“At times I was consumed by anger, and out of control. It’s taken me a bit of work, but I have learned how to better manage anger.”

Anger is a common and healthy emotion. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry. Anger can be evoked in a variety of situations, at home, at work, with friends or someone you’ve just met. The degree of anger can vary from a mild frustration to an absolute rage. Anger can be present for a fleeting moment or can bubble along in the background lasting for ages. Sometimes anger can operate as a valuable sign that there is something wrong or not quite right with a given situation. Maybe, what is happening doesn’t fit with your picture of the world, how you expect or would like things to be. Given that anger appears in all our lives at different times, we can all benefit from developing our awareness of anger, how it operates and how to handle it in a way that prioritises doing what is important to you.

Anger as a common reaction to sexual violence

The pain, abuse, manipulation, and injustice associated with sexual violence can evoke strong feelings of anger. Following an experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault there are a whole host of reasons why a man might feel extremely angry:

  • Angry at being sexually assaulted, manipulated, and abused
  • Angry that no-one seemed to care
  • Angry at the betrayal of trust
  • Angry that family members failed to protect you
  • Angry at the way the abusive person seems to have just got away with it
  • Angry that no-one did anything to stop it
  • Angry at the injustice of the court system
  • Angry at yourself
  • Angry that you have to live with these memories

Men and Anger

In our society, men are often quite familiar with anger. However, anger can act as a cover for a whole range of emotions. Anger can overshadow feelings of fear, weakness, inadequacy, sadness, powerlessness, distress, feelings that do not fit with the image of the powerful man who supposedly should always be in control of his emotions. 

Anger can impact on relationships in negative ways which can push close ones away. Anger can also become self-destructive. Men who have been subjected to sexual assault report feeling anger at themselves for not speaking out, for not fighting, for not managing better after the abuse, even anger at themselves for becoming angry.

Anger can be a particularly troublesome and difficult emotion to deal with

“I just exploded. I was so angry. I wanted to lash out and make someone pay. I felt out of control: it was scary.”

Sometimes it can feel like anger is taking over your life, that you are no longer in control of your choices. Anger can produce a physiological reaction that can get in the way of thinking things through and working out awkward situations and difficult relationships. The physiological responses to a stressful situation; increased blood pressure, and bodily tension, can heighten the feeling of being out of control and make anger feel overwhelming, difficult to get a handle on, and scary.

The difference between anger and aggression

Anger is an emotional response that everyone experiences from time to time. Whilst anger can be useful in motivating us to express our needs and protect ourselves in situations where there is a threat to our well-being, it becomes problematic when anger becomes expressed through violent or aggressive behaviour. It’s important therefore to distinguish between the feeling of anger and the expression of anger. The feeling of anger is often described as a feeling of tension in the body accompanied with a surge of energy, this feeling alone is normal and something we have little control over. How you express anger is something you are able to make choices about and maintain complete control over.

“Dave would remember his feelings of shame when was abused, he would then become very angry at this and take this anger out on whoever was around.”

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to change your relationship with anger, so you can choose better outcomes for you and those close to you. Your aim should not be to stop ever feeling anger, but to be able to feel anger, and express your feelings while acting in safe respectful ways.

How to handle anger

Become aware of the signs that anger is around

It is useful to develop an awareness of the signs that you are feeling anger. Everyone is different. Your body is like a thermometer and will typically exhibit signs that anger is around (this is why it is useful to maintain an observing awareness of what your body is feeling and what thoughts are around).

  • Signs that anger is around can be found physically in your body: tightness in the chest and shoulders, increased heart rate or blood pressure, clenching teeth or fists, sweating, pounding in the head, shaking, even sense of dizziness.
  • Signs that anger is around can be found in your thoughts: sense of injustice – ‘it’s unfair,’ sense of righteousness – ‘It’s not right,’ ‘they don’t know what they are talking about,’ thoughts of blame – ‘it’s your fault,’ jumbled or confused thoughts – ‘I want them to go away,’ ‘leave me alone,’ ‘if only,’ discounting thoughts – ‘what do they know,’ depersonalizing thoughts – name calling, swearing in your head,
  • Signs that anger is around can be in found in your voice and how you speak: change of tone of voice, becoming short, raising your voice, becoming more directive in what you are saying, becoming personal – rather than staying on topic, using sarcasm, swearing, calling people names, starting sentences with ‘you’ or ‘if you don’t’.
  • Signs that anger is around can be found in your behaviour, standing up, starting to pace, moving towards, removing, or isolating yourself, pushing things out of the way.

Note: The challenge for us all is to develop awareness that anger is around prior to it translating into an action through verbal or physical aggression.

What are your hot spots?

It is useful to have an awareness of the types of situations, comments, behaviours that stimulate anger in your life. We all have our hot spots. For you it might be about the way certain people act or talk. Anger might come around if you experience being discounted or ignored when people treat children badly. It might appear in relation to particular places or style or if you witness someone standing over or pressuring someone.

  • What are your signs that anger is around?
  • Where do you feel anger in your body?
  • What thoughts are around?
  • What do you find yourself saying?
  • What do you do?
  • What are your hot spots?

Responding in helpful ways

Just as it is important to have a radar for the signs of anger in your life, it is equally important for all of us to have ways of managing anger. The goal is to keep you on track and to make sure anger does not overwhelm you. This next section will offer some practical ideas.

Time out

Sometimes you just need to take time out, to remove yourself from stressful and escalating situations, especially if other people are also struggling with anger, feeling overwhelmed or unsafe. In taking time out the idea is not to avoid having an important conversation, it is to make sure you are in a safe, helpful, respectful place to have that conversation.

