Ash | November 2, 2021
Anger is scary. As humans, we associate anger with violence, arguments, temper tantrums, and a general sense of losing control. This can make the topic of anger hard to talk about—or even think about.
Since anger can be a volatile topic, let’s start with a minute of deep breathing. Yes, really. Even if you think a breathing exercise sounds dorky or silly or woo-woo, all I ask is for you to humor me. Let’s start with some Box Breathing:
Take a deep breath in for four seconds.
Hold your breath for four seconds.
Exhale, slowly, for four seconds.
Repeat steps 1-3 until you feel calmer... or until you’re simply over it and ready to read the rest of this.
Hey, guess what?
You just practiced an anger management technique! Box Breathing is a simple, quick technique you can use to relax your body, lower your heart rate, and sharpen your focus. This easy meditation technique is useful whenever you start to feel overwhelmed by your emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, and - you guessed it - anger.
Thank you for trying Box Breathing with me. I wanted to start out with that exercise so that you could immediately learn an applicable strategy for managing your anger. Plus, I know how hard it is to talk and read about this, and I want you to feel as calm as possible before we move forward.
So anyway, back to anger.
Though it can be an uncomfortable feeling, anger is both a necessary and important emotion. Like any human emotion, anger can be helpful and healthy, just as long as it's appropriately managed.
Since it can be a frightening and concerning emotion to feel, many of us suppress or otherwise avoid our anger as a whole. This might work in the short term, but it doesn’t make it go away. Turned inwards, anger can mutate into depression. Suppressed anger can even contribute to health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic back pain.
"People with ADHD experience emotions a little more intensely than the average neurotypical."
Anger and ADHD
A 2010 study found that the amygdala, an important part of the brain that regulates emotions and fear, was smaller in adult patients with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) compared to the control group, neurotypical adults (participants without ADHD).
Additionally, the researchers found that certain ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity and inattention were also correlated with a smaller-sized amygdala. Because our ADHD brains aren't wired to efficiently and consistently manage our intense feelings, we're more prone to frequently feel rage and have angry outbursts. In other words, we experience emotions a little more intensely than the average neurotypical.
Scientists have also discovered that a smaller amygdala is correlated with a person being more expressive —which many would consider a good quality. Adults and kids with ADHD may laugh more easily, openly share their feelings with anyone willing to listen, and even positively influence the mood of other people. The flip side of this expressiveness is that we’re more prone to traits such as impulsive behavior and emotional dysregulation. In adults and adolescents alike, this can manifest as tantrums, screaming, and throwing or hitting things. After we act out these explosive behaviors, it's not uncommon for us to feel deep regret and shame.
If you have ADHD, it's very likely that the reward centers of your brain may not work the way medical textbooks say they should. Faulty reward centers can make you feel understimulated or bored, and it may prompt a desire for excitement and stimulation. This is why many ADHD adults struggle with impulse control in the forms of gambling, sex (promiscuity), drugs, and compulsive eating. Anger isn’t necessarily "exciting"; however it can provide the stimulation we so often crave.
(your brain, usually)
Physical Effects and Impacts of Anger
We often think of anger as an emotion that just involves our heads or “feelings.” But anger can actually have a physical impact on our bodies; it can even cause physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate, flushed (red) face due to increased blood flow, raised blood pressure, tensed muscles, release of adrenaline (epinephrine), and a burst of energy due to a flood of neurotransmitters called "catecholamines".
These physical changes occur via the sympathetic nervous system, which performs involuntary functions for the body and can prepare us for “fight or flight mode.” Fight or flight mode is useful when we’re in actual danger (think: Bear Attack), but much less helpful when we’re just angry over something that is not actually life-threatening (think: traffic).
"Past trauma and negative childhood experiences are major predictions of anger and rage."
Where Does Anger Come From?
The most important element to regulating and managing your automatic anger response is to simply recognize when you are seeking negative excitement. Have you ever considered what triggers your anger? Common triggers include rejection, waiting in line, traffic, not getting enough sleep, and going too long without eating. Recognizing and understanding your specific triggers is crucial if you're wanting to get serious about emotional- and self-regulation. On the other hand, anger can also have deep roots that are difficult to maintain. For example, anger may stem from the dynamics of your family or household when you were a kid.
