We’re all familiar with that white-hot sensation of rage – a burning fireball erupting from your chest, fizzing in your head, permeating your whole body with energy.
The triggers for anger can be as simple as a lost shoe, or a cumulative response to sheer overwhelm and the endless demands of modern life. I once boiled over when my husband left some socks on the floor.
As a clinical psychologist who specialises in supporting parents to cope better with their anger, I know how universal it is and how it’s nearly always followed by feelings of remorse and shame. However, I can also tell you that if you learn how to harness your anger, it can become a superpower.
Anger is neither good nor bad, but rather an emotion alerting us to harm, insult, violation or injustice. The “fight” part of the fight-or-flight response is triggered, flooding our body with stress hormones, priming us for action. We begin to shallow-breathe, our heart thunders, chest tightens, and we become ready to act right now. But excessive anger has significant costs for our health, and is associated with heart disease, increased anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
Anger builds on anger, so we often flip our lid after multiple provocations, where the ninth or tenth irritation becomes the last straw and we erupt. Unlike sadness, anger can be energising. Fiery rage can feel seductive, spilling out in that visceral surge fuelled by a sense of rightness and power.
Yet anger has social costs, too – lashing out can harm others and negatively impact our relationships. Psychologist Dan Siegel explains that when we are in “flipped lid mode”, we’re beyond seeing logic. We’re hijacked by our emotional brain (the amygdala) as our thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) goes offline. This often means we’ve lost touch with moral reasoning, which can lead us to act in ways that are scary to those around us.
Anger and gender
Historically, anger is an emotion reserved for men, whereas women are taught that while it’s okay to feel sad or anxious, expressing fury or even mild irritation is not. Yet recently, female anger has become all the rage, with data from the Gallup World Poll – which captured emotional reactions in both sexes across 150 countries – finding that women’s anger levels have risen 6 per cent higher than men’s over the past decade.
However, despite more awareness of female anger, I find that women are still being socialised to squash it. Emily*, 63, felt intense anger after having children and carrying the heavy burden of child-rearing and domestic labour. She says, “I did suppress my anger. I would speak about my resentments, but I felt guilty for expressing them. As in, I’ve got two beautiful daughters, what have I got to complain about?”
Emily, who left her business analyst role after having her first daughter, found that efforts to repress her anger left it bubbling over. “When the girls were little, I’d have to walk out of the room; I felt like I was going to explode.”
For mothers especially, anger clashes with our societal ideas of mothers being endlessly patient, loving and self-sacrificing.
For Emily, anger was a response to feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to do it all, unsupported. “Because of these expectations of being the perfect wife and mother – expectations I probably placed on myself – it all became too much.”
For Mark Williams, 48, anger was also a response to feeling overwhelmed and fear. Growing up in a South Wales mining community taught him that fighting and alcohol were the only ways to cope with more vulnerable feelings. “In the 1970s, the culture was ‘man up’, get on with it and don’t show emotion because it’s a sign of weakness,” he recalls.
Mark, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD later in life, experienced violence from teachers and was called “stupid”. After days of feeling belittled, rage would erupt in the form of red-faced tirades, masking his overwhelm and fear. “Then shame and guilt afterwards,” he says.
Mark later witnessed the traumatic birth of his son, in which he feared for his wife’s life and that of their child. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), consumed with fears that he wouldn’t be able to work and be the male breadwinner in line with traditional gender roles.
“I didn’t know how to deal with that transition,” he said. “I punched the sofa and bust my hand, my arm was in a sling. I had all this anger built up inside me.”
Turning towards anger
Research shows that our childhood experiences also shape how we respond to stress. For example, if our parents or caregivers couldn’t tolerate big emotions and shamed us for our anger, we may learn to fear it and lock it away. Or if they were verbally or physically aggressive, we may learn these behaviours, too. For some parents, anger is then fuelled by fear of losing control. Yet what I am most struck by is their courage to transform their relationship with anger – by turning towards it and bringing compassion to this vulnerable part of them.
What is key is learning to use the energy and value of our anger without being used by it, and understanding the functions of this intelligent emotion. Anger can be a vehicle for change – for example, highlighting a need to draw a line in the sand if we’re feeling disrespected. To say: “No, enough.” When anger keeps spilling into rage, it can also be a sign we need extra support from those around us.
Frances Jacks, a 42-year-old mother of two, says her fury bubbles over in response to “feeling I have all the responsibility”, but she is learning to be curious about her anger. Like Emily, Frances struggles to articulate her needs to her partner. Yet she says, “I feel there’s a more authentic version of me underneath. If I could just let her out. She’s the person who would say the things that are probably quite reasonable frustrations.”
Emily, who accessed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) eight years ago, has learnt the benefits of self-compassion, such as walking in nature, taking pottery classes and using mindfulness skills to notice anger rising in her body, slowing it down by focusing on her breathing. This helps her communicate assertively to her husband. “I found my voice again,” she says. “I don’t have to give a speech; I just need to say it in two or three to-the-point sentences.”
Meanwhile Mark, who has also found talking therapy helpful, releases his anger through physical exercise. He also channels his anger constructively by campaigning to improve support for families, and his TED Talk champions fathers’ mental health. What he finds perhaps the most powerful tool is forgiving himself for his anger, acknowledging it as part of being human, and teaching his son vital emotional regulation skills.
“I’ve learnt it’s OK to show those feelings and feel anger. We just need to talk about it.”
*Name has been changed
‘Mindful New Mum: A Mind-Body Approach to the Highs and Lows of Motherhood’, by Dr Caroline Boyd, is out now (£16.99, DK)