Anger is a serious problem, and for people who struggle to control anger (and their friends, family and loved ones), it’s a cause of additional frustration, as well as sadness and pain.
If this is you — if you’re dealing with feelings of anger in your daily life — the time to do something about it is now.
If you’re struggling with uncontrolled anger issues, managing your anger before it does any serious damage to you or those around you should be your number one priority.
Luckily, anger management is conquerable with the right tools and the right help — and a hell of a lot of practice.
Anger is an emotional response to feelings of uncertainty in a given upsetting situation. It can be caused by both external events (things caused by other people, like traffic or rudeness) and internal events (things that are your own responsibility, like stubbing a toe).
Before we can unpack the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger responses, it’s important to clear up a major misconception about anger: that it’s always bad.
Anger is not inherently an evil or unhealthy emotion. It is simply an emotional state represented biologically by increases in hormones, adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate and other chemical processes. These processes often accompany feelings of annoyance, rage and everything in between.
Human anger has some of its roots in our early instinctual fight or flight response, and things that enrage us tend to activate our instinct for self-defense, which is necessary for survival.
But in the 21st Century, most of us don’t need to fight off predators with stone weapons every day. Society expects us to resolve conflict not with duels or fistfights, but with words.
When anger is bad, we consider it “dysfunctional anger,” or anger that impairs or negatively affects our functions — motor, cognitive or otherwise.
In modern society, how we express our anger is different from the response we’d have had before civilization, and those forms of expression can vary greatly.
Anger management — controlling your anger — isn’t as simple a process as you might think. In fact, many people wrongly believe that having no anger at all is the “ideal” state.
Since anger is a normal survival instinct, avoiding it entirely isn’t healthy, whether you’re fighting off predators in the woods or responding to THAT SON OF A BITCH WHO JUST CUT YOU OFF IT’S CALLED A BLINKER, BUDDY! Sorry. Some anger, sometimes, is justified.
The pain and the loss, the frustration and the unpredictability of the world we live in and the actions of others — these are all unavoidable sources of anger.
We can’t control when this impulse is activated. You can’t prevent someone from cutting you off in traffic without avoiding the road altogether. What we do need to control, however, is what we do with these feelings, and how they affect our actions.
Experts generally agree that there are three primary categories of anger response: we either express it, suppress it or calm it.
Each comes with benefits and drawbacks. Too much suppression or calming can leave us passive and vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Internalizing anger can affect our health and happiness, even if we don’t express it by breaking things or shouting during aggressive outbursts.
Sometimes, you may feel the desire to “let it out.” Psychologists generally believe that this isn’t a great strategy. While you’re not going to end up in an asylum from making a weekly appointment in a rage room, some people use the “blow off steam” argument as an excuse to hurt others and escalate their anger in certain situations, which is neither helpful nor productive.
Instead, experts recommend learning to understand your anger, what triggers it and how to stay in control (and prevent the angry outburst) when your anger spikes.
The goal of anger management is about finding ways to diffuse, deflate and deter that tendency to let intense feelings overwhelm your system and take control.
There are many ways to exert your own control over emotions and put anger back in its place. Here are a few to consider the next time you feel your emotions start to go from simmer to boil.
Relaxation techniques are crucial elements of management for a number of emotional issues, and anger is no different (maybe just louder).
Deep breathing, visualizing calming environments and non-strenuous activities like yoga can be employed to help you relax muscles and release tension.
You might even consider chanting. Repeating the word “relax” to yourself, for example, may help train you away from losing your cool.
If your office is making you feel rage, well, you’re not alone. The simple solution is to get out of the environment where these feelings tend to simmer. Getting out of your home, your office, your dorm or your neighborhood is a great way to reset, so that you can give yourself some personal time away to come back in a better, calmer state.
Mad Men isn’t exactly a testament to good mental health practices, but when Betty explains that Don Draper needs “absolute quiet” for some time after getting home from work, they’re both doing a great job with balance.
Taking “personal time” at the end of a stressful part of your day is healthy and beneficial, and especially for parents, roommates and spouses, it can be an important, protected space to let the tension dissipate and emerge on the other side ready to be a better version of yourself on.
Like water on a fire, laughter is the perfect diffuser for anger… Sometimes. Getting yourself to laugh can help you get immediate perspective and relief on a moment of intense emotions.
Silly visualizations are effective in tense situations. Anger is about seeing an extreme right and wrong — a person who wrongs you is absolutely evil. When you learn to see the “shitty” boss in your head as a large pile of, well, excrement, it can take the power of the emotion, and the power of the boss out of the equation.
Communication can be a very powerful tool for managing anger, but many people tend to assume cursing up a storm and shouting their emotions is “communication.” While it may be better than throwing a lamp through a window, it’s not communication.
When we communicate, we make an unspoken pact to express ourselves and also hear the other person express themselves — and that means not just talking, but listening.
It may be hard in moments of rage, but listening to the other person’s side of things and trying to understand their feelings (rather than refute or dismiss them) is a great way to quickly find common ground and lessen the impact of the conflict.
It’s easy to look at high school math these days and want to burst into rage. But that’s not going to get the homework done.
This is how anger works. It’s an emotional reaction to inescapable problems. The solution, then, is starting to look for a solution.
Problem-solving employed as an anger management strategy works for two reasons: it gets you thinking logically again, and it distracts you from your feelings with a productive purpose.
Cognitive behavioral changes are an important part of learning to stay in control in frustrating situations where spiraling out of control is easy. And while it works for depression and anxiety, it can also work for anger issues.
When you learn to see yourself getting angry before damage is done, you can begin to employ cognitive tools. Reminding yourself that anger doesn’t solve problems is a great way to pivot to a different strategy. Replacing angry thoughts with rational ones helps you see the real problem, not the catastrophic one you’ve worked yourself up over.
Logic is how we defeat anger, because anger is irrational.
People in need of help with anger management can’t control their anger on their own, and the resulting lack of control results in damage to relationships, to careers and to other important elements of their lives.
If this sounds familiar, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional about your anger issues. Mental health professionals with expertise in anger management can help you begin to build habits and strategies to manage your anger response, while beginning to more deeply consider and potentially modify your behavior.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) for anger management has been shown effective in studies, including one where it helped athletes stay focused and in control of their emotions during stressful times.
But the people who need help with anger management aren’t necessarily the ones smashing windows, starting bar fights or putting holes in their walls — poor anger management might also be about learning to be assertive instead of aggressive.
Burying your anger or avoiding confrontation may prevent violent outbursts, but it is no less harmful to you in the long term.
Getting your anger under control might be something you can practice on your own, but more than likely it's the case that converting those angry feelings into a better form of healthy emotion isn't something that you'll succeed in doing without some guidance.
If your aggressive behavior and negative feelings feel out of your control, it may be time to talk to someone about it.
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Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.