a powerful tool of human survival and adaptation. It is functional and in the service of valid goals. Anger becomes dysfunctional when it works against our best interests or our higher values.

The feeling of anger is an emotional component of an instinctive physiological reaction. It is also an inner signal that something may be wrong. Our intuition may be informing us to watch out, or to assert ourselves, or to protect others. For example, we may get angry or express anger if we see someone harming a defenseless child. Reactive or impulsive anger may help us at these times to do the right thing automatically. Usually it doesn't. It just hurts others and gets us in trouble.

Channelized or sublimated anger is a type of healthy anger. It is anger which has been redirected from its original source into socially acceptable forms of expression, like aggressive sports, political blogging, or chopping wood.

Definition of an anger control problem

Anger control problems, anger disorders, and anger management problems refer to dysfunctional patterns in the way we handle or use anger. "Dysfunctional anger" does not help us to do the right thing. Dysfunctional anger can be destructive, out of proportion, and inappropriate to the circumstances. Often, it is unnecessary and harmful to others. An anger management problem also arises when we get angry too often, even if we only upset ourselves.

Angry feelings and aggressive behavior do not necessarily indicate a problem with anger.

However, there is a problem if anger is too intense or powerful, lasts to long, or occurs to often, or inappropriate to the circumstances. When a pattern of anger or aggressive behavior interferes with our lives or harms others, we are dealing with an anger disorder or an anger management problem.

Types of anger management problems

There are many patterns and types of anger problems but no comprehensive psychiatric typology for anger. So I will approach the issue of types of anger from a several psychological perspectives.

We can describe types of anger in behavioral, emotional, or interpersonal terms. In addition, some anger control problems are symptoms of a psychological disorder. The following descriptions may give you a clearer sense of what kind of anger you are dealing with or observing.

Unhealthy styles of expressing and managing anger

Here are some ways of dealing with anger which are harmful, especially as an ingrained habit, expressive style, or a defensive coping mechanism.

Behavioral aggression describes anger that is expressed in physical behaviors towards people or destruction of property. Aggressive behaviors, like domestic violence, fist fights, aggressive driving, and road rage are relatively infrequent for most people. However, they can have frightening, harmful, or deadly consequences. They can also generate an automatic response from law enforcement or child or adult protective service professionals.

Verbal abuse includes temper tantrums, verbal rage reactions, bullying, intimidation, and brow beating. These are much more common. They can result in divorce, in a civil law suit or an official, or in an "anger management in the workplace" inquiry by management or HR professionals.

By contrast, people who are too afraid to assert themselves may repress angry feelings rather than think realistically about what they need to do for themselves. The repressed anger can build up and erupt against others or themselves at a later time. Anger turned against the self is a defensive strategy in which one punishes himself with anger. Some may do this to avoid getting angry at someone else. Depression is a likely outcome in any case. They may also act out by harming themselves in some way.

Resentment is anger on a low boil. It can lead to blaming, loathing, ill-will and chronic hostility. Chronic resentment primes the way for passive aggressive behavior, acting-out, and rage reactions. It also consumes one's psyche and damages health.

Passive-aggressive behavior includes a pattern of sarcasm and deliberate emotional neglect or coldness towards loved ones. Individuals who employ a passive-aggressive interpersonal coping strategy may avoid direct confrontations. Passive aggressive behaviors are covert and active forms of hostility. These "accidental" or stealthy forms of verbal or even physical abuse inflict harm in such a way as to provide deniability or protective cover for the aggressor. "Passive-aggressive character disorder" (or personality disorder) is not a formal psychological diagnosis. It refers to people who characteristically relate in this covertly hostile style towards at least some significant people in their life.

Judgmental anger consists of criticizing others at the expense of the person who is being disparaged. The goal may be to make one self feel better, or to control or damage others. The harsh criticism of righteous anger can mask malicious intentions towards the person who is being blamed while holding oneself blameless.

Retaliatory anger is a very common anger dynamic, especially in families and other close relationships. Retaliatory or payback anger is an angry reaction or response towards a person who is perceived as directing something hurtful towards one self. It is as if the target of our anger had poured something toxic into our bucket (for no valid reason that we can see). To feel better, we must "get even." So we pour the toxic feeling back into their bucket. Retaliatory anger may be automatic and or intentional. In either case, it tends to lead to a reciprocal payback cycle that keeps the problem going. Escalation can make the dynamics of reciprocal anger much worse and create an emotional vendetta.

