Imagine a single woman at home on her own late at night. In the dark and early hours of the morning she becomes aware of someone attempting to break into her house, afraid for her safety she looks for somewhere to hide.  If however, she is a mother at home with small children, she would be just as likely to escalate to anger, as to fear. Like a tigress protecting her litter, anger rising in her as she positions her children safely behind her, she may challenge the intruder, ‘Stay away from my kids. Get out of my house!’

While anger is more readily tolerated in males it can be a protective emotion for females. Anger is a ‘doing’ emotion. It is instinctive for both males and females to rise to anger when threatened because it is a stronger response than cowering with fear. If someone is feeling hurt, sad or afraid they are more likely to lose confidence, hesitate or withdraw than someone who switches to anger in readiness to act or defend.

One of the neurochemicals that the brain releases to bond a mother with her child is what is sometimes referred to as the ‘love chemical’ oxytocin.  When oxytocin is released it gives her feelings of love, trust and empathy, and when she, or those she loves are threatened, oxytocin helps override fear.

When girls feel afraid or hurt they may express it in anger from mild annoyance or frustration, to intense rage. It is usually in response to a trigger of feeling hurt in some way. Feelings of anger may be expressed in distinct behaviours such as yelling, pacing, criticising, blaming or ignoring others.

Aggression and anger are different things. Aggression is the intentional behaviour aimed at harming another person. Unfortunately, sometimes anger can trigger aggressive behaviours such as punching, hitting, shoving, verbally abusing or injuring another person. While girls are just as likely as boys to be angry, males are more likely to escalate to aggression.

When a child or young person is feeling angry they may not have the language required to explain or understand these intense feelings. Anger can hide other more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, fear or hurt. In a safe environment a child can be encouraged to understand and speak about these vulnerable feelings, but if they don’t feel emotionally safe, they are more likely to express and use anger.

Unmanaged anger, however, can create problems for males and females of all ages. Individuals with poor emotional self-regulation are likely to have problems in both their private, social or professional lives. When we rant and rave without the capacity for reason and logic, it can be damaging. Equally, stewing on anger and not expressing it appropriately may lead to a pressure cooker experience, waiting to explode.

To self-regulate anger…

Listen to and monitor internal self-talk. 

 Image from book:  Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

Image from book: Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

It may help to separate self-talk into good coach versus bad coach and then make a conscious decision to listen to the good coach while blocking the bad coach’s negativity.

Use Distraction. 

When an individual is feeling angry it doesn’t always help to tell them not to worry or suggest they be more positive. Instead, listen and when appropriate, distract the individual in some way to allow time to calm down.

Do Something Physical. 

Physical activity can help dissipate feelings of anger by burning off excessive stress chemicals.

Reframe Anger. 

Remember anger is a normal emotion, being angry about feeling angry may unnecessarily escalate difficulties, give yourself time to settle.

Have a comeback time. 

Conflict rarely gets resolved in the heat of the argument. It is better to agree to a comeback time when tempers have cooled and then to talk about difficulties.

Rephrase unhelpful language to a more neutral one. 

Instead of using language such as “It’s unfair” or “It’s hopeless” try rephrasing language to “It’s frustrating” or “I see it differently”, this leaves room for discussion and negotiating.

When anyone becomes anxious or angry their breathing quickens. Shallow tight breathing sends signals of anguish to the brain and tells the individual they are feeling distressed.   By slowing down the breathing cycle individuals can blow out stress chemicals and breathe in calm, slowing the heart rate, releasing muscle tension and turning down the worry tap that can contribute to anger.

Psychologist Gayelene Clews – author of Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete. Find out about the strategies our elite athletes use to deal with the stresses of life in her new book.