Typically, the degree of anger you are experiencing will influence the amount of time you need to return to a good space and what is the most appropriate strategy for becoming calmer. The higher the levels of anger you are experiencing then the longer the time out and the more physically active you want to become. Some people find going for a long walk, run, bike ride helpful, some people find just getting outside, going to a park or walking around the block is enough.

When you are away from the situation, actively work to calm yourself and get back on track. You might listen to relaxing or distracting music, talking to a trusted friend, having a tea or coffee and having a read or even watching some television. Drinking alcohol when angry is not going to be helpful.

Remember: If you’re taking time out from a charged situation it is important to let other people know you are taking a break and to give them an indicator of when you’ll be back, and your intention to resolve any difficulties in a respectful way.

Remember to breathe

If you notice yourself becoming angry take time to breathe. Insufficient air on your lungs will impact on your ability to process thoughts and make informed decisions. Slow your breathing and follow breathe travelling all the way down into your lungs. Consciously taking control of your breathing and reducing the amount you breathe into your chest lowers blood pressure and provides a better perspective to experience intense thoughts and feelings. You can check whether you are breathing with your diaphragm by placing a hand on your chest and on your stomach, you should aim to have only the hand on your stomach move.

Note to self

A reminder to yourself about what is important for you, can be helpful in keeping you on track when anger is around. 

Make a note on your phone or on a piece of paper that you keep in your wallet detailing a few pointers about how you want to treat people, and the kind of person you want to be seen as. The next time you are in a situation where you experience anger, take the time to read this note to yourself and remember why you wrote these down in the first place.

Become an observer of anger

If we think of anger and a collection of thoughts and feelings, one way to take control is to try and unhook yourself from these expressions of anger, by becoming a curious observer. Try to notice whether the thought is in the form of a voice, or of an image in your mind. If the most obvious thing about anger is the feeling of tension or a sensation in your body, then see if you can describe it, its size, mass, weight, colour, form, as if you are curious scientist studying something. The trick is to observe anger as it appears in the present, without setting up a struggle with anger where you become frustrated at being angry. This observing approach to anger will reduce the possibility of becoming aggressive or finding yourself stewing over and over something or becoming overwhelmed to the point where anger seems to take hold of you. Note that becoming an observer of anger takes some practice and becomes easier to do when you develop an observing approach to other emotions 

Note the way that anger is a product of the interplay between thoughts, feelings, and actions

On a day where you notice anger is around, take time out to record what happened in the lead up to feeling anger. Pay extra attention to any thoughts, even if they don’t immediately seem relevant to the event. Note how those thoughts might have influenced the emotions and your actions. Mapping out these thoughts, feelings and how you chose to act can be helpful for you to see what was going on, how some of your expectations or beliefs can influence feelings of anger and either escalate or de-escalate the feelings of tension, frustration, or anger in different situations. People are often surprised to learn that anger doesn’t just explode out of nowhere.

Developing a more comprehensive understanding of how thoughts, feelings and actions work to influence anger will help you to identify your personal triggers for anger. Some people find it useful to reflect on the different ways that their parents or those close to them express anger and how this has influenced or shaped their own experience.

Be aware: Certain habits can build anger

There are certain habits of thinking that can make anger more likely. These include catastrophising, stewing, sweeping things under the rug, and not taking responsibility for your emotions.

Catastrophising: Is a process that occurs when something you had hoped or planned for doesn’t work out, and you react in ways that amplify the size of the problem where it becomes a complete catastrophe for you and your life. Catastrophising is more likely when you move away from focusing on the particular problem at hand and start to make global statements connecting up this instance with other events using words like ‘always’ ‘never’ or identifying something as ‘the last straw’ or ‘this is the end.’ This habit makes a problem in the present harder to sort out and in the process is likely to increase your sense of frustration and anger.

Stewing: Involves spending significant chunks of time, replaying and going over and over an event (some people call this ruminating). Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a rabbit-hole of related thoughts that usually increase your stress and anger about a particular situation without providing any exit strategy to sort things out. instead of accepting that it has happened and taking steps to resolve the problem or develop alternative management strategies for the future, you keep running it over, often thinking about all the different ways that it is hopeless, unfair or shouldn’t have happened.

When you find yourself ‘stewing’ it is useful to remind yourself that it is unhelpful to waste your valuable time replaying unpleasant scenarios in your head. Instead, redirect your attention to sorting the problem in a non-aggressive way. Occasionally, you might decide after some consideration that an issue is not worth your time and energy.

Sweeping things under the rug: This is more challenging to become aware of. Often times we try to be relaxed, and let things slide to avoid conflict and appear reasonable. Sweeping things under the rug is unhelpful when you let things slide that are actually important to you, and you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated when the same things happen repeatedly. If at first you let something slide and it happens again, and you find yourself more annoyed than the first time, it’s probably a sign from your mind that something needs to be done. What needs to be done depends on the situation, the resources you have, what is important to you, your hopes and expectations. If this anger provoking experience involves other people, it is important to express concerns in positive way and tell them that you are interested in working things out in ways that work for them and you.

Seek assistance

If you are continuing to struggle with anger, it is worth considering checking out anger management courses that teach healthy ways of expressing feelings of anger, relaxation techniques and strategies for preventing anger becoming overwhelming for you or those around you. Alternatively, you can seek out a counsellor who is experienced in dealing with anger and men’s experiences of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault