Anger, in and of itself, is not dysfunctional. Anger is an emotion, which, like anxiety, affects many systems (emotional, cognitive and physiological). It is typically activated when a person believes he or she has been deliberately provoked. In terms of survival, anger can be looked at as a necessary driving force when "fight" as opposed to "flight" is required.

Cognitively, research has shown that when angry, people show changes in their thinking (Novaco, 1979). Typically people become "single minded," focusing exclusively on what they believe is provoking them. Most people's anger is isolated to situations in which it is justified, when they have been taken advantage of, lied to, cheated, abused and so forth.

Some people, however, have "anger control problems" They just seem to be always angry. Even when nothing really appears to be provoking them, these people are feeling incited, taken advantage of, belittled, or abused in some way. Sometimes their perceptions are accurate, other times they are distorting their experience massively.

Some people find it very hard to express their anger. They may have internal rules and standards that mandate that anger "must not be openly expressed". This sort of self-discipline can lead to problems, because anger that is not expressed tends to "stockpile". Unexpressed anger keeps a person aroused physiologically which can lead to health problems like high blood pressure and even heart disease. Also, unexpressed anger can cause feelings of helplessness, which can, in turn precipitate depressed mood. Therefore, for people with unexpressed anger, it is important for them to identify their anger, identify what beliefs are keeping them from expressing it, and to find appropriate channels for its expression.

A far more common problem is that of people exaggerating the provocation in situations, particularly interpersonal ones, such that they feel intense and prolonged anger unnecessarily. This unnecessary anger often leads to an exaggerated expression of anger-- often toward others.

People can do many things to reduce anger, relax, meditate, distract themselves (e.g. the old advice of counting to ten) or talk about it. All of these techniques can be helpful for some people. Some believe that hitting a pillow, a punching bag or the like will "vent" the anger. I believe that though doing such things feels good, it doesn't do anything to reduce what it is that is bothering you. You may become exhausted, and therefore relax a bit, but your anger can be easily triggered soon after hitting a pillow by an innocent passerby. Furthermore, venting anger can actually increase the intensity of the state.

As with depression and anxiety, cognitive techniques can be very helpful in reducing anger and lessening the intensity of future outbursts. Many researchers have discovered that anger control problems tend to be associated with a number of "thinking errors" (Lochman, 1984; Dodge and Frame, 1982; Foreman, 1980; Little and Kendall, 1979; Lochman, White, Wayland, 1991).

1. Cognitive Deficits: People with anger control problems have an insufficient number of adaptive responses to provoking events. Research has shown that angry people, when asked how they would solve provocative situations, have fewer ideas than people without anger problems. There few ideas, not surprisingly, tend to be hostile.

2. Frequent False Positives: People with anger control problems often misconstrue events such that they feel provoked even when they are not. It has been found that people with anger control problems tend to be vigilant for presence of people deliberately hassling them. Therefore, due to only seeing part of the picture, they tend to misconstrue innocuous frequently.

3. Rigid Beliefs: People with anger control problems often possess steadfast beliefs as to the legitimacy of hostile retaliation. Some examples include, "Hostility is okay if someone does something to provoke it." or "The best way to get your needs met is to demand it." or "People are, for the most part, stupid and need to be dealt with forcefully." It is not difficult to imagine how adhering to such beliefs might lead to some volatile encounters.

4. Difficulty Anticipating Outcomes Before Action: People without anger problems are able to control how they respond to anger and actually keep it from getting out of control by predicting what "could" happen if they "lost it." People with anger problems tend to respond quickly without such forethought.

Dr. Eva Feinder is an expert in the area of anger control training (1986, 1991). She has developed an anger control program that targets aggressive adolescents. Her program has helped kids gain control of their anger by learning how to step back in an angry situation and evaluate accurately. Anger has a swift onset. There is no more effective way to control angry escalation than to nip it in the bud before It gets out of control. This requires learning how to alert yourself to the subtle signs of increasing anger.

With regard to interpersonal anger, Dr. Fiendler recommends that people try, in the heat of an angry moment, to see if they can understand where the alleged perpetrator is coming from. Empathy is very difficult when angry, but it can make all the difference in the world. Isn't it frequently the case that when we get intensely angry at someone, the next day we feel guilty to some degree? We may say to ourselves something like, "You know, they did have a point. I sort of over-reacted." Taking the other person's point of view can be excruciating when in the throes of anger, but with practice it can become second nature.

Dr. Fiendler also recommends that when angry you try to listen carefully to what is being said to you. Anger creates a hostility filter, and often all you can hear is negatively toned.

The following are some questions you can ask yourself when you notice you are getting angry. These questions serve the same purpose as those used to combat depressive and anxious thinking--to make distortions disappear.

WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE?

Is there sufficient evidence to back up the interpretation you have made of the event that is angering you?

e.g. Someone is late for dinner and you say to yourself, "That selfish bastard doesn't care that I have made dinner." WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE? Is this person really a selfish bastard? Are there qualities which do not support this interpretation?

IS THERE ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT THIS EVENT?

Try to entertain one or two other explanations for what you've interpreted as "deliberate provocation." After all, there are two sides to every coin. Often this is enough to at least decrease anger to the level of mild frustration.

e.g. (same scenario) Could there be a reasonable explanation for lateness. Is there traffic? Could something have come up, which will become known when he arrives? Have I sufficiently told him that being on time is very important to me and to please call if late?

SO WHAT?

Rarely are things as catastrophic in reality as they seem in the heat of the moment. so the driver in the red Porsche cut you off. So what! Will it amount to anything three hours from now? Has your dignity as a driver really been damaged?

e.g. So what if he's late. Let's say he's twenty minutes late. Is it worth ruining the whole evening by assaulting him right when he comes in. Is it likely that it will be forgotten about after ten minutes of chatting?

WHAT WILL THE OUTCOME BE?

Thinking of potential outcomes of our actions is not easy, much less when you are in a state of anger. Anger is by nature "single minded." Extreme anger almost always has negative outcomes when it is taken out on another person. See if you can train yourself to step into the future in the heat of the moment.

e.g. Could getting all aroused with anger end up ruining the evening. What if you do verbally assault him for being late. What could happen? Could it put a damper on the evening? How would you respond if you had a legitimate reason for being late and were nonetheless attacked. Would you want to turn around and drive home?

WHERE IS THE OTHER PERSON COMING FROM?

Anger creates cognitive myopia. Symptomatic of anger is a narrowing of focus on what we perceive as injustice. So it's harder to empathize with others when we are angry. Force yourself to empathize EARLY ON, before anger is out of control. Imagine yourself in the other person's shoes. "What would I be thinking She was coming across like I am right now?" Even just momentarily considering the validity of the other person's feelings can be enough to ebb anger to the extent that it is manageable.

Anger is one of the most difficult emotions to control, because it has a sudden onset and escalates quickly. As Dr. Fiendler recommends, the key to effectively controlling anger is to slow things down. Once you have learned to recognize early arousal signs and how to step back and evaluate the situation thoroughly, anger will lose a great deal of its power.