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Expert Q&A

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Is need to physically lash out when angry normal?

Anonymous, Virginia

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Is feeling the need to physically lash out when I'm angry, normal? I am a female, and when I am angry (especially when I am angry and hurt) I feel the need to throw something or just grab the person and shake them. I haven't acted out on these feelings besides the occasional shoe thrown at the wall, but it makes me feel out of control, and I worry that it's an indication of a not-so-good side of me. Should I be taking anger management courses or something similar? Or is this normal?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Everyone gets angry, and in certain circumstances everyone gets very angry. Anger is not an all-or-none phenomenon. It runs a spectrum. Some people really struggle with anger a lot and other people rarely lose their temper. Most people are in the middle. Without knowing more details of your situation I cannot say for sure whether your anger is "normal" or not.

However, your description of the issue suggests that you might be someone on the high side of the anger spectrum, and that, therefore, you might indeed benefit from an intervention that would help you cope with your anger. Before we talk about that, let me make a few comments that might be relevant to your situation.

Although anger is in part a genetically inherited trait, my experience and a lot of research suggest that it usually doesn't come out of nowhere. Many adults who react to frustrations in close relationships with inappropriate levels of anger have had to endure childhoods characterized by various combinations of abuse or neglect from their parents or other caregivers. These types of experience seem to program people to have a short fuse as they get older, and, unfortunately, to replay a lot of their traumatic and frustrating experiences as children again in their adult relationships.

Anger also doesn't tend to exist by itself, especially when it is chronic or excessive. Frequently people who have explosive tempers and/or who cope with anger by lashing out physically will also have a number of other symptoms, such as anxiety, unstable moods, a tendency toward impulsive behavior including problems with drugs or alcohol and an odd contradictory feeling toward those close to them, characterized by a deep fear of being abandoned mixed with discomfort whenever they get too emotionally close to others. Extreme anger, especially in women, is also sometimes accompanied by eating disorders and a tendency toward self-harm, usually manifested as repeated episodes of cutting oneself to relieve tension or to feel more alive.

The more you recognize yourself in anything I've described the more important it is that you receive treatment. Sometimes anger management can be useful, but often a more comprehensive approach is preferable. For people with childhoods characterized by trauma or neglect, psychotherapy is typically the best option. In addition to helping emotionally face and resolve old hurts, a good therapist would work with you on strategies to reduce your anger. Depending on the details of your situation, medications might also be helpful. Although we call them antidepressants, these medications have also been shown to reduce anger, even in people who are not depressed. Other agents that usually have more side effects, such as lithium, have also been shown to reduce anger.

It would also be useful for you to explore on your own ways to reduce your anger. Many studies show that surrendering to the anger with a physical outburst does not help over the long run, even if you get short-term relief. So it is important to explore ways to avoid getting to the point at which your anger becomes uncontrollable. For example, when you feel your anger rising, try removing yourself from the situation until you feel calmer. If you tend to get repeatedly angry at one or just a few people, try explaining to them during a period of calm that you are experimenting with strategies to help you control your anger, so that they will be more likely to understand your actions when the anger comes.

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