The Three Secret Stages of Anger

Is your anger out of control? Read on to better understand what sets you off and take back the reins from your emotions. 


For many military service members and first responders, employing the “violence of action” tactic whenever you sense conflict or threat can be the difference between life and death. If you come from this background, you know that in these instances, anger can actually be a useful tool to help you accomplish a challenging mission.

But when the job is done, how do you flip the switch and turn off your anger? What happens later when you go home and have a disagreement with your spouse? Or when your kids are acting crazy even though you’ve asked them multiple times to calm down?

Suddenly, your loved ones become the opposition and the object of your anger. That’s when permanent damage is done.

There will never be a shortage of people or circumstances in life that make us angry. But learning the three secret stages of anger may be the key to prevent your anger for destroying your relationships.

– Stage 1 –

Primary Emotion – What is felt first

The following emotions are considered the six primary – or “first felt” – emotions experienced in every culture worldwide and universally recognized by psychologists: 1

  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Surprise

But here’s the thing about primary emotions – they often disappear as fast as they appear.

Usually, they are quickly replaced by a secondary emotion which complicates the situation, making it difficult to understand what is really going on. And though we might think of anger as a primary emotion, in many cases, it is actually a secondary emotion. We get angry after we experience a different primary emotion. This leads to stage two.

– Stage 2 –

Secondary Emotion – What is felt next

Anger is an emotional reaction to an emotion. Did you catch that?

Think about it. You get mad because you were fearful. You get mad because you were disgusted by someone’s toxic remark. You get mad because you were very unhappy about losing a competition. But after your anger has been launched, what do you do?

You apply the concept of situational awareness.

Specifically, you monitor the internal “cues” that indicate your anger has launched and a heated response is rising.  Think of it like the “check engine light” on your dashboard. When you see it, you know something’s wrong, and if you don’t take some sort of positive action, the situation is only going to get worse.

Don’t wait until the moment when someone offends you to begin controlling your anger, because by that point, you are probably too late.

– Stage 3 –

Chosen Action

Your situational awareness has helped you recognize the “threat” – that your anger is escalating – and now you have the opportunity to choose what happens next. This is where the real outcome of your anger will be seen. When you realize your anger has launched, what will you choose to do now to make sure you don’t blow up?

If you or someone you know have struggled with anger, we’ve created an easy process to create your own “Personal Anger Control Plan.” This plan will provide you with steps to manage each stage of your anger and will help you define a strategy to put in place today.

(adapted from the Firstline Field Guide)

So many times, our anger causes damage to our relationships. But forgiveness is possible. We’ve seen families reconcile after deep pain has been caused by anger. Don’t wait to put a personal anger plan into place. And if damage has been done, take steps to make amends and ask for forgiveness once you have activated your anger plan.

CHRIS ADSIT is the Resource Coordinator for REBOOT Recovery and the co-founder of REBOOT First Responders.


1 – Being Human.org, “Basic Emotions: What Do Fear, Anger, & Joy Have in Common?” http://www.beinghuman.org/article/basic-emotions#

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