Phil Barker

September 2003

What Is Anger?

Everyone has been angry and knows what anger is. Anger can vary widely (from mild irritation to intense fury) and can be sparked by a variety of things (specific people, events, memories, or personal problems). Anger is a natural and potentially productive emotion. However, anger can get out of control and become destructive and problematic.[1]

So why do we get angry? People get angry when their expectations are not met -- whether those expectations are about the future, about themselves, or about others. When our expectations are unmet, we revert to illusions of control, "unrealistically expecting all people to behave and all situations to turn out as we think they should."[2] Anger over these unmet expectations often leads us to blame others and shift aggression towards them.

Gary Ginter, a psychologist who specializes in anger management explains that there are several sources of anger: physiological, cognitive, and behavioral.[3] Physiological anger is natural anger. In certain threatening situations, for instance when we are attacked physically, our bodies respond by making us physically angry. Cognitive sources of anger are based on how we perceive things. These perceptions may be accurate...a situation may, indeed, be threatening, or they may not be. Sometimes we will perceive a threat, even though the external situation is not actually as dangerous as we think it is. In other words, there may be no real reason for anger, but our personal biases and emotions take over, leading to aggression. Finally, behavioral sources of anger come from the environment we create for ourselves. Chronically angry people create an atmosphere in which others are aggressive in return, creating a cycle of anger.

Expressing Anger

Additional insights into anger are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Anger is a natural response to certain threats. As a result, aggression is sometimes the appropriate response to anger, as it allows us to defend ourselves. Therefore, a certain amount of anger is necessary. In addition, anger can be useful in expressing how we feel to others. However, we cannot get angry with everyone and everything we encounter. As a result, we must learn to express our anger appropriately.[4]

There are three main approaches to expressing anger -- expression, suppression, and calming. Expression involves conveying your feelings in an assertive, but not aggressive, manner. This is the best way to handle your anger. However, you must make sure that you are respectful of others and are not being overly demanding or pushy, as this will likely only produce aggression in return.

Anger can also be repressed and redirected. Essentially, you want to stop thinking about the source of your anger and focus on something else that can be approached constructively. However, you must be careful when repressing angry feelings. Repressing anger with no constructive outlet can be dangerous and damaging, both physically and mentally. On the other hand, the old idea that you should simply "vent" or "let it all out" is discouraged by conflict experts, who claim that doing so is actually counterproductive, "an exercise in rehearsing the very attributions that arouse anger in the first place."[5]

Finally, one can respond to anger by focusing on calming down -- controlling your external and internal responses (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) to anger. Take deep breaths and relax. Several of these techniques are covered later in this article.

Social Rage[6]

The same issues that can arouse anger in individuals can also arouse anger in large groups. This concept of social rage, or social anger, is an important one for understanding conflict. Social rage is similar to personal rage, but it is generated by social issues and expressed by social groups. Examples of social rage are abundant: anger at immigrants over unemployment, hate crimes, homophobia, etc. Many of the factors at play in personal rage are also important in social rage, including humiliation and a sense of violation of expectations.

When Is Anger Good?

Anger can serve very positive functions when expressed properly. Studies continue to show that anger can have beneficial effects on individuals' health, their relationships and their work. Socially, very positive changes can come from anger -- for instance, the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century. On an individual level, scientists have shown angry episodes actually strengthen personal relationships more than half of the time.

Social scientists agree that anger can be beneficial when it is expressed constructively. One way to ensure this is through the use of feedback loops. Constructive anger expression involves both parties, not just the angry person. Ideally, the angry person expresses his or her anger and the target has a chance to respond. Oftentimes, simple expression helps to ease the situation, particularly if the anger is justified. Remember that this is not simply an opportunity for someone to "vent." It must be approached with the attitude of solving a problem.

Dealing with Anger/Anger Management

As discussed, anger is not necessarily bad. Anger becomes problematic when it is expressed in improper or damaging ways. However, there are many things that can be done to help promote the constructive use of angry feelings.

What Individuals Can Do:

The first step in dealing with anger is to become aware of it. Learn how anger affects you, how you deal with it, and what triggers it in you. There are many ways to handle anger once you learn to recognize it and catch it early on. The American Psychological Association suggests the following:[7]

Relaxation -- As simple as it sounds, basic relaxation exercises can be powerful tools in overcoming one's anger. Among these simple techniques are deep breathing; slowly repeating a relaxing phrase, such as "relax" or "take it easy"; using peaceful imagery to imagine a relaxing situation; and relaxing exercise, like yoga or tai-chi.

Cognitive Restructuring -- Cognitive restructuring is basically changing the way you think about things. This involves thinking more positively about a situation; avoiding terms like "always" and "never," which can be used to justify your anger; using logic on yourself to prevent irrational behavior; and learning to change your approach -- requesting rather than demanding, for example.

Problem Solving -- Not all anger is inappropriate. When there is a very real root to your anger, approaching the situation from the perspective of a problem solver can help to diffuse your strong feelings. Make a plan for how you can fix the situation and approach it with good intentions.

Better Communication -- Angry people tend to jump to conclusions and overreact. By slowing down and thinking about what you say, this problem can be avoided. Also, make sure you understand what other people are saying before responding to them. Listen to the reasons for others' anger and try not to be overly critical. Listening is as important to communication as speaking is.

Using Humor -- By refusing to take yourself too seriously, you can defuse your anger. Try using humorous imagery to lighten your mood or to make fun of yourself. However, you should avoid using sarcastic and harsh humor, which is simply another expression of anger. You should also avoid simply "laughing off" your problems, which ignores the issue at hand. Instead use humor to approach the problem more constructively.

Change Your Environment -- Oftentimes our environment contributes to our anger by causing irritation and fury. Make a point to take a break. Schedule personal time. When stress becomes too intense, simply get away for 15 minutes to regroup and refresh.

What Officials Can Do:

As with fear, political leaders can use anger as a tool to gain political support. Leaders can either aggravate or alleviate anger in large groups of people. As a result, leaders must recognize the consequences of their actions and aim to use tools to lessen anger and be very leery of playing off of the anger of their constituents for political gain (see fear essay).

What Third Parties Can Do:

Mediators and third parties can also play a role in alleviating anger. The most important way in which third parties can assist those dealing with anger is through education. Counselors can teach individuals how to locate the source of their anger, and then overcome it. However, it is important that these counselors understand the sources of anger themselves.

Third parties can also help individuals (and particularly children) cope with angry feelings by creating a safe environment, by modeling appropriate behavior, and by encouraging others to talk about their anger in a constructive manner. Mediators working with adults can use empathic listening with each party separately to try to help them deal with their anger and rephrase or reframe their issues and concerns in a constructive way when they are together with the other party. In addition, all of the steps discussed above ("what individuals can do") can be encouraged and facilitated by third parties.

[1] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You (

[2] Anatomy of Anger, by Oliver Ross (

[3] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Allred, Keith G. Anger and Retaliation in Conflict: The Role of Attribution

[6] Berry, Bonnie. Social Rage: Emotional and Cultural Conflict (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), 8.

[7] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barker, Phil. "Anger." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

Additional Resources