Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Hitting the Wall: What’s Underneath Anger, and 5 Anger Management Techniques for Young Adults

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hitting the wall. That’s what it feels like when you just can’t take it anymore. Life, relationships, the pressures of work or school, the intense emotions battling inside you—it’s all too much to handle. You can’t see a way forward or a way out. When that sense of being overwhelmed and out of control gets too big, it can erupt in an explosion of uncontrollable anger.

Giving in to the surge of adrenaline and release that accompanies anger may feel irresistible in the moment. But an angry explosion usually makes things worse, not better. To create positive change, it’s essential to figure out what’s underneath the anger. Therapy can help young people get at the emotions that are being deflected by anger, and gain tools to safely navigate through the storm to a place of greater calm and self-reflection.  

Key Takeaways

  • Anger can be a valuable source of information about what’s bothering us, or it can be covering up other emotions.
  • While people of all genders experience anger at similar levels, men are more likely to express anger outwardly due to socialization. 
  • Recognizing what triggers anger and using anger management techniques can help young adults cope with feelings of anger. 
  • Uncontrollable anger can be a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder.

Is Anger Bad?

Anger is not necessarily a problem in itself. In fact, it can be a valuable source of information that helps us understand who we are, what we care about, and what’s not working in our lives. It can alert us to an injustice or make us more aware of a situation or relationship that isn’t supporting our well-being. In this way, anger can be useful in helping us identify problems that need to be addessed.

But in other cases, anger is a default emotion that’s covering up something else. For many people, it’s easier to feel anger than more vulnerable emotions like sadness, shame, or fear. Research shows this is particularly true of men. Men are socialized to show strength rather than vulnerability, which is often seen as weakness. Despite how far we’ve come in dismantling male gender norms over recent decades, men are still expected to act tough and aggressive, and to avoid talking about their emotions or mental health struggles.

For example, in a Pew Research Center survey, respondents were asked which traits society values most in men. They ranked strength, toughness, leadership, and ambition among the top qualities. Traits like respectfulness, kindness, and empathy were much farther down the list. The same survey found that most young men feel they need to be ready to physically attack other men if they are harassed or taunted.

Know the Facts

69 percent of young adult men feel they should be willing to punch someone if provoked, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Are Men Angrier Than Women?

Men tend to show anger outwardly and display aggression more often than women do. But that doesn’t mean that men are actually angrier than women or nonbinary people. One study found that women feel angry just as often as men do, and act on their anger just as frequently. But the men in the study had more difficulty controlling their impulsive responses to anger.

Scientists theorize that brain function may contribute to this difference. Brain connectivity research shows that women have a much larger orbital frontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps regulate anger and impulsivity. Societal conditioning is a significant factor, as well: Aggression and anger in men are generally more accepted—and even rewarded—by society. Media and sports stereotypes depict men as aggressive warriors for whom sensitivity and “softer” emotions are a sign of weakness.

As a result, men sometimes find it easier to feel angry than to allow themselves to experience painful emotions such as:

  • Fear of abandonment
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Feeling of inadequacy
  • Sadness
  • Jealousy
  • Grief

For people of all genders, it often feels easier to be angry than to show vulnerability and open oneself to potential scorn, rejection, pity, or indifference. However, research shows that men experience their own anger as uncomfortable and shameful, and actually feel worse after an angry explosion.

Anger is felt as a fiery force that attempts to take over the body. Many of the men in our study made a point of saying that they did not like the unpleasant bodily tension produced by anger. Carrying anger for a prolonged time produced a feeling of great heaviness in the body, a burden that the men wished to unload.

Sandra Thomas, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange

The 3 Types of Anger Expressions

We typically have three ways of expressing anger: outward aggression, inward aggression, or passive aggression. When we think of problematic young adult anger, it’s usually as an eruption of outward aggression. This is the kind of anger that parents, friends, colleagues, and romantic partners find bewildering and difficult to handle. With peers, it can manifest as physical violence; with authority figures, it can look like belligerence and resisting direction. This form of anger is more common among males.

Anger can also be directed inward, or “stuffed.” Stuffing anger can increase guilt, shame, and self-criticism. This, in turn, can lead to behaviors such as disordered eating and self-harm. More typical of females, inward-directed anger can result in hidden depression, a form of depression in which young people appear to be doing well, and even excelling socially and academically, while suffering inside.