Obsessive anger can include paranoid fears, jealousy, envy, as well as maladaptive fears of betrayal, rejection, or humiliation. Angry obsessions can destroy one's sense of self-worth and emotional security. Seething obsessive anger creates a churning, ruminative hostility. Seething anger can set the stage for episodic, angry outbursts, rage reactions, or health problems.

Rage is the full, uncontrolled, physical and psychological expression of the classic fight-or-flight response. Rage anger is extreme but not common for most people. It hijacks the mind and body. Rage reactions (or rage attacks) may include a sense of relief or even joy in the release of pent-up, painful feelings. When raging, control of one's social perception, judgment, speech, and motor behavior in seriously weakened. Rage attacks may followed by selective or partial amnesia for the facts of the event.

Rampage anger is a rare, extreme case of rage anger. Mini rages are less severe but happen more often, especially in intimate and family relationships.

Manipulative or instrumental anger is the intentional use of angry feelings or aggression in order to get one's way or to control a person or situation. Manipulative anger is dysfunctional when it is used as an emotional weapon or tool for resolving conflicts with family members, peers, and others. Ultimately, manipulative or instrumental anger is self-defeating as a long-term strategy.

Overwhelmed or flooded anger can occur when overwhelming fear, or a number of external demands or internal stressors overwhelm a person's coping ability. The overwhelmed or flooded anger reaction often resembles a temper tantrum.

Do not be too alarmed if you experience one or more of the above types of anger behaviors. Anger problems are a matter of their degree, duration, and consequences. In any case, it is much easier to address a current or potential anger issue when we can identify and describe it clearly.

Psychological disorders accompanied by symptoms of anger

In some instances, a psychological disorder is the background condition which supports, or causes symptoms of anger. Stated another way, anger can be a symptom of a psychological condition. The following is a brief discussion of anger symptoms associated with some common psychological disorders.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) is characterized by periodic eruptions of anger and rage which are disproportionate to the circumstances. Individuals with this Impulse Control Disorder are usually impulsive young men. They may threaten, assault others, harm themselves, or destroy property. These eruptions come after a period of heightened internal tension, followed by feelings of emotional release and immediate regret.

In a Depressive Disorder, low mood, irritability, diminished self esteem, reduced frustration tolerance, and heightened self-pity can create anger control problems. For men, shame plays an important role in causing depression and anger control problems. For women, concerns about abandonment, loss, and rejection tend to create depression and anger problems. To a casual observer, clinical depression will be more obvious in women than men. Men tend to under-report Depressive and Anxiety Disorders.

Depression and Anxiety Disorder sufferers are often in state of tension. Their overworked nervous systems are vulnerable to hyper arousal and then exhaustion. These lower the threshold for angry reactions.

Anxiety Disorders include Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Panic Disorder (panic attacks), Phobia, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The ruminative cognitive style in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is conducive to resentment. OCD sets the stage by harboring feelings jealousy, fears of abandonment, and fantasies of being disrespected, harmed, or victimized. Anxiety can prime the brain for an anger or rage event.

Personality Disorders are characterized by rigidity and denial. Many individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) are perfectionistic, judgmental, and demanding. OCD and OCPD sufferers act as if their life depends upon attaining a particular goal or having their demands met. Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are subject to rage reactions when their compelling need for attention or admiration is frustrated.

People with Histrionic Personality Disorder are vulnerable to angry outbursts when they are emotionally flooded. People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are exceptionally vulnerable to anger due to an unstable sense of interpersonal connection and self worth. This results in roller coaster-like emotionality, rage reactions, and tenuous relationships.

Consulting a psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist for anger management

Are there signs of dysfunctional, aggressive behaviors, or unhealthy patterns of expressing your anger, or problems with controlling angry thoughts and feelings? Is excessive anger part of a psychological disorder or due to a difficult or stressful situation?

From a practical perspective, if anger is creating significant problems for you, or for those you care about, you probably should consider consulting a mental health professional who is also an anger management specialist. An anger management consultant, who is a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or certified psychotherapist, can help to find the most effective solutions for you.

Identifying and defining an anger problem is half-way towards solving it. Problems with anger are treatable. It may be useful to read on and learn more about the dynamics and types of treatment for dysfunctional anger issues.

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