Anger is a tough emotion. It feels so urgent and all-consuming. And we feel like we have to act on it. Right. Now.
And so, we do. We say something cruel or sarcastic. We yell. We slam doors. We become stone-cold silent and refuse to communicate. We replay the situation or interaction over and over. And we get madder and madder.
But even though our anger feels overpowering and overwhelming, we can avoid having a rage-filled, knee-jerk reaction. We can do better in our relationships, and we can take better care of ourselves.
And it starts with a small, simple action.
That is, pause, according to Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, a psychotherapist for young professionals in New York City and an instructor for Human Behavior at New York University. Taking a break gives you time to calm down. It also gives your prefrontal cortex time to come back online.
“The cortex is a part of the brain responsible for higher thinking, managing impulses, and controlling behavior especially in relation to emotions.” When we become angry, the cortex and amygdala, the more primitive part of our brain “involved in fight, flight, freeze responses to threats,” stop communicating, Saidipour said. Which is why you’re unable to think rationally and end up lashing out, even at the people you love most.
How long should you pause?
Saidipour said that while some experts recommend around 20 minutes, she can’t share a specific amount of time because everyone is different.
“What I can offer is that you’ll know the intensity of the emotion has decreased enough once you can think more flexibly again, once a bit of curiosity starts to replace that digging-your-heels-in self-righteousness.”
What should you do during your pause?
Saidipour suggested observing your thoughts, feelings, and impulses without acting on them or drawing conclusions about what they mean. It also might help to do some deep breathing to soothe your nervous system.
Right after your pause or later that night, you can also journal about your anger. According to Saidipour, anger is often a secondary emotion that covers up deeper, more vulnerable emotions, such as hurt or betrayal. You might feel slighted, unimportant, overlooked, or rejected, she said.
“For example, your partner makes an offhand comment that fails to take into account something important to you and you’re instantly seething.”
Another helpful way to think of anger is as a notification on your phone, she said: It’s “flagging some important underlying information, but you need to click it and keep reading to get the full message. It’s a flag marking that this intense emotion means something but its meaning won’t necessarily be found at face value.”
So dig deeper. Ask yourself these three words. Think about the emotions underlying your frustration or outright rage. Reflect on whether these emotions are somehow tied to pivotal past experiences (which can explain why your anger is so big and visceral).
Remember not to judge or criticize yourself for your anger. Many of us get uncomfortable with this emotion and tend to pretend it doesn’t exist until it grows and grows, and we explode. Instead, think of your anger as a valid message you’re trying to understand. And of course, if you’ve lashed out, absolutely take responsibility, apologize, and learn to manage your anger effectively (in addition to pausing).
But we can only do that once we accept that it’s OK to feel this way. Which is also the beginning of accepting ourselves.