Anger is a powerful emotion. If left unchecked, it can effect both physical and emotional health, destroy relationships with loved ones, and contribute to violence and other risky behaviors. It is also a natural response to some of the more painful and difficult parts of the human experience. Learning how to manage your anger can allow you to properly express your feelings without damaging your health or your relationships with others.
Here are some strategies that will help you get started:
1. Know your triggers.
Keep a notebook with you and write down what happens just before, during, and after you become angry. Take some time to analyze what you’ve recorded. It’s likely that you’ll begin to see patterns in the way you behave and triggers for your outbursts. Are you typically tired, hungry, or stressed when you become angry? Do you get angry in specific situations, such as while driving or when waiting for someone to meet you who is running late? If you can identify the elements and situations that lead to your anger, you’ll be one step closer to controlling that anger. For some people, just the exercise of writing about their anger helps mitigate that anger when similar circumstances occur in the future.
2. Take control of what you can.
Much of what happens to us in life are things we can’t control. That driver who cut you off in traffic? There was no way you could avoid him. Your toddler who threw a massive tantrum in the middle of the grocery store? There’s rarely anything you can do prevent a two-year-old from overreacting. The boss who moves up a huge deadline without any warning? There’s no way you can immediately know his reasoning or move the deadline back.
Additionally, all three of the situations in these examples aren’t necessarily the cause of anger. If they were, every person who encountered such behavior would become angry. But there are plenty of people who, when placed in similar situations, get over it right away. This doesn’t mean they aren’t momentarily frustrated or anxious, but they don’t dwell on the situation all day or lose their temper with the toddler or the boss. You can do that too by establishing what you can control and then taking action. If you’ve completed step 1, you have likely identified some things you can control in situations that incite anger.
Perhaps, for example, you discovered that whenever you get angry in traffic, you also happen to be running late. The obvious thing you can control here is the time you give yourself to get ready and travel to work, school, appointments, and so on. Start getting up ten minutes earlier, so you can leave the house earlier. This way, when another driver cuts you off or drives too slowly, you won’t already feel the pressure of running late. Instead, you’ll feel confident that you are going to be on time and thus be in a better mood to get over that rude driver’s behavior.
If you discovered that you most often get angry when you’re tired or hungry, start taking a good look at your schedule and making changes in how much sleep you get each night and when and what you eat. If you’re well-rested and well-fed, you’ll have an easier time dealing with a toddler in meltdown mode. Coincidentally, you might also look at the few things you can control as a parent, such as knowing when your child is tired and hungry, and be able to prevent some meltdowns by simply avoiding outings during naptime or having a healthy snack on hand. (Note, too, that this helps only with some meltdowns. Toddlers and tantrums go hand-in-hand.)
If you discovered that your anger is piqued when you’re also stressed about other things in life, evaluate those stressors and see if there’s anything you can cut out. Alternatively, start practicing proven methods of relieving stress: exercise regularly, meditate, take time for yourself every day, listen to music while you work, get a massage, try aromatherapy. One simple thing to try is diffusing a calming blend of essential oils in your office or home. Try a blend of lavender, marjoram, Roman chamomile, and ylang ylang.
3. Practice coping techniques.
After you’ve identified your triggers and taken charge of the things you can control, learn about the coping techniques you can implement in the heat of the moment or during times when you feel anger or resentment simmering in the background.
Breathe. Try taking prolonged, deep breaths that you imagine coming up through your belly and exiting through your nose. Do this 8 to 10 times, taking 4 seconds to both inhale and exhale.
Visualize. Find an image of something you love doing or a place you dream about. Whenever you feel your anger rising, visualize the experience that accompanies that image and focus on that.
Relax your muscles. Progressively tense then relax each muscle group in a slow, deliberate manner. Start with your toes and work up to your head.
Ban words you might regret. When you verbally respond to a situation, even if it’s just in your head, don’t use the words always and never. Saying things like “You always screw things up” serves to justify your anger and can push people away who might otherwise be willing to come to an understanding with you.
Ask productive questions. Remind yourself that you never know what another person is thinking. Then ask yourself some questions to help you analyze the situation. For example, instead of yelling “What on earth made you do this?” to the person at the center of your anger, ask yourself, “What things may have made her/him act this way?” Put yourself in the other person’s shoes by asking questions that can help you empathize with that person. Other good questions to ask: “What could be going on in his/her life to make her act like this?” “What could she/he be thinking right now?” As you explore possible extenuating circumstances in your own mind, you’ll likely think of mistakes you’ve made and find that your anger—along with your judgment—starts to subside some.
Drop your expectations. Sometimes anger arises because things—or people—don’t turn out the way we expect. Rethinking your expectations during times of anger will help you go easier on yourself and on others. This doesn’t mean you have to stop wanting or desiring the best in things, just that you start thinking in terms of what you want rather than what you expect.
Take a break. If a situation is particularly tenuous and you don’t think you can control what you say, take a break. This is easier when you’re alone and angry about something rather than at someone. But even if you’re with someone at the moment, it’s often best to simply state, “I think I need some time alone to work out my feelings” and then take a time-out rather than launching into an angry tirade that could result in hurt feelings or damaged relationships. It’s amazing how a change of scenery and a break from the situation can change your perspective and your mood.
If none of these techniques help, or you have trouble implementing them on your own, don’t give up. Instead, reach out to a therapist or psychologist who can really help you explore your anger and work with you intensively to manage it.
Rebecca Hintze, M.Sc.