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Understanding the red mist

Anger is an emotional state which, let’s face it, has a pretty bad rep. There is far more written about how to control your anger than there is about how anger can be useful and transforming.

When we think of anger we often think of shouting and violence, these kinds of ‘negative’ associations lead many people to try to push down their anger and avoid showing that they feel any sense of anger. However, humans have 4 base emotions – joy, sadness, fear and anger, and that means if we try to suppress our anger, we are suppressing 25% of our emotions – that means losing out on 25% of our experiencing, opportunities to learn about ourselves and express our-self.

Humph. Maybe there is more to anger than we originally thought?

What is anger?

So, because of the way we tend to think about anger, we often think of it as a behaviour – like shouting and hitting, and behaviours are choices and sometimes they can be viewed as ‘bad. However, as mentioned already, anger is an emotion. Emotions are natural responses to situations and are our minds way of giving us cues about what is going on. Emotions are natural, acceptable and desirable.

At some point, every single one of us has experienced anger in our life. Whether it be when we are stuck in traffic, someone has said something we do not like or we see behaviour that we disagree with. It is a normal emotional response and in fact is incredibly useful.

Experiencing anger tells us that we have been wronged or in some way. Evolutionary speaking, anger is an instinctive way of detecting threat, which can be seen in the way that our body often responds to both threat and when we are angry – think quickening heart-beat, faster breathing rate, increase in temperature and sweating.

If we think of anger in these terms, it is therefore incredibly useful. It alerts us to something not being right in a situation we are in and so we can explore the situation and see what either needs to change in the situation or we can do differently. Therefore, when you notice you are feeling angry and examine it, it can increase self-awareness, it can lead to identifying goals for yourself and motivate a change, not only for your own situation but also on a more global spectrum, think suffragette movement and more recently the #blacklivesmatter movement which was given momentum through the worldwide anger over the death of George Floyd, to name just a few. In this sense, anger can unite people to challenge and overturn prejudice, to educate and make changes which increase equality. Only when we experience our whole range of emotions can we feel the full range of our humanity.

How does anger show itself?

The reason many people deny anger is that the word conjures up the image of extreme anger: shouting, lack of control, saying nasty things - bad, scary stuff. Yet, the emotion of anger is a base emotion and therefore has a whole spectrum of feelings that come under the 'anger' heading, from the mildest irritation to full blow fury:

It can be experienced and displayed in a number of different ways such as:

  • Through sarcastic or critical comments

  • Silence

  • Shouting, swearing and verbal outbursts

  • Having a short fuse – leading to irritability and snapping at others

  • Scattered thoughts and feeling easily overwhelmed

  • Small things feeling bigger than they are

  • Secret fantasies of hurting other people or self

  • Physical acts such as moving into other people’s personal space, threatening or being violent towards self or others

  • Wanting to withdraw from others and be alone

  • Behaviours to numb feelings such as substance misuse, distractions (e.g., TV, food, books) or workaholism/ never slowing down

  • Physical symptoms such as muscle tension in jaw, upper back, constant tiredness or ongoing colds/flu

In research conducted by the Mental Health Organisation, their findings found that:

  • More than one in four people (28%) say that they worry about how angry they sometimes feel

  • Almost a third of people polled (32%) say they have a close friend or family member who has trouble controlling their anger

  • 64% either strongly agree or agree that people in general are getting angrier

The way anger is managed and expressed can impact on physical health, relationships and general social functioning. When anger is expressed ‘cleanly’ it means the presence of the emotion is noticed, reflected upon and then used to inform a response which is assertive and creates change which benefits self, and potentially others.

When anger is bottled up and leads to explosive reactions this can be viewed as ‘dirty anger’ which will generally lead to other people being ‘caught in the crossfire’ and potentially hurt or impacted which can affect relationships, work and can also lead to serious physical and mental health problems including depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, high blood pressure and lower immune efficiency.

What causes anger? As suggested earlier, anger is felt when some sort of injustice has been done leading to a situation feeling threatening. This can be an event in the here and now or it could be that an event has touched a memory or trauma from the past and the anger is a response to that old wound being activated. We learn how to respond and manage anger as we grow up. It may be that anger is allowed to be expressed and talked through, it may be that anger is something that is seen as more acceptable than other emotions such as fear, sadness and confusion or it may be that as you grew up you learnt that ‘anger was bad’ and as such learnt to push it down and not express it.

