Sober Yet Pissed: How to Manage Anger During Addiction Recovery


Anger is one of the hardest emotions to deal with in recovery and can often be a factor that leads to relapse if left unchecked. Most people don't realize that anger is often what is referred to as a "secondary emotion" - it's simply a reaction to another primary emotion.

Looking at the chain of events that occurs when one becomes angry can help identify the primary emotion that is being felt.

Anger is one of the hardest emotions to deal with in recovery and can often be a factor that leads to relapse if left unchecked. Most people don't realize that anger is often what is referred to as a "secondary emotion" - it's simply a reaction to another primary emotion. Looking at the chain of events

How Anger Takes Shape: A Chain Reaction

First, a Threat

People usually become angry in response to some threat. This threat can be toward the physical body (as in a fistfight), a threat to personal property (like in a car accident), a threat to self-esteem (name-calling), a threat to beliefs or values (a difference of opinion in terms of what is right or just), or a threat of not getting what one wants.

A Physical Response

Once a person has perceived a situation as a threat, the next event in the chain reaction of anger is the body's physical response to the feeling of anger.

Typical physical responses to anger include:

  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • a clenched jaw and/or fists
  • shortness or quickening of breath
  • the face turning red

Conclusions and Cognition: Where the Magic Happens

The way in which the threatening event is interpreted leads to further feelings of anger. This stage of the anger chain consists of cognitive distortions that lead a person to jump to conclusions about a situation that can be inaccurate.

For example, if someone were to bump into you at the grocery store, and you thought to yourself, "Oh, he didn't mean to do that, he accidentally bumped into me," you would not likely become angry. If you instead thought, "That guy meant to bump into me, he clearly saw me standing here, and he is trying to start trouble," your perception of the situation would then further your feelings of anger.

And Action

If anger is left unchecked, it is at this point that a person usually decides to act on their feelings of anger. Acting out behaviors can include name-calling, physical altercations, yelling, threatening the other person, etc. To successfully manage anger issues, you must break the chain of events before this stage is reached.

Reflection: An Opportunity to Change

Finally, after the anger episode is over, you have the opportunity to reflect on how you could have handled the situation differently. This is a key part of anger management, as this allows a person to come up with healthier alternatives to anger the next time a threat is perceived.

Breaking the Chain of Anger: Relapse Prevention

The earlier the chain of events that occurs when a person becomes angry is broken, the easier it will be to react differently and make a better choice. This is very important in recovery, as anger is a prevalent relapse trigger. If not managed in a healthy way, anger can tempt a person in recovery to alleviate these feelings by using drugs and alcohol.

Managing anger is a lot like creating a relapse prevention plan. The first step is to identify the triggers to anger and work to uncover the true emotion that is hiding behind the mask of anger.

Once the true emotion is identified, feelings of anger can be alleviated by focusing on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or even doing something as simple as taking a walk or a hot shower.

Managing anger in a healthy way can also help a person in recovery to communicate with others more effectively and develop patience and tolerance.

Managing Anger in Recovery: 6 Steps

A person experiences lots of emotions while working on the issue of sobriety. Anger is one of those emotions that is plentiful in early recovery and one of the most powerful. When a person is trying to remain sober, it is important to know how to handle those feelings. If you understand how to recognize these feelings and what to do with them, it is easier to avoid relapse.

There are some steps you can follow to help you deal with anger issues.

Learn how to recognize angry feelings. Discover the ways your anger reveals itself and how you know when you are angry. Are you in the habit of denying your feelings of anger and hiding those feelings? Are you able to own your anger and go with it? All of these things are important, and you will need to learn how to recognize your feelings of anger.

Make a list of your anger signs. Notice and record stomach, head, and backaches. You may have a problem with rapid speech when you become angry. You may use sarcasm or become cynical. Do you scream and yell or argue with others when you are angry? Is violence an issue? Also, list any isolation techniques you use or if you tend to avoid people when you are angry.

Often when a person is no longer drinking alcohol, they will still have thoughts about using. Have you experienced compulsive actions that involve eating, spending too much, gambling or sex? You can add to the list denial or rationalization problems you have when angry, as well as revenge fantasies.

Do you withhold yourself from others or become silent? All of these things may be signs of anger.

Pay attention to the causes of your anger. Think about the situation that resulted in your feelings of anger. Who else was involved, and was it the first time, or has it become a pattern? Think about any other feelings that were involved. Were you stressed, lonely, hungry, scared, or tired? All of these things can play a part in recognizing triggers to anger.

What are some positive things that you can do after you have done your accessing, recognizing, and list-making? There are actually several things you can do to help yourself when anger and abstaining from alcohol have taken a toll.

Decide how you will behave. When you know what you are up against and recognize the triggers, there will be many times when the choice of handling your anger will be up to you. You can make good choices or ones that will only hurt yourself, others, and your recovery process.

Talk yourself through it. One way to make the best choices is to learn how to talk yourself through difficult situations. Talk to yourself calmly and reassuringly and use reason. Figure out what the outcome may be if you can make good decisions.

Be willing to work it out. If there is another person involved, be willing to talk with them calmly and assertively. Try to listen patiently without interrupting. Avoid name-calling and blaming the other person. If you are too angry to talk at the time of the incident, wait a few days if necessary.

It is true that you can easily control your anger effectively while recovering from alcohol.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Stay Connected
Subscribe to our newsletter to get addiction help, recovery inspiration and community tips delivered to your inbox.
No Thanks. I'm not Interested