Anger Cues and Control Strategies

Events That Trigger Anger

When you get angry, it is because an event has provoked your anger. For example, you may get angry when the bus is late, when you have to wait in line at the grocery store, or when a neighbor plays his stereo too loud. Everyday events such as these can provoke your anger. Many times, specific events touch on sensitive areas in your life. These sensitive areas or "red flags" usually refer to long-standing issues that can easily lead to anger. For example, some of us may have been slow readers as children and may have been sensitive about our reading ability. Although we may read well now as adults, we may continue to be sensitive about this issue. This sensitivity may be revealed when someone rushes us while we are completing an application or reviewing a memorandum and may trigger anger because we may feel that we are being criticized or judged as we were when we were children. This sensitivity may also show itself in a more direct way, such as when someone calls us "slow" or "stupid."

In addition to events experienced in the here-and-now, you may also recall an event from your past that made you angry. You might remember, for example, how the bus always seemed to be late before you left home for an important appointment. Just thinking about how late the bus was in the past can make you angry in the present. Another example may be when you recall a situation involving a family member who betrayed or hurt you in some way. Remembering this situation, or this family member, can raise your number on the anger meter. Here are examples of events or issues that can trigger anger:

  • Long waits to see your doctor
  • Traffic congestion
  • Crowded buses
  • A friend joking about a sensitive topic
  • A friend not paying back money owed to you
  • Being wrongly accused
  • Having to clean up someone else's mess
  • Having an untidy roommate
  • Having a neighbor who plays the stereo too loud
  • Being placed on hold for long periods of time while on the telephone
  • Being given wrong directions
  • Rumors being spread about you that are not true
  • Having money or property stolen from you.

Cues to Anger

A second important aspect of anger monitoring is to identify the cues that occur in response to the anger-provoking event. These cues serve as warning signs that you have become angry and that your anger is continuing to escalate. They can be broken down into four cue categories: physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive (or thought) cues.

Physical Cues. Physical cues involve the way our bodies respond when we become angry. For example, our heart rates may increase, we may feel tightness in our chests, or we may feel hot and flushed. These physical cues can also warn us that our anger is escalating out of control or approaching a 10 on the anger meter. We can learn to identify these cues when they occur in response to an anger-provoking event. Can you identify some of the physical cues that you have experienced when you have become angry?

Behavioral Cues. Behavioral cues involve the behaviors we display when we get angry, which are observed by other people around us. For example, we may clench our fists, pace back and forth, slam a door, or raise our voices. These behavioral responses are the second cue of our anger. As with physical cues, they are warning signs that we may be approaching a 10 on the anger meter. What are some of the behavioral cues that you have experienced when you have become angry?

Emotional Cues. Emotional cues involve other feelings that may occur concurrently with our anger. For example, we may become angry when we feel abandoned, afraid, discounted, disrespected, guilty, humiliated, impatient, insecure, jealous, or rejected. These kinds of feelings are the core or primary feelings that underlie our anger. It is easy to discount these primary feelings because they often make us feel vulnerable. An important component of anger management is to become aware of, and to recognize, the primary feelings that underlie our anger. Can you identify some of the primary feelings that you have experienced during an episode of anger?

Cognitive Cues. Cognitive cues refer to the thoughts that occur in response to the anger provoking event. When people become angry, they may interpret events in certain ways. For example, we may interpret a friend's comments as criticism, or we may interpret the actions of others as demeaning, humiliating, or controlling. Some people call these thoughts "self-talk" because they resemble a conversation we are having with ourselves. For people with anger problems, this self-talk is usually very critical and hostile in tone and content. It reflects beliefs about the way they think the world should be; beliefs about people, places, and things. Closely related to thoughts and self-talk are fantasies and images. We view fantasies and images as other types of cognitive cues that can indicate an escalation of anger. For example, we might fantasize about seeking revenge on a perceived enemy or imagine or visualize our spouse having an affair. When we have these fantasies and images, our anger can escalate even more rapidly. Can you think of other examples of cognitive or thought cues?

Strategies for Controlling Anger.

In addition to becoming aware of anger, you need to develop strategies to effectively manage it. These strategies can be used to stop the escalation of anger before you lose control and experience negative consequences. An effective set of strategies for controlling anger should include both immediate and preventive strategies.

Immediate strategies include taking a timeout, deep-breathing exercises, and thought stopping. Preventive strategies include developing an exercise program and changing your irrational beliefs. One example of an immediate anger management strategy worth exploring at this point is the timeout. The timeout can be used formally or informally. For now, we will only describe the informal use of a timeout. This use involves leaving a situation if you feel your anger is escalating out of control. For example, you may be a passenger on a crowded bus and become angry because you perceive that people are deliberately bumping into you. In this situation, you can simply get off the bus and wait for a less crowded bus.

The informal use of a timeout may also involve stopping yourself from engaging in a discussion or argument if you feel that you are becoming too angry. In these situations, it may be helpful to actually call a timeout or to give the timeout sign with your hands. This lets the other person know that you wish to immediately stop talking about the topic and are becoming frustrated, upset, or angry.