As adults, we can react when we are unhappy with a situation: we can tell someone what we think or walk away, however, as a child we have less options. We might not have had people we could tell our feelings to; we would have been less able to speak our mind or walk away and so, feelings of injustice and anger often suppressed and can be carried into our adult life and triggered when something knocks our wounds.

As such, when we feel or express anger, it may be that it is being fuelled by other emotions and until these other feelings are noticed and dealt with, anger can continue. In this way, anger can be like an iceberg, with the seen expression of emotion being anger which hides the unseen emotional turmoil below the surface.

How can I manage my anger?

There are many ways which you can manage your anger constructively. Here are a just a few to get you started. The key is finding what works for you and using it consistently until is becomes a natural response strategy:

1. Recognise what you are feeling and deal with the symptoms

Noticing your physical signs of anger can help you identify when you are experiencing anger, anywhere on the anger spectrum. At this point it may be useful to take some deep breathes, count to 10 slowly or even leave the situation which you are finding stressful or provocative. By doing this you will soothe your fight/flight response and enable your calm, logical brain to become engaged.

2. Be curious about your anger

When you have noticed you are angry and have calmed yourself, be curious about why you were angry. Consider what was going on at the time, what was said, who was there, did any thoughts come into your head, what was happening in your body, did any memories pop into your head, was it just anger you were feeling or anything else?

3. Journaling can be helpful

Once you have noticed your anger and been curious, you could write it down as a way of exploring or logging the sensations that you were feeling. Not only will it allow you to look back and notice any patterns which can help you gain insight but writing (handwriting not typing) activates lots of areas of the brain which enables deep processing and can therefore help in exploring the experience and causes of anger.

4. Changing your thought lens

Very often when we are angry our thoughts will tend to become black and white and very personal “It’s not fair”, “you never listen to me” and “you always do that” are common thought threads among others. Such thinking leads to feelings of powerlessness and suggests we cannot change the situation we are in which increases frustration and, you guessed it, anger. Instead, trying rewording them into opportunities such as “I don’t like it when they say/do …. In future I would prefer ……”

5. Be assertive not aggressive

This is so useful, but takes some practice. Often when we feel angry and react, we are doing just that, reacting without thinking of the impact or consequences. This has 2 effects, firstly that we may feel shame or guilt later when we start thinking about what we said/did, and as seen above, shame and guilt are really good at fuelling anger, and secondly the person on the receiving end is likely to feel threatened and guess what? That’s a really good fuel for anger so will become defensive and so we then get into a battle. Instead, responding in an assertive manner which acknowledges what you heard and how it felt can mean everyone leaves the battleground and talks, e.g., “when you said …. What I heard was …. and I noticed I felt …” this acknowledges your feelings and enables the other person to clarify or reword their statement.

6. Exercise

A more long-term solution to managing anger is engaging in physical exercise. Not only can it release pent up energy and frustration but it can also reduce stress and improve mood by releasing endorphins which naturally enhance your mood. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous workout, anything from running, walking, dancing, yoga to meditation - whatever works for you will be great for calming your mind and give you time to think more clearly.

7. Healthy diet and sleep

Now I am not suggesting you ‘eat yourself happy’ or anything but it is scientifically shown that neurotransmitters in the brain are greatly influenced by our food intake and that by eating regularly and healthily we can maintain a positive mood which can really help in how we perceive and manage stress. Getting enough sleep is also important in being able to relax and maintain a positive mood. If you find your sleep is disturbed by continuing thoughts/worries, have a notebook and pen next to your bed and write them all down – this allows you to do a thought dump so your brain doesn’t feel it has to hold onto everything and also because you are writing you are processing the thoughts more deeply.

8. Therapy

As anger can feel such a difficult and vulnerable emotion to express, often linked to other deep-rooted emotions and experiences, you may find it hard to talk over your concerns with friends and family. It may feel overwhelming to explore it on it on your own and you may feel you could benefit from support from a professional.

There are a range of different professionals you can get support from. Your GP will have details on local anger management groups or courses available or you may find it useful to find a counsellor you can talk to. There are different types of counsellors you can gain support from such as CBT therapists who will help you with strategies to identify and change behaviour, thoughts and feelings in a technique-driven way or there are talking therapists who can give you a space to explore and talk about the roots of your anger and any previous events/traumas which may have come to the surface. It is important that when choosing a therapist, you look for one who is registered with a professional organisation such as the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and that the therapies on offer are right for you.

Take Care

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