Anger Management Classes - Dealing with Anger Anxiety

by James A. Baker
(July, 2009. Recovery Today)


I grew up in a very angry family. My dad had a hair-trigger temper that could go off for no reason that was ever apparent to me. He never hit me but his words could land on top of me like a ton of bricks. My mom tried to stay calm around us kids, but at night I could hear them screaming at each other after we went to bed. As a result, I don’t like anger, I don’t like being around angry people and I worry constantly that I one of these days I am going to lose it and become just like my dad. Can you help me do something now, before it is too late?

Stressed in San Antonio

Anger Management Classes - Dealing with Anger Anxiety

Dear Stressed:
I am sorry to hear about your family life when you were growing up. Emotional abuse is every bit as destructive as physical abuse , and it sounds like you suffered a lot. You are very wise to ask for help now, and you if you are willing to do some honest, hard work, you can avoid the mistakes your parents made. However, I want to make sure you understand a couple of important things about anger as you get started on your healing journey.

Anger is a neutral emotion. This may seem to be a strange concept to some folks, but there is nothing wrong with anger. Many people have been taught to believe that anger is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Others - especially those who grew up with a rageaholic parent - know all too well the pain and destruction that anger can produce, so they may try to avoid situations where anger is being expressed. There is no doubt that anger - improperly expressed - can do real damage. But that doesn’t mean that anger is, in and of itself, bad.

The first thing you need to understand about anger is that it is practically always a secondary emotion; anger is an emotional reaction to a stronger and deeper emotion that got there first. The primary emotion is fear. If you don’t believe this, put yourself in the following scenario:

Anger Management Classes - Dealing with Anger Anxiety

You are driving down the Interstate in the right hand lane, observing the speed limit, and minding your own business. Suddenly, here comes a guy in a turbo-charged Mustang, going about 95 mph and bearing down on you like a bat out of Hell. Just about the time he passes you on the left, he apparently realizes that he is about to miss his exit, so he swerves right in front of you and slams on his brakes in order to avoid skidding off the exit ramp and ramming into a concrete pylon. Of course, you have to slam on your brakes, too. For an instant your car starts to fish-tail just a little bit before you get it under control again. As Mr. Hot Rod speeds away, you hit your horn and yell obscenities, furious that such an irresponsible idiot is allowed to have a driver’s license. You are ANGRY! But why? Because he came within inches of killing you, that’s why. Right before he made you mad, he scared you half to death.

Anger Management Classes - Dealing with Anger Anxiety

Anger is a secondary emotion and, as we have already mentioned, it is neutral. It is not good, it is not bad, it just IS. You generally can’t control whether or not you get angry. As we have seen from the illustration above, anger is automatically triggered by fear. Anger is the emotion that prepares us to defend or protect ourselves from any threat - real or imagined. And, while it is true that a great deal of the anger people may feel is irrational - that is to say, not based on a genuine threat - the angry, emotional response is still automatic. It is very hard not to cry out in pain if someone drops a brick on your foot, and it is very hard not to feel an initial rush of anger when you face something that appears threatening. In some instances, changing certain aspects of your belief system can eliminate certain fear responses. However, once you feel fear, you very often feel angry.

Anger Management Classes - Dealing with Anger Anxiety

For this reason, whenever anger begins to rise up, instead of treating it as an enemy it is better to treat it as an indicator, much like the oil pressure light on your car’s dashboard display. When the oil light comes on, you can waste a lot of time, and put your vehicle and yourself at risk, if you focus on the light itself. The light came on to tell you something: there is a problem under the hood and you need to check it out! In the same way, when anger lights up in us, we need to pay attention because it is trying to tell us something, too. Generally, it is letting us know that we are very worried or afraid about something. Whatever it is, we need to face it and fix it.

Anger out of Control

Of course, most people don’t listen to their anger so that they can find and fix the problem. It just feels better to use the energy that anger provides to lash out at someone or something else. Instead of talking about what we are afraid of, we talk about who we are mad at. Instead of finding a solution to address whatever it is that is really threatening our sense of safety and security, we make angry, aggressive demands of others in an attempt to get them to fix our problem for us. Instead of working with people, we end up fighting with them. None of these actions will solve the real problem; things will only get worse. This only creates more fear and more anger and more problems. Here are two important points about anger you need to get straight from the very beginning.

  • One: feelings of anger are normal and unavoidable. Anger is a valuable tool we need to help us get through life. Anger, by itself, is not the problem.
  • Two: it is the inappropriate expression of anger that causes problems. When we use our anger as an excuse to treat others abusively and disrespectfully, that is where all the trouble starts.

Your challenge as you move forward is to face your anger and learn from it, rather than hiding from it and suppressing it. Everyone gets angry from time to time and there is no shame in that. Just remember you have a choice in how to express your anger. Concentrate on expressing it in safe, sane ways, and you will be able to break the anger chains binding you to your painful past.

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