We all experience the feeling of being angry. Maybe it’s anger directed at a situation or another person, or perhaps it’s your go-to response to a perceived threat, real or not.
Regardless of what causes you to feel angry, it’s how you handle it that matters most.
But what happens when anger takes over and you can’t find a way to address and release these feelings?
When this occurs, the result is what experts often refer to as pent-up anger, or anger that’s been withheld and not expressed. This type of anger can affect your mental and physical health. That’s why it’s important to identify, address, and move past these feelings.
If you’ve ever experienced past anger or been around someone who is dealing with it, you might be wondering what causes these extreme feelings that can take over your body and mind.
According to Kathryn Moore, PhD, a psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center, pent-up anger can occur as:
- internal restlessness
While the triggers for each person may vary, Moore said there are some common causes of pent-up anger, such as feeling unheard or unappreciated, lack of acceptance of a situation, or unmet needs.
Some people may also experience anger when they’re hurt. “Instead of feeling vulnerable to the pain of feeling the hurt, they instead feel anger and often feel a desire to hurt others,” explained Moore.
Also, Moore said depression and anxiety are examples of unexpressed anger, because anger turned inward often results in self-hatred, which causes depression.
What all of these situations have in common is an experience of anger without expressing or coping with the feelings. When this happens, the anger is allowed to simmer internally, resulting in pent-up anger.
While anger is a valid emotion, Moore said most of the time it doesn’t serve us or help us to hold onto it.
The first step in dealing with pent-up anger is learning how to recognize when it’s happening.
“If you’re holding onto anger, you may find yourself acting it out with others, often strangers, or with those where you can easily get away with it,” explained Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT.
This effect is a typical self-defense mechanism called displacement. An example is road rage when perhaps the real issue is that you’re mad at your boss, said Bash.
Other symptoms to look out for include:
- poor sleep
- feeling on edge
- getting irritated easily
- becoming frustrated and irritated in minor situations
- criticizing or hurting others
Recognizing and accepting that you have pent-up anger is a significant step toward dealing with it.
Clinically, Bash said, it’s healthy to get professional help with a therapist to help you understand and accept what you’re angry about.
“Often with practice, you can learn to speak the truth, use your authentic voice, and express anger appropriately in the moment,” she added.
Also, understanding the source of anger can help you cope with the situation or the person involved.
“This may look like having a conversation with the person that hurt you, or it could be expressing your feelings and reflecting on what you have control over and what you cannot change,” explained Moore.
Learning how to prevent and manage pent-up anger can help you develop new strategies for dealing with frustration, hurt, and, ultimately, the anger that occurs as a result of these situations.
The good news is there are a variety of ways to learn how you can prevent this type of anger from building up in your daily life. Here are a few strategies you can do on your own:
Change your environment
Sometimes a change in environment is enough to help prevent feelings of anger from being repressed. By creating physical distance between yourself and the person or situation that’s triggering your anger, you can get the space you need to calm down and move forward.
While permanently distancing yourself may not be an option, even a temporary break from the trigger can help you cope with pent-up anger.
Work it out
Physical activity is an excellent strategy for dealing with anger.
Whether you’re pounding the pavement on a five-mile run, biking through the woods, or pushing some weight around at the gym, moving your body can help you decompress, reduce stress, and burn off any extra tension you’re dealing with.
You’ll also get the added bonus of doing something good for your health.
Challenge your thinking
When dealing with anger, psychologists often use a method called cognitive restructuring that encourages you to replace negative thoughts with more reasonable ones.
This mental shift helps you slow down your thoughts, tap into logic, and, ultimately, change your demands into requests.
Practice relaxation exercises
If you can train yourself to slow down and practice deep breathing, you’re more likely to release some of the anger you’re experiencing.
One strategy to try involves using focused breathing. Think of this as slow, deep belly breathing. It’s a good idea to practice this when you’re calm so you know how to do it when you need it the most.
Use creative arts
One way of learning how to manage anger in a healthy way is through a creative art outlet. Bash explained that quite often, music, painting, dancing, or writing can be great tools to express emotions that can be difficult or intense.
Sometimes the strategies you’re using to deal with pent-up anger on your own aren’t working and you need to reach out for professional help.
Here are some red flags to be aware of when trying to determine if the pent-up anger you’re experiencing has reached the point of expert intervention:
- you’re engaging in self-harming behaviors
- you find yourself expressing anger to those you deem weaker or less powerful
- you’re incapable of letting the anger go or accepting the situation
- your anger is beginning to affect your relationships and your ability to feel happy or to be close with others
When you find yourself in this position, knowing where to look for resources is critical, especially if your anger seems out of control.
If you want to locate a practitioner who uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a popular treatment approach, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies offers an online resource to help you find an expert in your area.
The American Psychological Association also has an online tool to help you find the right psychologist for you.
Anger is a regular part of life. In fact, it’s considered a completely normal human emotion. But if you find yourself feeling angry often, especially about past situations, it’s critical that you work through these feelings and forgive yourself and others for what happened.
Sometimes, knowing how to do this can be challenging. That’s why being able to identify the causes and then learning how to deal with them in a healthy way is a key strategy for preventing pent-up anger.