Why Am I So Angry?

By: Ryan Hamann, clinician

Kratos looked up from the fallen god before him, his anger burning white hot like the ashes that constantly sear his skin and serve as a painful reminder of the life he once lived. The love he once lost. He feels only burning rage, knowing that, long ago, it was love, grief, and betrayal that motivated him. Little remains of the man he once was.

Why am I so angry?

When thinking about issues of mental health, anger is not something that may immediately spring to mind like depression and anxiety would be. When conceptualizing mental health and self-care not as “diseased” vs. “non-diseased” but rather as “helpful” vs. “unhelpful”, it can be appropriate. Even the big disorders like Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are composed of extreme versions of feelings and reactions that everyone feels from time to time — it only becomes a disorder when it becomes unmanageable. The term “disorder” itself refers to a disruption in the order of everyday life.

In that sense, when does anger begin to interfere with our lives? We can all point to extreme examples of explosive outbursts that have gotten us or people that we know in trouble. I’m of the opinion, though, that anger interferes with our lives at a much earlier point, though, and we don’t have to wait until a person is sitting in their county jail after getting in a pub fight to begin helpful intervention.

Anger affects the way that we think. It affects the way we see the world around us. It affects what we choose to look at and what we choose to ignore. If you are able to be honest enough with yourself to say, “I would probably be happier if I could better manage my anger”, then you’re in a great place to begin working on it, because mental health intervention isn’t always about going from “sick” to “healthy”; it can be just as useful a tool for going from “good” to “better” (although, if you do consider yourself to be sick, and view your anger as being on the brink of catastrophic consequences, we heartily welcome you as well!).

What is anger? We all know what anger looks like. A controller thrown into a wall. Yelling at a loved one after a rough game of Counter Strike. A feeling of isolation and disdain for the rest of the world that doesn’t understand you or the hobby that you care so much about.

Anger is different from mental health disorders, since it is an emotion. Disorders are like complex paintings — constellations of symptoms, cognitions, ruminations, and sequelae — whereas emotions are like coloring with a single crayon. It is basic. The pure emotional reaction to some kind of stimulus. Basic does not necessarily mean simple, though. Just because the emotion is relatively straightforward, it can be devilishly tricky to untangle the web of items that trigger it.

Anger is most often a secondary emotion. This means that there is another emotion buried underneath the anger that is being felt first. Oftentimes we express anger at a situation or person because it is a safer emotion to show than what we are really feeling. Anger makes us feel strong. Anger makes us feel powerful. Sadness, fear, and jealousy make us feel weak, and, thus, we often cover those vulnerable emotions with anger.

What does anger look like?

We all have a basic understanding of what it means to be angry. There are several different types of anger. From appropriate expressions of anger, such as righteous indignation and motivating anger, to inappropriate expressions of anger, such as covering anger, hate, explosive anger, violence, or uncontrollable temper. What we may not have thought as hard about is what does it feel like, on a physical level?

When playing Silent Hill, the radio static alerts us that there are monsters nearby before they ambush us. Similarly, when playing Luigi’s Ghost Mansion in Nintendo Land, the vibrations of the controller tell us that a ghost is nearby, giving us time to prepare ourselves before it pounces out from around a corner.

In a similar manner, being aware of and able to accurately read our own physical states can give us the necessary forewarning to prepare for anger before it is upon us. Not being able to read our physiological signals is like entering Silent Hill with the TV on mute, or playing Luigi’s Ghost Mansion without rumble on the controller.

Anger typically manifests in the following ways: feeling hot-headed, increased heart rate, increased respiration, dizziness, shaking, redness in the face, sweating, tightness of muscles (especially in the jaw, shoulders, arms, and core), and headaches. You may feel all or none of those, as anger looks different for different people, but the better you know your own warning signs, the better you will be able to soothe yourself before you lash out.

Why do I get/stay angry?

As I mentioned already, anger is most often a secondary emotion. This means that it is masking a more vulnerable emotion. If we get dumped by our significant other, it may be less socially acceptable to walk around crying and looking down at the ground than to stomp around angry, looking like a tough guy who is in control of the situation and is not to be messed with.

Within gaming, so many of our heroes show only anger. We don’t see Batman break down when thinking of the loss of his parents — he takes vengeance. Grand Theft Auto V’s Trevor weaponizes his anger against everyone around him. Countless games use “angry” as shorthand for “battle hardened”, assuming that restricting their emotional range will make them appear to be more badass.

When we get angry, it is typically in response to a “fight or flight” situation. We become angry when we feel threatened. That threat could be to our self-worth, if someone is belittling us. We could be trying to preserve our essential needs, if we feel that something we want or need is being taken away from us or if we feel physically threatened. We become angry when we try to preserve basic convictions, if someone offends or upsets us with a threatening idea.

