When an individual presents with frequent anger, it has become embedded in our culture to assume they need anger management classes. This position is misleading. While anger is a normal human emotion, chronic anger has many varied causes which, if not correctly diagnosed and treated, can lead to social, emotional and medical problems. With the stakes so high, targeting the root cause of anger and designing appropriate interventions is imperative. Here are eight possible causes of anger and potential treatment options that don’t necessarily include anger management classes.
Physical and Emotional Trauma:
Those who have survived trauma including physical, sexual abuse, war, natural disasters or death, may have learned one fundamental lesson about life—nothing and no one is safe. This intensity of this type of emotional disturbance can drive anger by creating a persistent need to defend oneself from real or perceived danger. Anger acts as a façade–a defense mechanism to keep others at bay. Many of these individuals who use this defensive technique, long for closeness and intimacy, however, they cannot risk being hurt again therefore anger acts to keep them safe. Anger management classes alone cannot improve these situations. Psychotherapy is recommended in order to assist in the desensitization of the emotional trauma and renewing feelings of emotional safely.
Effective communication requires accurate sending and accurate receiving of information. Poor communication skills often result in emotional needs and expectations not being met which in turn can lead to both the sender and the receiver of information angry and frustrated. Poor communication styles include being passive, passive aggressive and even aggressive communication techniques. Poor communicators need first to learn to understand their needs then clearly articulate their needs in a respectful and nonthreatening manner—this is called being assertive. In cases like these simply teaching communication skill will resolve the issues with anger.
Distinct from emotional intelligence, emotional literacy is learning the language that allows one to express and understand our own emotions and those of others. I agree with those who advocate for emotional intelligence/empathy in controlling chronic anger. However, to become emotionally intelligent, learning the language of emotions is needed. There are over 4000 words humans can use to express their emotional needs, however, I estimate that there are only a few hundred words commonly used to express our emotional needs. Anger is a secondary emotion and is always driven by some other emotion. It is paramount to learn how to identify and express our emotional needs in very specific language. For example there is a distinct difference between saying I feel tired and saying I feel worn out. Saying one feels tired may suggest to the hearer that the individual still has some energy left but saying I feel worn out clearly suggest that there is no energy left. This level of specificity helps individual to clearly articulate needs and reduces anger. Emotional literacy training is essential for these types of situations.
Some individuals possess narcissistic traits which are directly contributing to their anger. Those with narcissistic traits decree that everything must go their way or the offending party will have hell to pay. Anger management alone does not remove the chronic anger in cases like these. What is needed is education regarding the presence of the narcissistic traits and specific training to help the individual recognize, and be sensitive to what he or she needs as well as how to help others also get their needs met.
Hormonal changes have a direct effect on anger outbursts. However, this fact is not often mentioned by those who practice anger management. Hormonal changes in both men and women at different stages of life can contribute to irritability, frustration and anger. Therefore in some case it is recommended that individuals with chronic anger issues have a comprehensive physical examination to determine if the anger may have a biological or physiological cause.
New or Emerging Stress:
Anger outbursts can be a direct result of stress. Chronic stress tends to have a numbing effect on the body and mind. In fact, when under a tremendous amount of stress, emotions become numb in order for the individual to cope. This is a survival mechanism that allows the body to reallocate resources in an effort to minimize or try to eliminate the stressor. The individual can also become hyper-focused on their needs and become less empathic towards others needs. Anger in this case is a way to defend the self when the body is under a great deal of emotional stress. However anger itself can deepen isolation and keep the individual away from the resources they need to resolve the stress. Stress management is warranted in cases like these to assist in reducing anger and the development of more positive coping skills such as exercise, deep breathing, asking for help or prioritizing one’s schedule.
Poor Resiliency Skills:
Resiliency is related the ability to manage change. Being able to deal with change is an important life skill that is necessary to assist individuals in managing anger. When individuals have the mistaken and often unconscious belief that life must remain familiar and hence resist change, anger can be a constant companion. This chronic anger presents itself in individuals who have had unexpected or unwanted changes in their lives. Anger management classes alone will not resolve this type of anger presentation. Instead change management and resiliency skills are needed in order to address the anger issues in this type of situation.
Lastly, in cases of domestic violence where the abuser presents with anger and violence towards their intimate partners, it would be a mistake to assume that the abuser needs anger management. In fact, research suggests, that anger management classes can lead to greater levels of manipulation and domestic abuse. Domestic abusers need to be in batterer intervention programs to better assist them with addressing their violent tendencies.
The right treatment starts with the right diagnosis. With a myriad of individuals seeking anger management classes and treatment every year, the public needs to be informed of the treatment issues and options available. It’s time to realize that anger has many caused. Those causes must first be known and then be treated appropriately otherwise the anger that exists in our societies will continue unabated.
By Carlos Todd, PhD, LPC
Dr. Carlos Todd maintains a private coaching, training, consulting and counseling practice in Charlotte, North Carolina and specializes in anger management, domestic violence and conflict management. Learn more at carlostodd.com or masteringconflict.com