Anger: How you can learn from it

When we experience emotions, unless we have gone through the process of some deep spiritual practices or learning from them in a therapeutic or coaching space, we rarely, if at all, consider what they are trying to communicate to us or how we can learn from them to better move through life.


That’s what I’m looking to introduce to you today, the idea that emotions are vehicles for learning about ourselves and the world we live in. Starting with one of the big, scary and most stigmatised emotions a person can experience. Anger. 

Anger. Even the word can conjure up images and feelings of threat.

If they have arisen for you already, I invite you to recognise that and gently place those experiences to the side for now. Sometimes visualising picking the anger up and moving it to your left or right, still within reach but not dominating your field of vision and your thoughts can be very helpful.

There are different intensities of anger that we all experience at one point or another. Irritation and annoyance being at one end, the mild end, then we move to frustration and through that to anger and, if the intensity builds further, we reach rage - the kind where you just see red and explode.

It’s important to note that these are all normal emotions for us to experience as humans. They all serve to protect us when we are feeling vulnerable, hurt, unsafe, tired, lacking energy and/or low. 

Anger as protection

Before we move on, I wonder if you can easily bring to mind the different kinds of emotional and relational experiences of each of these. I wonder if you also recognise that the less intense forms of anger tend not to escalate if they are effective in protecting you in the moment. 

You don’t explode with rage every time someone chews loudly when you’re trying to concentrate, for example, because the irritation informs the way you behave enough to deal with it. Maybe you have headphones available to block out the noise or you have your food at the same time to minimise the impact on you of the loud chewing.

Whatever you do to address the irritation, it normally is effective enough to prevent your anger needing to escalate ever higher. Even when something does escalate from irritation to, let’s say, anger, it doesn’t usually escalate further. This all suggests that your emotions are, in fact, there to protect you and are serving you when they show up.

We see a lot of anger in the social and political discourse. It can be tied up in calls for justice, equitable solutions, restitution and vengeance. It is my view that these all have their roots in protection and survival. I will look at unpacking that in another article. In the meantime, it felt important to acknowledge these specific forms that anger can take and to be explicit in my inclusion of them here as functions of protection and survival.

One way in which the protective aspect of anger is demonstrated is when it alerts you to someone violating, overstepping or disregarding one of your boundaries. You may not even have been consciously aware of having this boundary before and therefore may not actually know why you are angry in the moment. However you can still learn from the presence of anger under these circumstances that actually you need to be setting and enforcing a boundary there.

An example that I find highlights this process is one of a person who gets angry with a friend for laying claim to one of their possessions without invitation or seeking permission first. They may not know why they are angry when caught up in the emotions but, afterwards and upon reflection, they realise that they have a boundary around their right to own things and to have that ownership respected. Their friend had violated this boundary when they assumed that they could just take ownership of one of their possessions which sparked the anger. Having done this reflection, they can then calmly set that boundary and explore options for calmly enforcing it too.

Some ways in which people overstep, violate or disregard boundaries cause real harm and can make people feel unsafe and vulnerable. When this happens, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in with the well-known fight and flight mechanism.

The fight response of the sympathetic nervous system is the relevant one here because it is heavily associated with feelings of anger or rage alongside those of being unsafe. Some people describe this as being when they ‘see red’ and lose control. The fight and flight response to danger is still a protective force within the person experiencing it because the person’s nervous system has resorted to it in an attempt to conquer the threat, the danger, and to find a way back to feeling safe again.

With all that being said, it can be very scary for people to be in it or to be around someone who is in this intense anger or rage driven by the protective, survival instinct of the sympathetic fight response. This sympathetic nervous system fight response can cause your vision to narrow, your breathing to get shallower and your heart to pump harder and faster.

When you are in this space of sympathetic activation, your ability to think and communicate clearly is hindered because your thinking brain goes offline. So, in order to be effective in communicating with others, you need to find a way to regulate yourself back to feeling safe enough.

Regulating anger 

When I have noticed that something I’ve read, heard or seen has started to push me into fight or flight activation, I shift in my chair and pause as I take some deliberately slower, deeper breaths. I don’t even consciously decide to expand my field of vision these days when I’m doing breathing exercises, it just happens naturally as I settle back into feelings of being safe enough. This is how I start to regulate my experience of anger, rage and sympathetic nervous system fight and flight.

Breathing slowly and deeply has been shown repeatedly to activate our rest and digest system which is the realm of the ventral vagal nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. There are different approaches to breathing exercises and a couple of examples are box breath and belly breathing. I never prescribe one way of doing it for clients though. Some people feel more benefits from one than another and the only thing that really matters is that they are accessing something that helps them to come out of the intense feeling of anger, rage or fight and flight sympathetic activation.

Expanding our field of vision is another way to tap into feelings of being safe enough and that ventral vagal nerve, rest and digest activation. One way I know I’m doing this is by seeing what is to the left and right of me when I’m looking straight ahead. I invite you to try this now. Keep your eyes lightly focused in front of you and see what you notice at the edge of your field of vision. Our vision narrows when we are in that fight and flight sympathetic activation and it expands when we are in the rest and digest, ventral vagal activation.

There are other ways we can regulate back to feeling safe enough and being able to think clearly, the examples here are just two of them.

Reflecting on anger and communicating with others

Once we have regulated ourselves, where necessary, and are able to think and communicate clearly we can explore what the anger was all about. This is where you would be looking to identify:

  • what happened to spark the anger
  • what contributed to the intensity of the emotion
  • what action(s) need to be taken
  • how you will carry out the aforementioned action(s) in a way that supports your ability to communicate clearly

I support clients with all of these aspects. Even so, some of the above points are going to be easier than others. Some people know what happened, why it turned out the way it did and what needs to change, but they struggle with having those kinds of conversations in a way that facilitates open, clear communication. Other people can get a bit too caught up in feeling the anger or the story around the anger that they need some support with more than one part of this process.

If you are looking for some support with anger or other intense emotions, feel free to contact me and find out if I’m the right fit for you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Carole Carter, Coaching Psychologist, BSc (Hons), MRes, GMBPsS
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

Carole is a Maidenhead based coaching psychologist who uses she/they pronouns and works with people in a bespoke, personalised manner so they can improve their mental health. Particular areas of interest include emotions and coping strategies including self harm. Carole is an open member of the LGBTQ and polyamorous communities.

Show comments

Find a coach dealing with Wellness coaching

All coaches are verified professionals

All coaches are verified professionals