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Stages of anger
When a young person experiences an episode of anger, there is usually a number of stages they go through although on the surface it may seem quite unpredictable or have sudden onset. Understanding these phases can help you understand the young persons reaction, support them in reducing the impact of their anger and, learn more constructive coping strategies.
Triggering threats, thoughts and feelings
The first domino can be tipped over by particular events, experiences, thoughts and feelings that threaten a person in some way. Generally the anger response is proportional to size of the threat, real or imagined.
The second domino topples with feeling anger which is often experienced as a surge of arousal featuring a tensing of the muscles, increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Without the adequate skills to deal with angry feelings and accompanying thoughts, a young person may be overwhelmed and feel unable to control their emotional state. During this stage, these young people are likely to appear distressed, agitated and anxious.
Impulse to act
Feeling anger often provokes an impulse to act. With this impulse the third domino is tipped. This impulse can be managed to prevent anger-induced actions that might be harmful or socially inappropriate. For some young people this impulse is indistinguishable from their angry thoughts and feelings. During this stage, young people might feel that they are on the edge and be person communicating (verbally and non-verbally) that their anger has escalated to the point of acting (ie: pacing, pressured speech). Those around the young person might feel as if they are ‘treading on eggshells’ and waiting for an explosion.
Acting on anger
The fourth domino is tipped when the impulse to act turns into behaviour. Until this moment the young person has not actually acted on their angry feelings. It is possible for young people to act on anger in an appropriate and harmless way that relieves the pressure that has built up inside them. For some young people expressing anger (verbally and physically) is experienced as a total loss of control and some young people harm themselves, other people, or damage property. This can have serious social and legal ramifications.
Once anger has been expressed in action they experience relief from the tension that has built up. The fifth domino falls with this sense of immediate relief from distressing feelings, thoughts and sensations that can be very difficult to tolerate (this relief can reinforce anger-related behaviour). During this stage the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to begin restoring equilibrium. This process takes time (see recovery below) and young people continue to be in a state of semi-arousal and are highly susceptible to threats, feelings and thoughts that can retrigger their anger.
Recovery is the physiological and psychological wind-down phase that returns a young person to a pre-angry state. This slow cool down process can take from less than an hour to days, depending on the intensity and length of the anger-related episode.
Whist in the recovery stage and before returning to a pre-angry state young people remain more susceptible to anger provoking triggers. After the feeling of relief has begun to subside, the young person might experience feelings of guilt, shame and regret, sometimes referred to as post crisis depression. Young people deal with these feelings in different ways including becoming apologetic, attempting to minimise the extent and impact of their behaviour and/or assigning blame to other people. Others experience a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that can lead to self-destructive behaviour and there can be an increased suicide risk.
During the recovery stage young people might also be reflective and consider making changes to how they better manage their anger.
Repair and risk of recurrence
The final domino falls once the young person has stabilised and the anger-related episode is over. This is an opportunity for young people to learn from their experiences and commit to learning better ways to manage their anger. Where behaviour has been destructive a young person might take responsibility for their actions and seek to make amends. This involves attempting to repair damaged relationships and restore opportunities that they might have lost. Young people can be emotionally vulnerable at this time particularly when they lack the interpersonal skills to manage this effectively. Where young people are not interested in learning from their experiences and don’t take steps toward finding better ways to manage their anger, there is increased risk of recurrence.