Last week I wrote about how to tell if your anger is becoming a problem. This time, we’re exploring how to make anger work for you instead of against you. “Cooling down” is easier said than done. Fortunately, you can learn how to control your anger with specific, concrete skills.
1. Learn what anger looks like for you.
It’s easier to manage anger when you can catch it as it’s starting. To do that, you need to be able to recognize your anger early on. Think back to situations you have felt angry, and ask which of the following apply to you:
- Feeling heat or tension in your body
- Fist clenching
- Glaring or scowling
- Heavy or rapid breathing
- Sweating or shaking
- Becoming argumentative
- Shutting down or withdrawing from people
- Raising your voice
- Getting in people’s personal space
- Throwing or breaking things
- Wanting to hurt yourself or someone else
You may also think of other “symptoms” of anger unique to you.
Try pausing a couple of times a day, and ask yourself if any of these signs are popping up for you. It’s also helpful to observe if you’re feeling tired, sick, stressed out, annoyed, hungry, or worried, because sometimes our bodies turn these feelings into anger. See if you can take a break to address these feelings before your anger reaches a boiling point.
2. Identify your triggers.
Everyone has a trigger: a person, thing or situation that brings up big unwanted emotions. Getting triggered does not mean you are weak. It means your brain is reacting very strongly to try to protect you, someone else, or something important to you. When you know what triggers your anger, you can decide whether you’re ready deal with that trigger today, and prepare yourself if needed.
Some triggers are emotional:
- Feeling disrespected, used, or hurt
- Feeling helpless or trapped
- Worrying about someone
- Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted
- Being reminded of a bad memory
Others are situational:
- Being stuck in a traffic jam
- Seeing a person who wronged you
- Being lied to or manipulated
- Being ignored
- Getting criticized
There are many, many possible triggers, so examine the situations in which you felt angry. What events led up to that feeling? What thoughts kept going through your head? Once you know what made you angry, you can plan for how to respond next time.
3. Control your anger with a safe outlet or distraction.
Trying to suppress your anger usually makes it worse. Most of my clients who have angry outbursts try to bottle it up or pretend they aren’t angry, until they can’t take it anymore. So you need a way to “let off steam” in a way that works for you.
My favorite outlet is literally walking away from the trigger. If it’s someone I’m talking to, I’ll say, “I need a few minutes. Back later,” then leave the room. If it’s an email or thing on the internet that upset me, I close the app. Then while I’m away from the trigger I’ll distract myself, write down how I’m feeling, or message someone else who’ll let me vent.
But walking away isn’t always possible. Maybe you’re stuck in traffic, or have to hear a lecture from your boss. At times like this I find two strategies useful: distraction and expression. By taking your mind off the irritant you can reduce its effect on you. Or, by physically expressing the anger safely, you can take the pressure off.
Some distractions might include:
- Thinking about something you’re looking forward to
- Taking an object apart and putting it back together
- Counting the number of objects in a room
- Picturing your favorite person, places or animals
Some expressions of anger might include:
- Scribbling really hard on paper, then crumpling it as tight as it will go
- Tearing apart cardboard
- “Taking notes” that are really about how you’re feeling
- Waiting until you have time alone, then hitting things with a stick
- Cleaning aggressively until the dirt is terrified out of your house
- Venting about the problem to a friend
- Exercise – This one is especially good for getting the pent-up stress out of your system.
One other note: suppressing anger altogether is usually unhelpful, but putting anger aside temporarily can work well. The key is to acknowledge briefly that you’re feeling angry, and give yourself permission to respond to the anger later. In the meantime, find a distraction or project you can focus on to help you cool down.
4. Practice expressing your needs in a healthy way.
Anger has a purpose: it tells you to act, because something is wrong. It often arises because we feel that we’re being mistreated, our boundaries are violated, or the expectations on us are unfair. So it needs to come out. But if we learn how to control our anger constructively, it won’t have to come out in a bad way.
Communication skills are your friend here. Assertiveness skills will help you make requests from other people and stand up for your needs. Boundary-setting skills enable you to say “No,” and prevent yourself from getting mistreated. Lastly, conflict-resolution skills reframe problems from “you vs. the other person,” to “you and the other person working together against a problem.”
I’ll elaborate on these in future posts. For now, ask yourself if there are more direct, respectful ways to tell other people what you need. My personal favorites are “I feel [emotion] right now, and I need [request],” for stating your needs, and “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible,” as an all-purpose way to say “No.”
Bonus tip: Use feedback to learn how to control your anger more effectively.
It’s hard to gauge how to control your anger better if you’re just guessing how others perceive you. Look for a friend, colleague or family member with whom you can practice having hard conversations. Ask them how your words and body language come across. You can also pick up strategies by watching how they handle frustration, and what words they use when they feel upset.
A therapist can be helpful if you want in-depth support for understanding what causes your anger, deeper issues it may be masking, and which coping tools work best for you. Anger issues are very treatable, and I find most of my clients who want to get better at it, will. If you’re considering whether therapy might be right for you, drop me a line.