Addiction recovery almost always involves dealing with anger. Anger may be directed at oneself, at specific people, at less-specific entities (like law enforcement), or at society as a whole. Without learning to process anger in a constructive manner, a person with an addiction cannot move forward toward recovery.

Perhaps the biggest reason that anger must be dealt with during addiction recovery is that anger is strongly tied to relapse. Whether you hold anger inside or lash out at others, if it is not dealt with properly, numerous roadblocks can stand in the way of moving forward with your recovery. Unprocessed anger can result in further legal problems, more serious physical health problems, and general deceleration of the process of working through addiction recovery.

Anger Often Rooted in Fear and Pain

It is important to note that anger is a normal human response, but it can be warped and misdirected, causing problems for you and those around you. Fear and pain are often the twin roots of problematic anger. Fear and pain may be physical, psychological, or both. You may fear something or someone, but typically the greater fear is that of losing face, appearing ridiculous, or being abandoned. Likewise, your pain may involve physical pain, but often it includes the emotional pain that results from loss, a feeling of unfairness, or someone else’s words and actions. Understanding the root causes of anger is the first step to addressing them constructively.

The Physiological Response to Anger

Your body reacts physically to anger, releasing a rush of hormones called catecholamines and producing a short term burst of energy. Additionally, the adrenocortical system becomes aroused, resulting in a feeling of being “on edge” that can last for hours or days. Acting on anger increases blood pressure and heart rate and results in a surge of adrenaline.

Repressing anger is not the same as coping effectively with it, because repression often results in physical symptoms too, like muscle tension and head, neck, or back pain. Learning how to respond appropriately to feelings of anger can reduce these symptoms and help a person control anger without repressing it.

Recognizing Triggers for Anger

Learning to manage anger effectively as part of addiction recovery includes learning to recognize the people and situations that trigger the anger response. Some therapists have clients write down a list of things that trigger anger, including family situations, work situations, situations with friends, things that happen during support group meetings, and things that happen in the company of strangers. Identifying why those things trigger anger is also important. For example, you may become angry due to:

  • Perfectionism
  • Feeling unloved
  • Feeling being taken advantage of
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Helpless feelings
  • Criticism
  • Exhaustion
  • Feelings of being treated unfairly

Managing Anger: A Learned Skill

Knowing what triggers anger and why is the basis of learning to manage your anger effectively. Understanding when anger is causing physical symptoms, like heart racing, can help you interrupt this “fight or flight” response by focusing on breathing, taking a walk, or otherwise taking a break from the situation. Other techniques that you can successfully employ to manage anger include:

  • Learned relaxation
  • Humor
  • Distraction
  • Exercise
  • Connecting with nature
  • Positive self-talk
  • Writing in a journal
  • Asking for help

Addiction recovery and anger are often uneasy partners, but that does not mean recovery is impossible. Interrupting the anger response after recognizing it early can help you manage angry feelings before they result in inappropriate actions. Learning to manage anger is not the same thing as learning to suppress anger. Suppressing anger is ultimately counterproductive, and can result in too much tension building up, followed by an outburst that can and sometimes does lead to relapse.

The best addiction recovery resources take into account the whole person, including their anger issues, and tailors treatment to address issues methodically. Effective addiction treatment does not ignore anger or dismiss it, but helps you understand it and learn to cope with it in constructive and effective ways.

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