Anger Management: The A-B-C-D Model*

Albert Ellis developed a model that is consistent with the way we conceptualize anger management treatment. He called his model the A-B-C-D or rational-emotive model.

    • A = Activating Situation or Event
    • B = Belief System
      What you tell yourself about the event (your self-talk)
      Your beliefs and expectations of others
    • C = Consequence
      How you feel about the event based on your self-talk
    • D = Dispute
      Examine your beliefs and expectations. Are they unrealistic or irrational?

 *Based on the work of Albert Ellis, 1979, and Albert Ellis and R.A. Harper, 1975.

In A-B-C-D model, "A" stands for an activating event, what we have been calling the red-flag event.

"B" represents the beliefs people have about the activating event. Ellis claimed that it is not the events themselves that produce feelings such as anger, but our interpretations of and beliefs about the events.

"C" stands for the emotional consequences of events. In other words, these are the feelings people experience as a result of their interpretations of and beliefs concerning the event. According to Ellis and other cognitive behavioral theorists, as people become angry, they engage in an internal dialog, called "self-talk." For example, suppose you were waiting for a bus to arrive. As it approaches, several people push in front of you to board. In this situation, you may start to get angry. You may be thinking, "How can people be so inconsiderate! They just push me aside to get on the bus. They obviously don't care about me or other people." Examples of the irrational self-talk that can produce anger escalation are reflected in statements such as "People should be more considerate of my feelings," "How dare they be so inconsiderate and disrespectful," and "They obviously don't care about anyone but themselves."

Ellis says that people do not have to get angry when they encounter such an event. The event itself does not get them upset and angry; rather, it is people's interpretations of and beliefs concerning the event that cause the anger. Beliefs underlying anger often take the form of "should" and "must." Most of us may agree, for example, that respecting others is an admirable quality. Our belief might be, "People should always respect others." In reality, however, people often do not respect each other in everyday encounters. You can choose to view the situation more realistically as an unfortunate defect of human beings, or you can let your anger escalate every time you witness, or are the recipient of, another person's disrespect. Unfortunately, your perceived disrespect will keep you angry and push you toward the explosion phase. Ironically, it may even lead you to show disrespect to others, which would violate your own fundamental belief about how people should be treated.

Ellis' approach consists of identifying irrational beliefs and disputing them with more rational or realistic perspectives (in Ellis' model, "D" stands for dispute). You may get angry, for example, when you start thinking, "I must always be in control. I must control every situation." It is not possible or appropriate, however, to control every situation. Rather than continue with these beliefs, you can try to dispute them. You might tell yourself, "I have no power over things I cannot control," or "I have to accept what I cannot change." These are examples of ways to dispute beliefs that you may have already encountered in 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

People may have many other irrational beliefs that may lead to anger. Consider an example where a friend of yours disagrees with you. You may start to think, "Everyone must like me and give me approval." If you hold such a belief, you are likely to get upset and angry when you face rejection. However, if you dispute this irrational belief by saying, "I can't please everyone; some people are not going to approve of everything I do," you will most likely start to calm down and be able to control your anger more easily.

Another common irrational belief is, "I must be respected and treated fairly by everyone." This also is likely to lead to frustration and anger. Most folks, for example, live in an urban society where they may, at times, not be given the common courtesy they expect. This is unfortunate, but from an anger management perspective, it is better to accept the unfairness and lack of interpersonal connectedness that can result from living in an urban society. Thus, to dispute this belief, it is helpful to tell yourself, "I can't be expected to be treated fairly by everyone."

Other beliefs that may lead to anger include "Everyone should follow the rules," or "Life should be fair," or "Good should prevail over evil," or "People should always do the right thing." These are beliefs that are not always followed by everyone in society, and, usually, there is little you can do to change that. How might you dispute these beliefs? In other words, what thoughts that are more rational and adaptive and will not lead to anger can be substituted for such beliefs?

For people with anger control problems, these irrational beliefs can lead to the explosion phase (10 on the anger meter) and to the negative consequences of the post-explosion phase. It is often better to change your outlook by disputing your beliefs and creating an internal dialog or self-talk that is more rational and adaptive.

Anger Management: Thought Stopping

A second approach to controlling anger is called thought stopping. It provides an immediate and direct alternative to the A-B-C-D Model. In this approach, you simply tell yourself (through a series of self-commands) to stop thinking the thoughts that are getting you angry. For example, you might tell yourself, "I need to stop thinking these thoughts. I will only get into trouble if I keep thinking this way," or "Don't buy into this situation," or "Don't go there." In other words, instead of trying to dispute your thoughts and beliefs as outlined in the A-B-C-D Model described above, the goal is to stop your current pattern of angry thoughts before they lead to an escalation of anger and loss of control.

Adapted from: Reilly PM and Shopshire MS. Anger Management for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Clients: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Manual. DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 02-3661. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2002.

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014