How to deal with anger

Anger is common when you have a health problem. Lucy Trevallion finds out how to address it, and speaks to Ian and Diane Gray, who dealt with anger after Ian's heart attack.

Dealing with anger illustration

“It’s perfectly reasonable to feel angry after you have experienced a heart event, or received an unexpected diagnosis,” says Kim Patel, a counsellor specialising in chronic pain and long-term health conditions, registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

“Experiencing an unexpected health event may profoundly and suddenly change your outlook on life. The body that you’ve been living in may no longer be able to perform the jobs, tasks and sexual activities that you once took for granted. Life may feel overwhelming and unpredictable.”

Experiencing an unexpected health event may profoundly and suddenly change your outlook on life

Kim Patel
Counsellor

You might feel angry because you can’t do the things you used to, or you feel you don’t deserve what’s happened and others deserve it more. In some cases, you might be angry about your treatment, especially if you’ve had difficulty getting a diagnosis or had appointments cancelled.

Sometimes the condition itself causes anger. For example, the deterioration of brain cells involved in dementia can lead to anger or aggression, while the area of the brain that controls emotions can be damaged by a stroke. And if your condition causes communication difficulties, you may feel frustrated that you can’t express yourself. If you are concerned by your personality changes, ask your GP to refer you to a specialist psychological service for an assessment.

Ian and Diane's story

After his heart attack at the age of 58, Ian Gray, from Swansea, found himself snapping a lot, swearing and becoming irritable. Before his heart attack, he was energetic, and “liked to be the leader in everything”, he says. “I liked adventure sports, mountain climbing with weights, canoeing… I was a team leader at my physical job, and at the weekend I was a sergeant in the Territorial Army. I always enjoyed life.”

Ian’s heart attack came out of the blue. His wife Diane called an ambulance and he was treated with an angioplasty and stent procedure.

Ms Patel explains that when unexpected changes threaten the way you see yourself, it can be hard to rethink your identity based on your new limitations. “Our thoughts will naturally turn to what we can’t do, as we have an inherent bias towards negative thinking,” she says.

His mood swings were like Jekyll and Hyde – one minute he’s the old Ian, the next he’s angry

Diane Gray

Once Ian was at home, he felt scared. He didn’t realise he felt angry, though Diane noticed it straight away. “His mood swings were like Jekyll and Hyde – one minute he’s the old Ian, the next he’s angry,” Diane says. “I think he was angry because it happened and he wanted to know why him when he felt perfectly well beforehand?”

Ms Patel explains that we often feel angry when there is a perceived threat to our physical or psychological self, or if we feel we’ve been wronged: “In this respect, anger is very action-orientated – it wants things to change or a problem to be acknowledged.”

Ian wanted to get back to the way he was before. He did cardiac rehabilitation and a gym scheme, which he found very helpful. He also went back to his job in park maintenance. But they gave him lighter tasks, which he was not happy about. At the end of the season they let him go, and Ian decided to take early retirement.

Anger and your loved ones

“The anger seems to come out of the blue,” Ian says. “I’ll feel fine, then all of a sudden I’ll snap. Afterwards, it seems like silly stupid things that I’m snapping about. The first year I was in denial. I’d say: ‘It’s not me, it’s you that’s causing arguments.’”

Diane says: “He got angry over pathetic little things, like if he wanted the remote control and I was using it; it was like a child’s tantrum if he didn’t get his way.”

The first year I was in denial. I’d say: ‘It’s not me, it’s you that’s causing arguments'

Ian Gray

If you are worried that your partner is persistently angry, talk to them – they may not be aware of it or realise it’s affecting you. At first, Diane put up with Ian’s outbursts. “I love him to pieces and I used to think ‘he’s been through a lot’,” she explains. “Now, I don’t take any silliness. I think ‘you’re not taking your anger out on me’, and I’ll leave the situation.”

Looking after your own wellbeing means you can do more to support your loved one in the long run. Ms Patel says: “It’s like when a flight attendant tells you that in an emergency, you must ensure your oxygen mask is in place before you help anyone else.”

Defusing anger illustrationAs the partner, you also have to acknowledge that the health issue has changed your loved one and possibly your relationship, Ms Patel says. The ripples are far-reaching, so it’s not a surprise that tempers may fray and fuses are short. 

Learning how to cope with anger

Four years on from his heart attack, Ian has found that being more aware of his feelings, and leaving the situation before he snaps really helps. “I just have to hold my breath and go outside or walk the dog straight away,” he says. “The dog doesn’t know what’s hit him, he’s been on so many walks!”

You can often feel anger building within your body. Ms Patel says you have a choice: follow the anger through to its explosive end, or defuse the bomb.

Anger can sometimes cover up other feelings, like fear, shame, or humiliation

Doing something physical can help to release the anger. Even just punching a pillow can be good.

It can help to get to know yourself better, and look at your thinking patterns that might be contributing to your anger. Counselling and meditation can encourage you to think about what’s really causing your anger, and how you can deal with that. Anger can sometimes cover up other feelings, like fear, shame, or humiliation.

“Right after my heart attack, it felt like I’d lost everything,” says Ian. “But we’re much happier now. Both of our children have grown up, we have grandchildren, we’ve got a couple of cats and dogs, we live by the sea and have a lovely garden.

“We love each other to bits; I couldn’t have coped with this without Diane.”

3 tips for defusing anger

Kim Patel, a counsellor specialising in chronic pain and long-term health conditions, says: 

1. Learn to recognise signs of anger in yourself, such as an increased heart rate and faster breathing, a clenched jaw, or tense shoulders.

2. Get some space and time. Remove yourself from the situation and count to 10.

3. Focus on your breathing, particularly breathing out. Try breathing in for a count of four and breathing out for a count of six. 

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