It does feel like anger is such a strong emotion and the hardest to control, doesn’t it?
Asking the right, a.k.a., effective question is crucial to finding the answer you’re looking for. Why anger is a hard emotion to control isn’t the most effective question.
For one, we have no control over any emotion, not just anger. We can’t control the arising & falling of emotions. What we can do is develop skills to control our reactions to the emotions that arise.
Two, it’s not just anger that we have a hard time with. We struggle with multiple emotions where our reactions are out of our control, like rumination due to anxiety.
Thus, a more effective question might be: Why is it so hard to not react to anger?
The reason anger stands out is that our reaction to it can be very ugly and harmful at various levels. Anger seems so hard to control because once anger takes over it’s like a switch that goes off for the duration of the anger outburst. This is also called Amygdala Hijack. In other words, the part of our brain that drives survival instinct-based actions to ensure we are safe takes over the part that thinks things through rationally. In such a hijack, since the brain thinks there is a real threat – even though there isn’t, it becomes very hard to not react in an instinctive manner to protect ourselves.
What Is Anger?
Anger gets activated, as a part of the survival instinct, in reaction to real or perceived threats. Depending on its intensity it can be anywhere in the range from mild irritation and annoyance on one end to fury and rage on the other.
As it’s a part of survival instinct it’s a very natural emotion to feel under threat. As with all difficult emotions, anger too is a cover emotion for the root emotion, fear.
When a living being feels threatened, they fear the loss of their life which makes them reactive in order to move out of the life-threatening danger as soon as possible.
The survival instinct can kick in a few different ways:
WebMD is super succinct in explaining all four:
“The fight response is your body’s way of facing any perceived threat aggressively.” This is where anger comes in.
“Flight means your body urges you to run from danger.” Avoidance behaviors will be a part of the Flight response.
“Freeze is your body’s inability to move or act against a threat.” Depression is a perfect example of the Freeze state.
“Fawn is your body’s stress response to try to please someone to avoid conflict.” All our “fix-it” behaviors come under this, for instance, people pleasing, jumping to conclusions, need for control, and perfectionism.
Now, if we’re saying anger is natural, and its responses help us survive, then what’s the issue?
The issue arises when someone isn’t able to discern non-life-threatening stimuli from life-threatening ones.
Why Do I Get Angry Easily?
There can be a number of different reasons for this. The bottom line though is low tolerance to be with the discomfort that leads to anger.
Let’s break that down. Here are a few different scenarios in which you might struggle with anger:
Scenario 1: Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) occurs when parents or caregivers fail to respond to their child’s emotional needs. CEN doesn’t mean childhood abuse. It is the absence of an important action (emotional needs being met) instead of the presence of violent actions.
As in CEN the child’s emotional needs aren’t met, it is highly likely that the child doesn’t learn the skills needed to work with emotions.
Depending on the individual child’s personality traits, they may struggle with the expression of anger.
Scenario 2: Major Injury
An article in Brainline, a website about brain injury and PTSD, shares that “For many people, family members and survivors alike, controlling anger can be more difficult after an injury.”
They broadly state two reasons for this. One is a possible change in the brain structure and chemicals. Two, the frustration that usually develops with possible physical and other limitations and the feeling that others don’t understand what you’re going through.
Scenario 3: Mental Health Conditions
Research shows how depression and anger outbursts tend to go hand-in-hand. A Harvard Medicine article shares in detail how “anger attacks occur in patients with major depressive disorder.”
Another article in Psychology Today states:
“…dysfunctional anger and aggression can be a symptom of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. It may also play a role in manic episodes, ADHD, and narcissism.”
Bottom Line: Low Frustration Tolerance
No matter which scenario you pick, the bottom line remains the same across – the struggle with anger is the struggle with being equanimous.
When we feel intolerant to the moment’s reality – something we don’t want happens, or something we want doesn’t happen – we get angry (if our response is Flight).
Now you need to observe yourself – what are you intolerant about that makes you angry?
How Can I Control My Anger?
I say this over and over again – you cannot control your emotions. What I mean by this is that you can’t stop an emotion, or a thought, from arising.
However, what you can do, and where the resolution lies, is to learn how to be with the anger (or any other difficult emotion) as it arises.
The sooner you know that it’s arising, the better your chances of not being controlled by it. Once anger is full-fledged, your brain is in Amygdala Hijack.
Once in the hijack, there’s not much you can do. You just need to ride the wave then.
How To Control Anger Immediately?
I believe short-term and long-term strategies need to go hand-in-hand. An immediate how-to is a short-term, important strategy.
The best thing to do immediately is to stop engaging, and potentially get yourself physically out of the space.
In Buddhism, it is advised that when anger takes charge of you become like wood.
How To Control Anger Outbursts?
As mentioned above, if a full-blown outburst has begun, then it’s likely that it’ll complete its course. However, with time and practice the duration of this course will begin to reduce.
In the moment of outburst, if you can, engage in deep breaths to pace down your breathing with deep inhales and slow and long exhales, it’ll tell your nervous system that there’s no threat and that it’s safe.
Once your mind feels safe, anger will leave.
How To Control Anger In A Conversation?
I recommend three things:
- Continually observe and maintain your breath (deep inhales, long exhales).
- Try to separate the conversation from yourself (so you can minimize taking any comments personally).
- If despite the above two you find anger taking over become wood-like, or disengage.
How To Control Anger In A Relationship?
Anger in relationships can be very tricky primarily because relationships have multiple entanglements. A few recommendations to manage anger in your relationship:
- Explore your attachment patterns (formed in early childhood), and see how they might be impacting your current relationship.
- Understand your partner’s attachment patterns and share yours with them – the more you two understand each other’s context, the better it’ll be to disentangle.
- Share your triggers with each other, and create game plans on how you can support one another when triggered.
- Cultivate nervous system regulation skills like grounding that enable you to quickly come back to feeling safe and secure.
- Anger is a natural response to threats.
- It becomes an issue when we can’t discern whether the stimulus is life-threatening or not.
- There can be many different reasons for your anger, but the core reason behind them all is low tolerance to frustration.
- Anger can be managed through a mix of short-term and long-term strategies.
What has your relationship with anger been like? Are there any questions that come up for you as you read this article?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and suggestions in the comments box below!
P.S. Guilt and Anger go a long way. You might enjoy Why Do I Feel Guilty When I Get Angry?
2 thoughts on “Why Is Anger Such A Hard Emotion To Control?”
I agree with your point that emotions cannot be controlled, but we can control our reactions to them. Your suggestion to rephrase the question as “Why is it so hard to not react to anger?” is very effective in understanding the root cause of the problem. You have explained the concept of the Amygdala Hijack very well and how it takes over the part of our brain that drives survival instinct-based actions. I appreciate your effort to explain the different scenarios in which a person might struggle with anger and how the bottom line is the same in all cases, which is the struggle with being equanimous – this really rings true for me. Your article has been very informative and helpful for me in understanding the issue of anger and how to control it – it’s almost like I’m seeing anger in a different light now.
I’m so glad this resonated with you, Anoth. Anger has been a work in progress for me too. I guess, that’s partly why I understand it at a deeper level. And yeah, cultivating equanimity has been a game changer for me, and many others I work with! I wish the very best to you and hope that you’ll have the space and opportunity to further cultivate your changed perspective.