Anger is a result of your beliefs. It is always tied to a thought. It is always because of an attribution that is being made. If someone is driving way too slow on the freeway, we might become angry if we assume that they’re a poor driver, are distracted, or are indifferent to the needs of everyone else on the road. On the other hand, if we assume that the individual is trying to drive safely or that they’re pushing their decades-old car as fast as it can go, it might inspire us to be more sympathetic to them.

How do you explain the motives and actions of another person? If we jump straight to “he’s an asshole,” we’re probably going to get angry at them. If we say, “he’s confused or maybe a bit insecure himself,” we may take on other emotions. If someone is griefing you on a multiplayer game, do you assume that the guy is just being a jerk, or do you think that he’s just trying to be funny and entertain everyone, even if his attempts are a bit annoying?

As described in a paper published through UCLA, we are evolutionarily primed to see others with a hostile bias. Evolutionarily, it would have been far more costly to assume that a non-hostile other was hostile than to assume that a violent person was not a threat, so we have been evolutionarily trained to make hostile attributions to others more often than we probably should (Galperin, Fessler, Johnson, & Haselton, 2013).

Anger can come from a slow buildup of emotions that have no outlet. Many games are competitive in nature, meaning that repeated failure is a normal piece of the gaming experience. This can be frustrating and can lead to explosive outbursts if not properly filtered and vented.

How to handle your anger

Believe it or not, you can control your anger. It takes practice, but even the most hot-headed individual can eventually put a cap on their explosive temper. Below are some techniques that can be added to our toolbelt.

Breathing exercises: As patronizing as it was to be told to “take a deep breath” when we were young, there is actually merit to the advice. It operates on a physiological level. We become angry because our body goes into its instinctual fight-or-flight mode when threatened. Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths sends physiological signals to our brain that we are no longer in danger. The time for rest and recovery has begun. Before long, the activating feelings will dissipate.

Take time to cool down: Breathing is great, but it can only get us so far if we are still faced with the triggering individual or situation. When appropriate, we should remove ourselves from the situation and compose ourselves in a quiet, neutral space. Put down the controller and step away from the TV until we feel back to normal.

Challenging our assumptions: We discovered above that thoughts, beliefs, attributions, and assumptions are often to blame for our anger. We can begin to challenge these assumptions and see things from the opposite perspective. If someone does something that gets under our skin, look for alternate explanations. Look at things from their perspective. Ask whether it is really that bad. Though this will be an unnatural and strained effort at first, it will soon become effortless and automatic.

Cost / benefit analysis: When we challenge our assumptions, our aim is not to discern their actual motives. Whether or not our assumptions are true is unimportant. We must ask ourselves, would I be better off being angry or happy right now? Does being angry actually benefit me, or will it just make me miserable or potentially get me in trouble?

Find humor in the situation: If our generation of YouTube streamers and Let’s Players has taught us anything, it is that failure and frustration can be greatly reduced if we’re able to find some humor in our situation. Find a way to laugh at ourselves or at the sheer dumb luck of the situation. Coming away with a funny story to tell, even just to ourselves, can make the frustrating ordeal worth it.

Keep an anger log: Write down and log the kinds of things that make us angry, and let’s see if we can find any patterns. Is there a pattern in the types of situations that trigger us? Brilliant. We can be better prepared next time. Do we find ourselves getting angrier late at night? That means that it’s probably not a good idea to play very competitive games at that time.

Prepare while sober-minded: The better we know our triggers, the better we can prepare while our mind is clear and able. Until we start implementing these skills, we will probably find that our mind is quite hazy and chaotic while we’re angry. We’re better off doing the lion’s share of the thinking before we find ourselves in that state. Understand our triggers. Know when to get out of a situation while we’re still able. The more we know about ourselves, the better we will be able to predict, prepare, and prevent.

Meditation: Focusing on a calming image in our mind can be calming. Take time to breathe deeply, focus on an image, and block out the rest of the thoughts until they calm down a bit. Use our senses to ground us in the world. Can we feel the texture of our socks? Can we feel the air against our face? What do we hear in the background? This can ground us in the physical world and can occupy our mind.

Games that can help with anger

Proteus: A meditative and engrossing experience that can slow us down and put us in a better head space.

Euro Truck Simulator 2: A slow and restful experience. Like taking a Sunday afternoon drive through the countryside.

Gang Beasts: If we feel the need to take our aggression out on something, try something that is both cathartic and hilarious. Laughter is excellent medicine for anger.

Just Cause 2: If a cathartic experience is what is needed, Just Cause 2 offers a unique playground that channels our destruction and aggression into creativity. Though a session may begin with driving cars into enemy soldiers, it doesn’t take long before curiosity kicks in and we are tethering two planes together. Let our creativity steer the boat.

Galperin, A., Fessler, D. T., Johnson, K. L., & Haselton, M. G. (2013). Seeing storms behind the clouds: Biases in the attribution of anger. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(5), 358-365. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.06.003