While men experience the full gamut of emotions like any other gender, men are often seen as experts in anger. The expression of anger has become commonplace for men and while it may not be encouraged, it is certainly expected. This stands in contrast to what we know about anger: men do not experience anger more than any other gender.
What is anger and how does it work?
Anger, like any emotion, is a physiological response to our environment. From an evolutionary lens, anger is felt to keep us safe. If you perceive a threat, whether it’s physical or emotional, anger may be felt along with a myriad of physiological experiences: increased heart rate and blood pressure, oxygen redirected from the digestive organs to the muscles, and constricting pupils to focus on the perceived threat. In other words, your fight-flight-freeze response has been activated.
This is a significant contributor to the expression of anger, explaining why we sometimes feel regret when we say or do certain things while angry. If we perceive a threat, our mind and body is built to act, so while some emotions may not lead to impulsive actions, anger often does. This can explain why our behaviour while angry can be a departure from our usual behaviour and personality: it’s a safety response that overpowers the body.
Interestingly, after the physiological effects of anger return to your baseline, our anger threshold is lower for a set amount of time. This means that after being angry, processing it and then feeling better, small irritations can lead to anger much easier. This partially explains misplaced anger. If you experience a significant amount of anger at work and then come up, the irritations from things at home aren’t about them, it’s because the anger at work has made you more susceptible to anger.
How can we manage anger?
There are a number of things you can do to process anger and manage the emotional experience. An important thing to consider is what you need from the following tips and strategies – some people will do all of these things to manage anger, whereas others may find one will suffice.
The expression of anger, whether in words or actions, can be very impulsive. Here’s what you can do to help you manage anger:
- Creating time between noticing anger and acting on it is helpful. Some people do this by counting to ten before acting on it, although counting to one hundred may be more effective.
- Creating space away from the target of your anger, like taking a walk or going to a different room to reduce access can be helpful. With practice, you can start noticing when you’re angry and learn to create time and distraction before behaving based on that anger.
- As described, anger can be physiologically experienced, so engaging in soothing techniques can calm the body down and allow you to behave in a way that fits with who you are. This can be focusing on your breath by taking slow, deep breaths. By sitting down and mindfully attending to things in your environment like what you see around you, what you hear, what you smell and what you feel can ground you in the present. Or engaging in exercise, if available, can help burn through the energy the anger has given you.
Understanding anger as a secondary emotion
After you’ve become more stable, you can play detective. Anger is a secondary emotion, which means there is always a primary emotion “underneath” it that is feeding it. It’s the primary emotion that needs to be processed and understood, the anger is just a cover. For example, if I’m driving and someone cuts me off, I’ll feel a lot of anger and perhaps start yelling at the person in front of me. I get stuck focusing on the anger and directing it at the other driver. However, the emotion underneath is really fear, since I was afraid of getting hurt in a car accident.
By calming down from the anger and searching for the primary emotion, we can process it differently. Anger is often challenging in interpersonal relationships, but it is much easier to be compassionate and connect with the primary emotion. For example, here are two ways of communicating the same information to someone after you experienced anger:
“You made me really angry when you said that I’m irresponsible.”
“I felt really sad when you said I’m irresponsible.”
By developing this skill of noticing the primary emotion, naming it, and working with that emotion, the anger will dissipate since it’s being fuelled by that hidden emotion.
As a final, important point: anger is not an invalid emotion to experience. Anger, like any emotion, has a purpose when we feel it. However, anger is an emotion that can lead to us behave in ways that we regret and can impact our relationships. The purpose of rethinking how you manage anger isn’t to strive for never being angry, it’s about shifting how you express it so you can be the person you want to be when anger shows up.
At MindBeacon, we can help treat men’s mental health struggles and the first step is to visit us here to complete an assessment. Our Therapist Guided Program is free to Ontario residents thanks to funding from the Ontario government.