Anger: Aggression and Coping
Evolutionary speaking, humans developed emotions as a mechanism to bond within groups that would protect us from predators and ensure survival with plenty of resources. Even now our responses to other people are essentially emotional, for instance feeling love and happiness when seeing family, or feeling stress when called into a meeting with your boss.
Anger and Aggression
Anger is one of the most recognisable and powerful emotions that we experience. It is a normal, healthy emotion that is useful as it can lead to change and assists in understanding yourself and your values. However, when we’re angry – with our heart pounding, muscles tensing and feeling overwhelmingly hot – it is easy to believe that anger is a bad emotion.
People have the assumption that anger is the same as aggression. This is not the case. Anger is a healthy emotional experience; aggressive behaviour is not. Coping with anger should not lead to threats or violence. Anger does evoke a physiological response that often drives aggressive behaviour (we make fists for a reason) however, numerous alternatives are available. This is particularly important as unhealthy coping can lead to problems throughout various aspects of people’s lives including relationship, career and academic issues. Every person should learn skills to cope with anger as research consistently finds that men and women experience the same amount of anger, they just express it differently.
Expressing anger is vital. Repressing anger can lead to physiological symptoms (such as muscle tension) and psychological symptoms such as anxiety and low self-esteem. Many believe that expressing anger through physical means is best. I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments where we are so angry that we just want to give into our impulses and break something, however, this may not be the best way to express and cope with our anger.
Unhealthy Coping Strategies
Over recent years rage rooms or anger rooms have increased in popularity. Here people can go to a controlled environment to express anger by breaking things within the room (either with your hands or with other implements of your choice). This is based on the idea that anger builds up over time and leads to more violence if not released, therefore holding onto anger for long periods is unhelpful and can lead to a loss of control.
While going to a rage room sounds like a great idea and a fun way to express your emotions, there is a problem. When we spend time engaged in aggressive behaviour to vent anger, we are conditioning ourselves – teaching ourselves – to become aggressive next time we feel anger. We feel pleasure by expressing anger in a physical, aggressive way as our negative emotions are lessened instantly. Therefore, repeatedly doing such behaviours becomes a reward as we feel good straight away. As with any behaviour that leads to reward, we will do it more often. Clearly, venting through aggression is not a helpful strategy for the long term.
We have known for the past four decades that exposing children to aggression leads to them behaving aggressively, through the process of modelling. One of the most well-known psychological studies investigated this in the 1960s. It was found that children who watch an adult treat a doll with aggression are more likely to treat it the same way by imitating exactly what they saw. It is also important to note that these children treated the other toys in the room in the same aggressive manner. They had generalised the behaviour to other situations and things, clearly, this could become problematic in the long term. Therefore, it is important for adults to be aware of how they are expressing their anger in the presence of children as it can have a lasting impact.
While children may not attend rage rooms per se, parents are able to buy dolls for kids to express their anger in an aggressive way. Reading the description of these dolls makes this very clear as they explain we shouldn’t take anger out on others, but we can hit a doll in whatever way we or our children choose (be that throwing it, hitting it, kicking it, yelling at it etc). While on the surface it might sound like a good idea – children are letting out their energy and emotions – research has shown that children who use these and other aggressive implements like them, are more likely to show anger in the long term compared to those who do not use them.
Healthy Coping Strategies
While rage rooms might be a fun way to feel good instantly, they are not helpful in the long-term and do not address the underlying cause of an individual’s anger. The best way to deal with anger is to find a healthy (non-aggressive) way to express it. This could be by turning the emotion into something constructive, like creating change and taking actions towards your values.
However, before we can do something constructive with our anger, we need to ensure we understand it completely. It is important to label our emotions. We may feel angry, but are we also feeling frustrated or disappointed? When we very carefully label our anger, we are better able to break down what we are feeling, separate ourselves from it and cope with it as we feel less overwhelmed. This is called anger granularity. From there we can work on our awareness. Pay attention to how your body feels and any early warning signs. If we know these signs, we are more able to calm ourselves before our anger reaches explosive levels.
Practice relaxation strategies, these strategies act as “emotional shock absorbers”. We can relax our bodies by doing mindfulness, yoga, going for walks or exercising more vigorously. Doing deep breathing is also vital to calm the body and mind. Use strategies like distraction to calm down and focus on something positive. Once we are calm, we are better able to problem-solve and express ourselves clearly. Developing emotional intelligence may stop us from acting aggressively and acting in ways we might later regret.