By Jan Hittelman
Determining the root causes of most psychological disorders can be quite challenging and complex. It can be like detective work — getting a thorough history, identifying the specific symptoms and exactly how they present, interviewing the client and family members to really try to understand it through their eyes, assessing potential genetic predispositions, ordering various tests and evaluations, etc. And even after doing all that, the underlying reasons for the disorder can remain elusive. There is, however, one exception: poor anger control. Almost every child, teen, or adult that I have assessed who presented with anger issues had difficulty expressing their feelings. Despite being very angry, they were very unassertive. Their unexpressed feelings build up like a pressure cooker. Inevitably they explode, usually over something fairly minor, to the shock of those around them. Their reaction tends to be disproportionate to the (current) situation, because it is a result of a multitude of negative feelings that have been bottled up and never appropriately expressed. Of course there are other issues to address (e.g. poor coping skills, low frustration tolerance, family history/modeling, etc.), but unassertiveness is a key issue.
There is one important caveat to diagnosing anger symptoms and that is to rule out underlying depression. For children and adolescents, depression can present as irritability rather than a sad mood, which is more common in adults. If depression is fueling the anger, then the depression must first be treated.
Anger issues are more common in males than females because our culture continues to propagate the myth that it is a sign of weakness for boys to cry or show their feelings. Consequently, many boys/men lack the skills to do so. Fortunately, there are research-proven anger management techniques that if practiced can dramatically reduce the intensity and frequency of angry outbursts. Will they still occur? Probably. That’s because anger is a normal emotion. The key is how we handle it. Here are some simple strategies to better manage anger:
• Say the F word more! I love telling clients this, because they almost always respond by saying: “Oh, I already use that a lot”. We then discuss the other F word; feel. This leads to more in-depth discussions about assertiveness.
• Stop blaming others for your problem. Until we take ownership, we’re not going to take responsibility and make the necessary changes.
• Change your thinking. It is not the events that occur but how you evaluate or think about them that defines your emotional reaction.
• Be aware of triggers. If you know what your triggers are you can prepare yourself in advance.
• Learn relaxation techniques. When you start feeling agitated use that as a reminder to do something relaxing.
Utilizing these techniques will help you be in control of your anger, instead of your anger being in control of you.