Passive aggressive behavior refers to indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. It might look like snide comments, sarcasm and mean jokes, or withdrawal and brooding. Procrastinating can actually be a form of passive aggressive behavior, if you keep putting off a task someone asked you to do or avoiding an honest conversation with a friend, partner, or family member.

The Anger Cycle in Slow Motion

Whatever the root cause of anger or their way of expressing it, anger management techniques for young adults begin with an awareness of the anger cycle. Although anger seems to happen in a sudden “whoosh” from trigger to reaction, it actually has discrete stages. Recognizing and decoding the anger cycle through anger management skills is key for all three types of unhealthy anger expression. 

Anger is associated with the “fight or flight” response, activating the mind-body connection. This near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal and physiological effects prepares the body to react quickly to threatening situations. The heart starts pounding, the muscles tense up, the senses sharpen, and the breath quickens. And the reflective, rational part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) disengages in favor of the emotional, survival-oriented amygdala.

The Stages of Anger

It can be difficult to identify the stages of anger as they occur because they happen so quickly. But any angry eruption (or the avoidance of anger via shutdown) can be broken down into the following components:

  1. Triggering event, an event or situation that prompts a series of…
  2. Negative thoughts, beliefs, or interpretations about the event, often irrational, that produce a rush of…
  3. Negative emotions linked with those beliefs or interpretations, whether or not they are true, which are reflected in…
  4. Physical symptoms of those emotions, such as racing heartbeat, clenched fists, or flushed cheeks, which can lead to…
  5. Behavioral reactions, such as fighting, criticizing, or shutting down, based on the sequence of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations rather than the event itself. An aggressive behavioral reaction can become a…
  6. Triggering event for someone else, continuing the cycle.
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When Is Anger a Sign of Mental Health Issues?

If a young adult’s angry outbursts are out of proportion to the cause, or they get angry all the time over little things, the anger may be a symptom indicating that there is an underlying mental health disorder that needs to be addressed.

Anger in young adults can be a symptom of:

  • Substance abuse or alcohol use disorder
  • Unprocessed trauma
  • Learned behaviors due to family dysfunction
  • Depression—research shows that anger and aggression are common signs of depression in males
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder, a condition in which individuals explode into rage seemingly out of nowhere

Anger isn’t always recognizable as a sign of a mental health issue. The person struggling with uncontrollable anger may not understand why they’re so angry, or may not admit the real reason even to themselves. As a result, the depression, anxiety, or trauma underneath the unchecked anger isn’t identified and treated.

Because this is more common in men, males are less likely than other genders to access mental healthcare. In addition, shame can prevent them from seeking help. This is another form of “hitting the wall”—feeling hopeless and isolated, unable to see a way forward or the possibility of anything changing. In this state of mind, men are more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. If they do make an attempt, men are more likely to die by suicide, as they tend to use deadlier methods.

Know the Facts

Men are 4 times as likely as women to die by suicide.

Anger Management Techniques for Young Adults

Anger management techniques for young adults can help them learn how to manage anger and how to express their anger in a way that serves them rather than hurting them. The goal of anger management is to slow the process down so we can choose how to respond to a triggering event, rather than reacting automatically. Recognizing the stages of the anger cycle allows us to understand how our anger may be related to our past experiences or current unmet needs. 

With practice, young adults can learn to reflect on episodes of anger from a calmer perspective. Hence, they can learn to pause before launching into angry responses and choose a way to respond that will serve them better. Anger management strategies can support them to examine their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The goal is to gain greater insight into the significance of their anger. Ultimately, this self-understanding will help them more effectively address the true cause of their emotions.

5 Anger Management Tips for Young Adults

The way a person deals with anger depends on a variety of factors, including biology, temperament, and life experiences. These factors influence how quickly someone responds to anger, what situations trigger that anger, and how well someone tolerates anger in themselves and others. Over time, these patterned responses become habits. However, these habits can be reshaped through awareness and practice. Here are five anger management techniques for young adults.

