Understanding Anger Dissorders

To quote Aristotle: “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.”

This is made all the harder by the way perceived threats cause an “amygdala hijack”, and release strong hormones – which we experience as strong emotions – which inhibit rational thinking, leading instead to black-and-white thinking.

In the 1970 there was a fashion to encourage unhappy people to “get their anger out”- perhaps as a reaction against the controlling narrative of psychoanalysis. However, all research on anger management shows that hitting pillows, shouting, and otherwise getting into an angrier and angrier state, only serves to make a person more unhappy and dysfunctional, even though it appears in the short term to cause satisfying exhaustion.

Indeed, some people develop an addiction to anger, enjoying the feeling of certainty (black-and-white thinking) and the emotional high it gives them. 

As a therapeutic technique, it was a disaster.123 56

Brad Bushman did some detailed experiments on this, and reached this conclusion: 4

If you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get pissed. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.

It’s drug-like, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it.

The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove. Let it go from a boil to a simmer to a lukewarm state where you no longer want to sink your teeth into the side of buffalo.

Instead, effective anger management skills connect with how the mind/body system actually works. We can learn to recognise when we are starting to lose our temper, and learn how to withdraw from an emotionally explosive situation before that emotion has hijacked our rational mind. It takes about 20-30 minutes doing something calming to give enough time for the stress hormones to wash out of the system – but in this time, it is important to avoid rehearsing our response, or to justify the anger, because this will just pump it up again. (But it is important to get back to the person and talk to them, calmly, to prevent it from festering, which would also undermine the relationship.)

It is also worth remembering that most arguments are not really about right and wrong, they are really about ‘my needs’ vs ‘your needs’, and when we can appreciate that, we can negotiate so that both sets of needs are met, or a reasonable compromise is found.

1 Tavris, C (1982) Anger the Missunderstood Emotion, Simon & Schuster.

2 https://slate.com/technology/2022/03/venting-makes-you-feel-worse-psychology-research.html

3 https://www.verywellmind.com/how-you-vent-anger-may-not-be-good-for-bpd-425393

4 Brad Bushman, Roy Baymeister and Angela Stack


5 https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/design-your-path/201108/anger-management-the-five-ws-healthy-venting

6 https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/this-is-how-to-overcome-anger-5-powerful-secrets-from-mindfulness