Identifying Anger Disorders And Overcoming Them
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 21, 2018
Reviewer Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH
Anger is a real problem in the U.S. In an anger study conducted at Harvard, 10% of people under the age of 25 reported having explosive anger episodes at least three times in their lifetime. The number is lower for older groups; of all adults studied, just over 7% had major anger outbursts 3 times in their lives.
The prevalence of anger disorders has been difficult to determine for a variety of reasons. First, since psychiatrists had no treatments for anger disorders in the past, they were reluctant to make that diagnosis. Also, people may have trouble remembering their episodes of uncontrolled anger as they get older. So, although it seems that young people now have anger disorders more than people did in the past, it may just be that they remember them better. Whatever the case, it's clear that uncontrolled anger problems are common in America.
Is Anger Always an Undesirable thing?
A common misconception is that anger is a negative emotion. People tend to think that anger is an emotion to avoid at all cost. People tend to avoid others who display anger frequently. This fear of confrontation may stop people from addressing critical issues or interacting with others who are important to them.
Yet, anger is a natural emotion. Anger can kick in with a burst of energy when you or your loved ones need to be protected. It gives you a shortcut when immediate action is needed. The fight or flight response has always been a powerful tool for getting people out of danger quickly.
Furthermore, anger can prompt us to tackle difficult problems. If your child is being threatened at school, fear may paralyze you. But, if you experience anger instead, you're more likely to go to the school and demand something is done about the problem.
Anger can help you adjust your communication of rules, too. When someone breaks a rule, you have set over and over, you may become very uncomfortably angry. Now you have the energy and clarity of mind you need to reassess the rule and state it in a clearer way.
Anger can help you build a stronger sense of self if you handle it well. Instead of believing negative statements of who you are, your anger can help you deny the unfortunate labels you and others want to place on you.
When you express anger appropriately, you can fight against injustice for you and those you love. Saying that anger is bad negates all these positive outcomes. You need your anger to survive and thrive.
Importance of Overcoming Anger Problems
The hallmark of an anger disorder is acting out in destructive ways. Anger can cause you to damage relationships, harm other people, or destroy physical objects. Being angry when a TV show misrepresents your social group is perfectly alright. However, when you throw the TV through the window to express that anger, it is purely destructive and doesn't help you or anyone else at all.
To get along well in the world and access the positive energy available when you're angry, you need to learn new, productive ways to express your anger. Otherwise, your anger can cause you and those around you endless grief.
Signs You Might Have an Anger Disorder
Most people don't think of anger as a psychiatric condition. The term anger disorder seems to many to be just another excuse for bad behavior. However, different people do have different challenges when it comes to handling their anger. This may stem from lessons you learned in childhood about how to express anger or stresses you are under now. There may even be a genetic component to how you express your anger. So, what sets you apart if you have an anger disorder? Here are some of the signs to watch for:
- Lack of patience
- Having a "short fuse"
- Blaming others for everything
- Withdrawing when you feel anger
- People you care about are afraid of you and avoid you
- Your anger comes and goes quickly and constantly
- You commonly destroy property when you feel angry
- Becoming violently angry over things that are relatively insignificant
- Constantly criticizing or belittling others
- Can You Manage Your Anger?
The real question, then, is not whether you have anger or not. Everyone has some degree of anger, whether they realize it or not. What matters is what you think, say and do when you're feeling anger. Think about the last time you felt that uncomfortable feeling of anger or rage. How did you react to it? Only when you are aware of your responses can you determine if you need to change them.
Intermittent Explosive Disorder
Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED) is a condition in which you feel sudden anger and express it in aggressive and even violent ways. Your violent actions are far out of proportion to the thing that triggers the angry outburst. You might recognize these well-known examples of IED:
- Road rage
- Domestic abuse
- Throwing objects to express anger
- Breaking objects to express anger
- Angry arguments
- Physical fights
- Threatening others
- Slapping or pushing someone
This explosive anger disorder is a chronic condition. If you have IED, you might have the following feelings before you display these behaviors:
- Racing thoughts
- A burst of energy
- A tingling feeling
- Chest tightness
- Heart palpitations
Obviously, if you have these feelings, you want to do something about them. Remember it is not the feeling that makes it an anger disorder. It is how you react to it - what you think, say, and do - that makes the difference between a natural feeling and a diagnosable anger condition.
What Is Passive Anger?
Before you start trying to deal with your anger issues, it's important to understand what happens if you stop angry behaviors without having new ways to deal with your anger. The result is usually passive anger. Passive anger is usually either expressed in passive-aggressive behaviors towards others or self-damaging behavior towards yourself.
People with passive anger either instinctively or by conscious choice decide that over-the-top anger displays are undesirable. However, instead of channeling their anger into constructive avenues of expression, they let out their anger in sly or sneaky ways. Some examples of this are:
- Repeatedly failing to do tasks as requested
- Evading problem issues
- Making excuses
- Blaming others
- Taking on the role of victim
- Hiding anger
If you typically deal with anger in these passive ways, it's just as important for you to learn better ways of expressing that emotion as it is for people who let their tempers go all-out.
The Connection between Bipolar Disorder and Anger
Bipolar disorder has two distinct phases - mania and depression. People with this condition often experience anger more vividly and have little control over their impulses to act on their anger. What many people miss is that anger is not only a part of the manic phase of bipolar, but it often appears in the depressive cycle as well.
In a 2012 study, researchers followed the lives of 500 people to assess how people with bipolar disorder experienced and processed anger. What they found was that people with bipolar disorder tend to be more argumentative, experience feelings of hostility, and act out on their anger, especially during manic phases.
Bipolar disorder and anger often go hand in hand. People with this disorder need to deal with their anger as appropriately as possible. Writing in an anger journal can be helpful to anyone with anger disorders, but it is especially helpful for those who also have bipolar disorder. For them, the journal would need to include notes on their bipolar symptoms, their ability to sleep well, and their compliance with their bipolar meds.
Types of Anger Disorder Tests
Before you even think about seeing a professional about your anger, though, you can take a preliminary screening test to get an idea of how serious your problem is. Many anger tests are available online. They're easy to fill out and are usually scored automatically for you. You can also find pdf versions of the tests that you can print off and fill out by hand if you prefer that method.
Remember that these are simply screening tests. They don't offer a firm diagnosis. For that, you would need to see a counselor. And, if your test shows that you don't have an anger disorder buy you are still worried about it, it's an excellent idea to follow up with a therapist, anyway. It may turn out that you don't have an anger problem at all, but chances are there is still some problem you need to address. The counselor will help you identify it and assist you in resolving it.
If you choose to talk to a therapist about your anger, they will likely give you some type of anger disorder test to take to identify your anger disorder. They may have you fill out a quiz with pencil and paper or on the computer. Or, they might ask you the questions in an interview format.
The most widely-used clinical anger disorders test is the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory (STAXI-2). The counselor usually has you fill it out by hand. The STAXI-2 needs to be scored by a professional who is trained on it, and your counselor will typically score the test immediately so you can discuss the results and a possible course of treatment.
What Happens in Anger Disorder Therapy?
The first job of the therapist in helping you overcome your anger management disorder is to diagnose your condition and assess your current feelings, thoughts and behaviors. They may instruct you to start keeping an anger journal to record this information along with details about physical problems related to your anger.
Once you and the therapist have defined your anger issues in a complete and accurate way, the real work of anger management therapy can begin. Your counselor may offer any of several therapy solutions, or they may use more than one method.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: In CBT, the counselor helps you examine your anger as well as the thoughts that precipitate it. You identify the problems you're having, become more aware of the thoughts behind it, notice and acknowledge the types of thought patterns that are negative and inaccurate. Then, you develop new thought patterns that help you feel less anger and deal with it better when you do feel it.
- Heart coherence techniques: Heart-centered therapy is relatively new, but its early use has shown it may be very helpful for people who have anger disorders. The first step is to learn to notice your heart rhythms. Then, you learn to change them, especially when you feel angry, to help you become calmer and even stabilize your mood in the long term.
- Group therapy: Because anger happens more often when others are present, group therapy for anger is usually an appropriate way to help people deal with their anger disorders. The group meets at a specified time to talk about their anger issues. The therapist typically starts the session with a question or a discussion prompt. Each person in the group gets a chance to speak. When personalities clash or unrelated anger pops up, the therapist as well as other members of the group help you find new ways to look at the problem and address it.
- Improving communication: Many of the reasons anger becomes a problem have to do with poor communication. Either the person you're interacting with doesn't express their needs very well, or you have trouble verbally responding to them. Your therapist may spend a great deal of the therapy time identifying times when you are unclear or need to ask questions of others to understand what they want. Then, you learn better ways to communicate in those and similar circumstances.
What Are Anger Management Classes Like?
Anger management classes may take place in a residential setting where you move into a facility for a brief time to learn how to deal with your anger disorder. If money or time is a factor, though, you may choose an outpatient anger management program. Whether you go inpatient or outpatient, therapy takes a similar course.
You engage in group therapy to learn about your anger and how to express it more positively. You may also have individual psychotherapy, especially if you have passive or repressed anger that you may not even experience as anger. In any case, individual therapy can help you identify and overcome your anger issues in a nonthreatening environment.
Making a Commitment to Overcome Your Anger
With many avenues of treatment for anger available, there is no reason to put others or yourself through the turmoil poorly managed anger can cause. You can start by talking to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com.
Acknowledging your problem is the first step. Then, with the help of a licensed counselor, you can find out what type of anger disorder you have. Then, you can work with your therapist to understand your anger better and learn new techniques to deal with it.
It is work. It requires dedication to the process, no matter how difficult it becomes. It will likely take a significant amount of time, and it won't be easy. But, you can do it, and there is plenty of help available to make it easier. The most important thing to remember is that you have the power to overcome your anger disorder.