Understanding feelings important in controlling anger


Q. My husband is angry all of the time. He throws things, threatens people, and yells at me. He says he’s “just like his father, so nothing will help.” Can he change?

A. One of the biggest myths about anger is that it is inherited and cannot be altered. Research studies indicate that the way one expresses anger is not an inherited trait, but a learned behavior. Therefore, one can learn more effective and appropriate ways to express it.

Before your husband is capable of change, he must realize that his anger is a problem and that he is responsible for his behavior. Then he needs to recognize and record the events that trigger his emotional outbursts. For example, does he get angry waiting in line at the store? Does he get angry when he is driving? Does he get angry when you want attention?” He should try this exercise for a few weeks, so that he can observe the patterns of his anger responses and can become aware of his triggers.

The next step is to plan strategies to prevent the escalation of anger before he loses control. Anger management specialists suggest that one of the most effective strategies is to take an informal time-out. When your husband feels his anger is escalating, he should walk away from the situation. Intense anger cannot last long, and by walking away he increases his sense of self-control and avoids potential negative consequences.

Understanding the feelings that underlie anger is important in learning to control it. When your husband becomes angry, he is most likely feeling abandoned, disrespected, impatient, insecure, jealous, or rejected. These feelings probably make him feel vulnerable, so he lashes out with anger. You can work with him to identify these feelings. It is important that he understands that anger is a natural emotion. We all become angry. It is how we manage it that is important.

These techniques are not always easy to incorporate after a lifetime of learned dysfunctional anger behavior, but they will most likely lower his blood pressure, improve his moods, and make your life more tolerable. If he attempts these techniques and his anger is still a problem, he should meet with a trained mental health professional and have a thorough examination by his physician.

Q. I returned from a tour of duty about four months ago. Since then, I have been angry most of the time. I was not angry before my military experience. Do I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? I looked it up on-line and I don’t have many of the other symptoms?

A. One of the most prevalent signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that patients report in my practice is an increase in anger. You do not have to have all of the diagnostic criteria to have PTSD, and it manifests differently in each individual.

For a diagnosis of PTSD to be made, you must have experienced or witnessed an unusually traumatic event or events. Being in a war zone certainly meets the criteria. You must also repeatedly relive the event. Most people think this means flashbacks or nightmares; however, it can also be physiological reactions such as a rapid heartbeat or elevated blood pressure.

You report that you were not angry before this experience. In addition to your anger, have you noticed other symptoms of hyperarousal? These may include insomnia, poor concentration, excessive vigilance, and an increased startle response. Many people with PTSD ignore these symptoms.

For a definitive diagnosis to be made, you will need to be evaluated by a mental health professional. The Veteran’s Administration has highly effective programs for PTSD sufferers which include anger management training. You can find their website at maketheconnection.net or call the crisis line at 1/800-273-8255 (press 1).

Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff.