Whether it’s that driver on the freeway that cuts you off, a colleague at work who passes you in the hall without acknowledging your “Hello”, or your spouse’s leaving their laundry on the bedroom room, it’s safe to say that anger has paid you a visit lately.
Although we sometimes have a negative association with anger, it’s a natural feeling when we feel threatened. Anger can cause your heart to race, your face to either flush or go pale, and your breathing to increase. From an evolutionary perspective, such physiological responses prepare your body to either fight a perceived predator or determine an immediate means of escape from the danger.
The problem is when this physical reaction goes on too long, since anger uses up a lot of energy. Our bodies can eventually break down under the strain of anger. For instance, an excessively hostile attitude, whether expressed or repressed, is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In addition, it’s difficult to think clearly when our reasoning is overwhelmed by feelings of rage and our bodies are pumping out adrenalin.
Some tips to manage anger constructively:
- Admit that you’re feeling anger. The first step is awareness. Fully acknowledge that anger is present. Some people find that separating themselves from the anger by saying “Anger is here now” rather than “I am angry” helps to break the identification with anger and provides some emotional distance. You are not the very personification of anger.
- Breathe slowly and deeply, from your diaphragm. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make your exhales longer than your inhales. Anger puts us in a state of autonomic arousal, while deep breathing promotes a relaxation response.
- Ask yourself what is being threatened. Is it your physical safety, a personal or professional relationship, your finances, or self-esteem? Is this an immediate danger? If so, take action – honk and get out of the way of that car that’s drifting into your lane on the freeway. Take care of yourself. However…
- Don’t assume prior to investigation. Maybe that colleague who didn’t respond to your greeting was deep in thought or not feeling well. Try not to jump to conclusions such as “They don’t like me” or, to be more general, “Nobody likes me”. Maybe they were in a bad mood or lost in thought. Whether at the time or on a later date, you could casually ask your colleague how they’re doing.
- Modify your expectations. Often without realizing it, we proceed through life with certain beliefs that aren’t realistic. Is it feasible to think that things will always go your way and that you’ll get whatever you want? We’d all like it if life were continuously harmonious, but the fact is that life is a challenge. Altering our beliefs to integrate the idea that life will present difficulties can lessen feelings of anger when we encounter obstacles. Let go of thoughts such as “he shouldn’t do that” or all-or-nothing statements including “always” or “never”, which may be either judgmental or incorrect. For instance, if sitting in traffic frustrates you, that’s understandable. Not many of us want to spend hours in our cars, going five miles an hour. However, if you find yourself flying into a rage at the traffic, what are you telling yourself? That this shouldn’t be happening? That the other drivers are idiots? Such thoughts, if you buy into them, could indeed engender anger. Reframing the situation as “Well, this is part and parcel of living in a big city” or “I can listen to a book on tape” is likely to diminish the anger you feel.
- Use cognitive restructuring. Instead of telling yourself, “This is horrible and I cannot stand it”, try saying, “This is frustrating, but I can handle it”. The two thoughts produce very different results, physiologically and emotionally, Try not to catastrophize or assume that someone has it in for you. Realize that a desire for something is different from a demand. When speaking to yourself or others, practice using words and phrases such as “I would like” or “I’d prefer”, rather than “I insist” or “You have to”.
- Ask yourself what might be underneath the anger. What underlying sadness may be present? Anger can feel “strong” or “tough”, whereas showing our vulnerability may feel… well.. vulnerable. However, you may understand yourself at a deeper level through investigating that ache in your heart. Anger is often a mask for other emotions such as fear or sadness.
- Get over the mistaken belief that anger motivates behavioral change, either in others or yourself. Encouraging yourself to “let it all out” when it comes to anger is a fallacy. Maybe in the short run a change may occur, but nobody likes to be bullied, least of all by himself or herself, so the change is not likely to last. A better bet?
- Practice self-compassion. Acknowledge that this is an uncomfortable moment, that you’re going through an experience shared in some form by everyone else on the planet, that you can manage the anger without hurting yourself or others. Your emotions need not dictate your actions.
- Try physical activity, such as a run, brisk walk, or yoga. Not only can this help dispel the anger and stress hormones coursing through your veins, it can increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in your body, which can boost your mood and spirits.
- Talk with a trusted friend. Someone who knows us well can provide a different perspective on the situation, and a viewpoint that’s less driven by emotions. However, put a time limit on your discussion, so as not to drain your friend and to move past the issue.
- Communicate your feelings and needs in a spirit of cooperation. If possible in your situation (i.e., possibly not on the freeway with another driver), calmly use “I” statements to express how you feel, rather than criticizing or blaming the other person. It is a fallacy that venting one’s anger will decrease the feeling – in fact, venting can intensify the anger. In effect, you’d be practicing the anger response. Listen to other people’s feedback without becoming defensive or argumentative. Strive for a mutually agreeable compromise.
- Focus on solutions. Once you’ve identified that you’re angry, whatever other underlying feelings may be present, and why you feel threatened, move forward with generating possible remedies to the problem, which is a constructive way of refocusing your energy.
- Consider that anger may show you where your enthusiasm lies. My father and I used to get into very animated debates, and on more than one occasion my mother would ask, “Why is everyone yelling?” My father inevitably responded, “We’re not angry – we’re passionate!” My dad and I were hashing out strong feelings, but (much of the time) we were just expressing our feelings on a matter, without resentment. What riles us up may show us where we might find a meaningful opportunity to be of service. Does it upset you that so many animals need loving homes? Lend a hand at your local animal shelter. Does the plight of homeless people in your community rile you up? Volunteer to help at a homeless shelter.
- Practice mindfulness. Instead of compounding the issue by judging your anger and becoming irritable, critical, or angry about being angry, try accepting simply that anger is present. Neither deny the feeling nor allow it to take you over and govern your actions. Simply name your anger as present and let it be, for the moment. Let go of judgment, which can muddy the waters. Your goal here is simply to name what is currently going on. Once you’ve experienced that anger won’t kill you, you can use some of the other tools mentioned to mobilize, focus, and transform your anger in constructive ways.
Anger is not bad, in and of itself. However, we need to be able to channel our anger, so it doesn’t infect or rule our actions, beliefs, and feelings. The crucial questions are – what is anger trying to tell us? What can we learn from the situation? What is our part, and how shall we best proceed?