Difficulties controlling and managing anger is a common problem for a significant portion of the population. In fact, it’s been estimated that as many as one out of every 5 Americans has a problem managing his or her anger. Considering the serious problems out-of-control anger can cause a person’s life, that estimate is sobering.
Anger management is often recommended for people whose anger is interfering with their lives – and especially if it’s causing them to be a danger to themselves or others. Anger management is available in a variety of formats, including psychotherapy, counselling, classes, coaching, self-help courses, and support groups. People seek anger management help
A Double-Edged Emotion
Although anger is one of the most common and basic human emotions, it’s often viewed as a double-edged sword. This is because it can be beneficial as well as extremely destructive. Most people would probably define anger as a “negative” emotion. However, it often serves a very good purpose. Not to mention, the ability to express anger appropriate is positive thing. Keeping anger pent up or never getting angry about anything isn’t psychologically healthy. But frequent fuming, over-the-top anger outbursts, and fits of rage aren’t healthy either.
Anger can be beneficial when it:
- Motivates you to find a solution to a serious problem
- Gives you the necessary adrenaline to protect or someone else from harm
- Stirs you to fight against injustice
- Is expressed appropriately and allows you to be and feel heard, alleviate stress, or work through a problem with someone who’s important to you
Anger is destructive when it:
- Is expressed in inappropriate or unhealthy ways
- Alienates your loved ones, friends, colleagues, or coworkers
- Destroys your relationships
- Costs you your job, your marriage, your reputation, or your health
- Causes you to inflict harm upon yourself or someone (or something) else
- Causes you to destroy property
- Causes you to abuse substances or activities (e.g. gambling) to cope with it
- Feels as if it’s consuming you
So, how do you know if your anger issues indicate a need to work with a therapist or take an anger management class? Well, besides the obvious – i.e. you can identify with any of the items in the “destructive” list above – you should consider help if:
- Friends, family members, and others have told you that you have an anger problem
- It’s interfering in your life
- It’s getting you into trouble
Anger Management Classes
Anger management is probably most frequently offered to a group of people in a class-room style format. In other words, they’re being “taught” anger management skills, but it’s not a therapy group per se. Anger management classes usually last for 20 to 26 sessions, and may or may not be taught by a mental health professional. Many anger management courses are, however, based to some degree on cognitive behavioral principles, since irrational thoughts and cognitive distortions (e.g. black and white thinking, catastrophizing, and mind reading) usually fuel anger outbursts and inappropriate anger.
Anger management classes (and therapy) are generally designed to help you:
- Identify your anger triggers
- Learn to recognize the first signs of anger
- Consider the function anger serves in your life
- Learn how to express your anger and resolve conflicts in appropriate ways
- Learn how to calm yourself down with relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and other healthy strategies
- Monitor your anger (often by keeping an anger journal)
- Learn healthy and effective coping skills
- Consider the past and future consequences of not learning to manage your anger
- Improve communication skills
- Manage stress more effectively
Limitations of Anger Management Classes
While anger management classes can certainly be helpful, they don’t usually address the deeper, underlying issues that are at the root of many people’s anger, such as a history of trauma, unconscious conflicts, a narcissistic sense of entitlement, and mental health disorders such as depression, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder.
Two other limitations of most anger management classes are due to the group setting in which they’re taught. First, working with a group doesn’t allow for the individual instruction and attention that many individuals really need. Second, individuals in anger management groups often feed off of each other’s anger, which only serves to reinforce it. It’s not uncommon for individuals who struggle with anger issues to have an “us versus them” mentality and a tendency to blame society, authority figures, and other significant people or things in their life (e.g. their parents, their spouse, their boss, their crappy living situation, and so on) for their anger problems. A facilitator who lacks training in psychology or sociology may not be able to effectively manage such dynamics, not to mention in a way that’s not only effective, but also beneficial to the group.
Additionally, according to psychologist Raymond DiGiuseppe, PhD, who’s done a lot of research in the area of anger management therapy, individual therapy is more effective than anger management done in a group setting.
Anger Management Therapy
Every therapist has clients with anger issues at some point or other. However, some therapists also offer anger management therapy as one of their areas of specialization. Anger management therapy will help you with the same issues (listed above) as anger management classes. However, therapy takes it to a deeper level. Exploring the underlying issues that are driving your anger, and helping you make changes based on those issues, is very powerful for most clients. This is especially true when anger is a primary or frequent symptom of a psychiatric disorder.
For example, a therapist who has a lot of experience treating personality disorders, particularly borderline personality and narcissistic personality disorders, can address the real – and frequently unconscious – internal conflicts and issues that fuel the rage they express. The same is true of other disorders and problems in which anger problems are sometimes a symptom, such as major depression, complicated bereavement, PTSD, and many others. Addressing the disorder along with the anger will typically be much more effective than focusing primarily or only on the anger.
In anger management therapy, clients are taught to explore their anger triggers, examine the way they look at situations, explore the functional role of anger in their life, and consider and discuss how and why anger surfaces in therapy sessions.
In anger management therapy, the combination of cognitive therapy, skills training, and relaxation training have been found to be particularly effective in terms of helping clients with their anger management issues. Homework between sessions, such as journaling, and practicing new skills in therapy sessions, are also often used in anger management therapy.
Anger as a Disorder
So far, anger as the primary issue is yet to be classified as a diagnosable disorder. However, DiGiuseppe and other experts in this area are continuing to do research to determine if there are sufficient criteria to classify a significant anger problem as a distinct disorder.
Target Populations and Settings for Anger Management
In addition to the offices and clients of psychologists, clinical social workers, and other mental health professionals, anger management is often used to treat:
- Violent offenders
- Domestic abusers (in conjunction with other treatment)
- Individuals with road rage
- Individuals ordered by the court to receive anger management (for a variety of reasons
- Individuals in addiction treatment programs
- Forensic mental health patients
- Prisoners with anger management and / or aggression issues
Finding an Anger Management Therapist or Class
Anger management help comes in several different formats, so before seeking treatment it helps to determine what you want to get out of it. Most decent-sized towns offer anger management classes. Therapists who offer individual anger management therapy aren’t uncommon, so unless you live in very rural area, you should be able to find a therapist within a reasonable distance.
Keep in mind if you go the therapy route, you’ll likely be exploring sensitive issues at a much deeper level than you will in an anger management class. This can be a very positive thing, but it can also trigger some painful emotions and open up old wounds. However, a skilled therapist will also help you through all of that.
Whichever route you choose, finding an effective way to manage your anger will almost certainly improve your life, and also the lives of those closest to you.