Anger exists for a purpose—to energize us to act. But when anger runs the show, the actions we take can hurt others or ourselves. When we gain self-awareness and practice emotional regulation, we can use our anger to take us to better things. Here are a few ways to make that happen.
Anger Triggers and Cues
Self-awareness allows use to recognize when we’re angry. Most people have certain things that are likely to trigger our anger (e.g., not feeling listened to, observing or experiencing injustice). Knowing the things that commonly trigger our anger allows us to be prepared to manage our anger when we experience that situation or even when we anticipate such situations. We can use our regulation tools before our anger gets the best of us.
Also, many people have similar experiences each time we’re angry, so those responses can be warning signs we look for. We can identify the thoughts (e.g., I hate this, this can’t be happening) physical sensations (e.g., muscle tension, racing heart), and behavioral urges (e.g., yelling, throwing things) we often experience when angry. These are the alarm bells that let us know we need to use regulation tools to manage our anger.
I Feel, I Want
When we experience any emotion, it is helpful to identify the feeling with a statement such as “I am feeling ….” That statement identifies the emotion while reminding us that we are not our emotions. They are temporary experiences. All emotions pass in time. Also, they are very real, but they are reactions we have, not who we are or an external reality. Recognizing this helps us to get a little distance so that we can choose how we respond to the emotion of anger. We can choose to feel the emotion of anger and use regulation tools to act in a way that we feel good about ourselves and how we managed the situation.
Anger lets us know that there is something we need to do something about. Usually, we are concerned that we will not get something we want, will lose something we like, or will get something we don’t want. Identifying what we want or what we want to avoid also helps us get the distance we need to respond in a helpful way to our anger. Knowing, and sometimes expressing, what we want helps us move closer to that goal rather than getting stuck in the uncomfortable emotion of anger.
Sometimes what we want is not possible, so the option that will cause us the least pain and be the most helpful is acceptance. Acceptance means we acknowledge reality. It does not require us to like or even be okay with that reality. When we accept things that are out of our control, we are free to take action that can effectively help us move closer to our goals and desires. Sometimes we can’t get what we want, but we can feel good about sticking to our values in a tricky situation. This can reduce the anger we feel and improve our lives.
Once we know what we want and let go of things that are not possible, we can explore actions that will move us closer to our goals. These should be actions we can take, not changing situations or the behavior of others (those are out of our control). Once we identify those actions, we can break them down into simple steps that we can take in the moment. When we take those actions, we might feel our anger decrease, if it hasn’t begun to do so already. This is the power of using anger for its intended purpose.
Sometimes we are not able to think clearly about actions that are consistent with our values, goals, and desires because our anger makes it hard to think. This is a neurological reaction to anger, but there are things we can do to help our brain get back on track. Splashing cold water on our face or putting an ice pack on our checks (on either side of our nose) can help calm the body so we can think clearly. Taking deep breaths and exhaling slowly, so that our exhale is twice as long as our inhale also can calm the body and let us use our brains to think about taking actions consistent with our values. Other times, safe physical activity can help discharge the tension that anger causes. We may have to repeat these strategies several times before the tension from our anger resolves.
When to Seek Help
Sometimes our anger causes us to hurt people or suffer ourselves. If after trying these strategies you still struggle with anger management, please talk with a mental health provider. Mental health providers can help you to apply these steps to manage anger as well as identify issues underlying anger to help you handle your anger and live your best life. Click here to schedule an appointment at CARE for support with anger management.
If you are concerned about the way a loved one’s anger is affecting you, please see these tips to advocate for yourself. If you feel unsafe in in a relationship or have concern about someone who might be experiencing violence in a relationship, please see our domestic violence resources. These also are concerns that can be discussed with a mental health provider.
Written By : Sarah Sifers, Ph.D., LP