Self-Soothing Practices

The first task of anger management is to learn how to stay calm when angry thoughts arise. Rather than controlling anger using willpower, the goal is to self-soothe. The insight that can be gained from anger is literally not available when someone is swept up in an eruption of anger. The fight-or-flight response disengages the rational thinking of the prefrontal cortex. Various relaxation techniques counteract the whoosh of fight-or-flight energy:

  • Listen to a playlist of favorite music—create one that you know will support you when you need it.
  • Breathe deeply: Inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of six immediately calms the nervous system. 
  • Do a progressive relaxation series: Lie down with eyes closed, and tense, then relax, the muscles throughout the body, starting at the feet and moving up to the head.
  • Try physical activity, like running around the block, taking a brisk walk, or doing 25 jumping jacks
  • Take a yoga or meditation class—this takes a bit more time and commitment, but the effects can be far-reaching. 
  • Practice self-compassion—offering kindness and compassion to oneself
  • Spend quiet time with pets.

Self-Awareness Approaches

Once the angry episode has played itself out and the feelings subside, young adults can begin the process of reflection. The objective is to be able to identify how specific events affect them. They can also learn to recognize the mental and physical warning signs associated with a heightened emotional state.

  • What was the trigger for their anger? 
  • How did what happened differ from their expectations? 
  • What thoughts and beliefs did the situation bring up? 
  • What emotions were stirred up? (A list of feeling words may be helpful.) 
  • What physical sensations did they notice? 
  • How did they react to those thoughts, feelings, and sensations with their behavior? 

Once young adults are able to step back and witness the process, they can make more conscious choices about how they are expressing anger. Awareness is one of the most powerful anger management strategies because it promotes healthy emotion regulation. Keeping an anger log is one way to start noticing common triggers and patterns of reaction. Eventually, it becomes easier to anticipate challenging situations and take steps to reduce stress and avoid habitual anger responses.

Rethinking the Situation

This cognitive approach to anger management involves looking at the event and the anger from different perspectives, in order to understand it better and adopt better habits when anger arises:

  • Imagine the triggering event from another person’s perspective
  • Challenge the accuracy of your own thoughts and beliefs; ask yourself, “Is this really true?”
  • Come up with alternate ways to discharge the energy of anger (going for a run, for example, or slugging punching bags at the gym) 
  • Rehearsing different scenarios for ways to resolve the situation in a way that honors the needs and desires of everyone involved, including your own

Healthy Self-Expression 

When we dig deeper into it, anger can give us clues about our motivations and needs. Channeling anger into creativity or a thoughtful conversation can even bring people together, instead of causing conflict. Self-expression is a powerful anger management technique for young adults. Forms of healthy expression include:

  • Journaling
  • Poetry
  • Songwriting
  • Visual art 
  • Talking with a trusted friend, partner, or family member

Building Resilience 

It’s easier to stay emotionally balanced when our basic physical and social needs are satisfied. Self-care builds resilience to more effectively manage stress and navigate the anger cycle. These approaches aren’t specifically about controlling anger, but they create a stable foundation for healthy emotional regulation.

  • Avoiding sleep deprivation
  • Physical activity
  • Positive connections
  • Involvement in causes you care about

Professional Support for the Root Causes of Anger in Young Adults

Anger management skills can take some time to implement successfully, but it is also essential to know if there is a deeper issue, such as a mental health disorder. If a young adult’s anger issues or uncontrolled anger is negatively impacting their relationships, school, or work, they may need anger management therapy. Many licensed mental health professionals and treatment programs offer anger management counseling for young adults.

At Newport Institute, our clinical experts help clients identify the potential mental health problems catalyzing uncontrollable anger. Rather than providing anger management therapy, our treatment addresses the root causes of angry feelings. We provide a safe space in which young people learn how to manage anger as part of a comprehensive mental health treatment plan. Our gender-responsive care (according to gender identity), gives young people the comfort and safety to share vulnerable emotions with caring peers who understand what they’re going through.

Contact us today to find out how we help young people get to the underlying causes of their anger issues, so they can move toward greater self-knowledge, stronger relationships, and a happier life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I get angry so easily?
  • What should I do about anger issues?
  • What is the best therapy for anger management?
  • What are the 3 types of anger?
  • How can I control my anger outbursts quickly?
  • What are 3 anger management techniques?

JAMA Psychiatry. 2013 Oct; 70(10):1100–6.

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2012 Mar; 9(3): 760–771.

Science Daily

Penn Medicine News

Mental Health / February 9, 2023

Newport Institute

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