What is anger? Why and how does it happen? How does it affect our health and our relationships? Can anger be controlled? And how can we do that? In this series, we’ll discuss anger and techniques for anger management and conflict resolution in light of Islamic teachings.
In the previous article, we discussed the nature of anger and how it’s a standard emotion in all humans. Dealing with this emotion gives us an ongoing exercise to try to control our anger and rechannel its energy. But, where does anger come from in the first place.
Anger results from fear
Psychologists theorize that anger is a result of fearing loss or harm; so, when people are angry, it’s probably because they’re afraid, and so, it’s wise to first discover the fear that caused the anger.
Like anger, fear is not a bad emotion in itself; it is actually a life-saving defense mechanism that enables us to react quickly to dangerous situations, which is known scientifically as the Fight or Flight response. Fear causes the chemicals in your body to change to allow you to either fight against a perceived danger or to escape from it. That’s why the biological changes of fear and anger are very similar.
Therefore, we have to keep our fears in check if we want to control our anger, experts tell us. This is exactly what Islam requires of us as well. Strength and courage are two qualities that are repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet as desirable traits for true believers. Islam also stresses that faith banishes fear, because the faithful feel they’re with God at all times and trust in His Wisdom and Mercy. And so, to put our fears into perspective, we need to examine them against the realities of the present, not the regrets of the past or the worries of the future.
How our imaginary fear can make us angry
When we fear the future or the past, we are experiencing fear of nonexistent circumstances. If it’s not happening now, then there is nothing to worry about, and consequently nothing to be angry about. Imaginary fear has a tendency to be more prolonged, because the threat never materializes, so there is no end to the tension, which can turn fear into anger and anger into depression.
The Qur’an teaches us that Satan plants unfounded fears in people’s hearts, and he leads people “by the nose” toward destructive actions, except the few of them who seek strength and support in their faith in God (Al `Imran: 175 and Al-Isra’: 62).
In Islam, the believer is librated from all fears of anything beneath God Himself. A Muslim’s fear of God is a positive emotion resulting from extreme love, respect, and awe of His All-Encompassing Might and Knowledge.
So, pleasing God is the ultimate goal, since everything is in His Hands, and therefore, a Muslim should be calm and collected under pressure, because he doesn’t fear anything else but God. This kind of faith puts everything in life into perspective and encourages looking at things objectively and realistically, knowing that our control on matters of the future is very limited.
How our distorted thoughts can make us angry
Anger also occurs as a result of the false assumptions called cognitive distortions in psychology. This is when we have drawn the wrong conclusions in a situation based on assumptions or emotional overreactions without sufficient evidence, and then we react to those assumed conclusions with anger. For example, if a husband is out late and as soon as he enters the house the wife asks accusingly, “Who is she?”, she had assumed without evidence that he was with another woman and built her emotional reaction on that assumption.
The Qur’an instructs us to base our judgments on facts, not assumptions. The believers are instructed to “investigate carefully” and “ascertain the truth” before reacting, so they won’t regret it later (An-Nisa’: 94 and Al-Hujurat: 6).
How to control fear
If, for instance, we can’t find our car keys when we are on the way to work in the morning, why do we get angry?
What happens is a process called the situational reaction matrix. When we can’t find the keys, our thoughts work according to the way we have learned to process this situation: We think we’re going to be late for work, so we look more frantically for the keys, and we get more and more agitated as our worries escalate to thinking we’ll get into trouble for being late and might even lose the job and be miserable… etc. Fear is not rational, so if we give it free reign, it can totally distort our perception of reality. We could be looking at things without really seeing them. We could be holding the keys in our hand while searching for them.
As we think fearful thoughts, anger becomes the result. For example, when a mother loses her child in a store, at first she is fearful and then, when she finds him, she gets angry and shouts at him.
To handle our anger, we need to keep our thinking objective
We must deal with what is actually happening, not what we fear might happen. In the case of the lost car keys, we have to focus on the only problem at hand: The keys are missing. It’s usually when we stop and calm down that we find our keys, probably right where we had left them.
And that’s exactly what Islam instructs us to do: Mention God, seek refuge with Him from Satan, and ask Him to reconnect us with our lost items. This process of consciously focusing inwards for a few seconds calms us down while we are looking again.
First published: April 2014