Past trauma and negative childhood experiences are major predictors of anger and rage. Some families even claim to express their love through anger, harsh discipline, and yelling. Loud arguing and shouting might feel perfectly normal to someone if those were common behaviors they observed from family members during their childhood. But this often becomes an issue when the child grows up and becomes an adult - especially in the dating world.
They've carried on the family tradition of rage, but then they're unpleasantly surprised when their partners cannot handle their low frustration tolerance, shouting, and anger. It’s understandable that anyone would react to anger by yelling and throwing things if that’s what was modeled for them as a child, but there comes a time to take a step back and recognize if and when personal anger issues become a problem.
"Most cultures socialize girls and women to suppress their anger."
Women and Anger
As a general rule of thumb, women tend deal with anger differently than men. As women, we are socialized from birth to not make waves. We’re taught to de-escalate any situation that contains even the slightest hint of conflict. We are rarely, if ever, given room to express our anger, verbally or otherwise. Young girls are often encouraged to soothe the anger of others, often at the expense of their own wellbeing and emotional state.
Of course, there are men who were raised in a similar way, or perhaps they struggle with vocalizing their angry feelings; but generally speaking, most cultures socialize girls and women to suppress their anger. And - it's not uncommon for women to avoid using the word “angry” altogether, and instead describe their anger with words like “upset” or “frustrated" or "irritated".
Anger can be a useful signal from your brain that lets you know if and when your boundaries are being violated by some external stimulus. For example, if someone is touching you without your consent, testing your patience, or simply being rude to you, it is completely appropriate to feel angry—and to express it. This is what's referred to as healthy anger, and it is a social cue to curb another’s inappropriate behavior, or to protect ourselves.
But - then there's unhealthy anger...
"It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility."
Throwing or Breaking Things
Yelling, Screaming, or Shouting
Insults and Slander
Physically hurting someone
Physical harming yourself
Burying it/Ignoring it ("sweeping it under the rug")
Arguing (with no intentions of resolving the issue)
These are all behaviors that are bound to end up harming you and/or others around you. They are often a direct result of Emotional Dysregulation, one of the many symptoms of ADHD. We ADHDers may act impulsively, violently, or feel out of control when we feel angry. And when that anger is intense enough, it can drown out all other thoughts and feelings, even - and especially - those with a voice of reason.
Chef Ramsay is the epitome of unhealthy anger.
Going Forward: You and Your Anger
Walk away for a moment and give yourself some space. This is the single most important technique I’ve personally found that helps me to manage my anger. When I get angry, it can be sudden and all-consuming, and my ADHD brain makes me want to act out. One embarrassing bad habit of mine is that I can be mean. So now I've learned to just leave the room when I feel that anger. I don’t want to be mean to my husband, but I also don’t trust myself to be kind when I’m angry. Walk away so you don’t say or do something you’ll regret.
Check out our Anger Management Module in the Inflow app for thorough explanations on these emotional symptoms of ADHD and professional guidance on how to manage it on your own. (You don't have to have an official Adult ADHD diagnosis to use our app!)
Breathing Exercises: Try the Box Breathing exercise from above, and/or research other breathing techniques that might work for you. The Inflow app also contains guided meditations that can help you learn to calm and soothe yourself.
Vent in your journal or write a letter or text message that you don't send. Write down all the mean, angry things you want to say in a place where no one will see it, such as a personal journal or word document. No one except you will see it, so you can be as honest and brutal as you wish. When you’re done, you’ll have released some of that anger, and will feel calmer, avoiding any angry explosions that may have happened otherwise.
Let it all out, Kermit.
If you have ADHD and you struggle with anger management, you are far from alone. And while it may not be your fault, it is your responsibility. You can start by forgiving yourself for the unhealthy ways you may have managed anger in the past, and by recognizing that your brain's wiring is partially responsible for your anger (along with all of those other lovely ADHD symptoms). Then, you should have the understanding and willpower to commit to healthier coping mechanisms for the present and future.
You've got this.
Ash Fisher is a Portland-based writer, performer and corgi mom. Check out more of her writing at ashfisherhaha.com.
Looking for support? Inflow, an ADHD management app, is here to help. Our science-backed program helps people with ADHD learn to thrive. Learn more about how Inflow can help you reach your potential by downloading our mobile app!