Anger: Friend or Foe?

Anger is an emotion that we are often taught to feel is a “negative” or “bad” emotion. In fact, anger is a healthy and normal emotion that we all experience from time to time. It can be the motivator that tells us it is important to stand up for our, or someone else’s, rights. It can inform us of an injustice, undue influence of power or control, or someone’s self-determination has been compromised. It is what we choose to do when we are angry that can have the potential to cause problems. If we experience a situation or interaction that diminishes our sense of self-worth or limits our ability to feel in control of our choices, a common reaction is to become angry. Anger can be an emotion that is telling us that something in our surroundings or environment is wrong, unjust, unfair or oppressive. These are important signals that our body is transmitting to us about our circumstances that may benefit from our attention and efforts to change the dynamic. Much like fear is communicating to us that something about our situation is unsafe, anger is often communicating with us, as well, that something is unjust.

Before we can respond to our angry impulses, however, we first must make sure that we are in control of our anger and not the other way around. When we lose control of our anger, we are much more likely to make rash, inappropriate and irrational decisions in how we react to the “triggering event” (or catalyst for our anger). If we are able to acknowledge our anger, understand where it is coming from, and keep it within our control, we still have the capacity to make decisions in response to our angry feelings that will not be destructive, and can potentially be helpful. When in a calm state of being, it is helpful to reflect on situations, experiences or people that we know cause us to feel angry. By preparing ourselves with the knowledge of what can set us off, we are taking a preemptory step to limit the control anger has on us and, subsequently, our depressive and anxious symptoms. If we push the items in our lives that trigger our anger to the front of our consciousness, we will be less likely to be taken by surprise when we are confronted with them. This reflection also affords us the opportunity to determine whether or not our anger is justified. While anger can be a normal, healthy emotion, it can also be misdirected toward an event or person that isn’t deserving of our anger. Misdirected anger is often a common problem when we don’t feel we have the access, right, or ability to address the real circumstances that can make us angry. This process allows us to reflect on patterns of acting out or becoming aggressive that aren’t warranted, so that we may change the identified pattern in the future.

With this preparation also comes the forethought of implementing skills or techniques to limit the amount of control our anger holds over us. Therefore, when we are met with a situation where we know we often become upset, we carry the potential to immediately respond with coping skills to manage the severity of our anger so we make decisions based on logic and effectiveness rather than choices blinded by rage. The most effective response to becoming angry is being able to effectively communicate our feelings to the appropriate party, in an effort to be heard and validated. We must accept that while we can’t control how another person will respond to what we communicate, we do control how we interact and speak with others. Through the preparatory process, we accept the fact that it is in our power to effectively communicate our feelings, but what the other person chooses to do with what we’ve expressed is out of our control. By acknowledging this ahead of time, we give ourselves the ability to accept that maturely and directly communicating our feelings is enough, and if the other person doesn’t respond the way we wish they would, then we have the ability to walk away knowing we have done the best we can for ourselves. We can’t force others to see things or respond to us the way we want them to. We must make peace with the fact that our rationally expressing our point of view, so it can be clearly understood by another, is enough.

We might react negatively to what is written above, especially if we have experience getting our way as a result of yelling, exploding, being hurtful or acting out. While this may be the case, the benefits we are seeing are short-term. Continuously becoming explosive when angry has longer term consequences, such as physical impacts on your body and your coming to be seen as someone to avoid or dislike. The more effective you are at communicating your anger calmly, the less stress will be inflicted upon your body and the more likely it will be that others respect you and appreciate what you bring to the table. To return to the notion that anger isn’t necessarily a “negative” or harmful emotion, it is helpful to identify some of the most effective strategies to maintain a level head when we are angered so we can have the most productive outcome possible. Again, being reflective on your anger when you are in a calm state is going to be one of your biggest assets in helping you healthily respond to anger when you experience it. When you are not feeling angry, compile a list of techniques and interventions you can employ in the future when you become upset. Some things to consider:

  • Recognize and become aware of your “warning signs” that you are becoming angry (e.g. clenched fists, tight muscles, ruminating thoughts, feeling lightheaded, etc.)
  • When you realize you are becoming angry, assess the situation to see if your anger is justified or warranted, as opposed to it being a disproportionate response. It is important that you do this check when you begin to notice that you are becoming angry. As our anger escalates, we lose our ability to control our response to it. If you assess and respond to your anger early, you are more likely to make better decisions in how you express your anger.
  • When you are calm, establish healthy ways to process your anger that you can easily recall when angered in the future (such as breathing exercises, expressing yourself using “I feel” statements, writing your feelings down in a journal, allowing yourself to walk away from the triggering situation, etc.).
  • If you identify that you are becoming angry and either your reaction isn’t warranted or you don’t feel in control of it, have established changes in thought and behavior that you can go to in order to deescalate (think about a place or memory that calms you, tell yourself “I am upset and am in control of my response,” carry a stress ball that you can squeeze, exert some physical activity such as jumping jacks, remove yourself from the upsetting environment). Changes in our thoughts and behaviors have a powerful ability to change the way we feel emotionally.
  • Remove yourself from the situation so you are not exposed to the triggering event, allowing you to cool down.
  • Have a trusted friend or family member already in your mind you can contact who you know is effective in listening to you and validating your experience.
  • Distract yourself by focusing on an activity to help shift away from ruminating thoughts (this could be playing a game on your phone, listening to music, going for a run, etc.). It is hard to just make yourself stop thinking about something that is preoccupying you, but making yourself partake in an activity forces your mind to start thinking about new things in a different way and eases the process of coping with anger.
  • Engage in a relaxation exercise such as meditation or a breathing exercise.
  • Write what you are feeling down in a journal.
  • Do things to relax your senses such as taking a shower, listening to a meditation app, eating something comforting, burning incense, touching established calming items such as a smooth stone or piece of fabric.
  • Remind yourself of the benefits of staying in control and not lashing out.
  • Remind yourself that when you are calm you can still (and better) effectively communicate what has upset you.
  • Reflect on what underlying emotions (e.g. fear) might be fueling your anger as well if your anger is being misdirected and you are avoiding what is really upsetting you.
  • Talk to yourself: Tell yourself “I am in control” “I am calm” “I know how to effectively communicate my emotions” “Everything will be better off if I communicate in a calm, measured tone”
  • Allow for some time to pass before you take action, knowing that time and distance often will help relieve explosive behavior associated with anger.
  • If you are someone who suppresses anger or don’t feel comfortable allowing yourself to be angry, give yourself permission ahead of time to be angry and acknowledge that anger can be a necessary and healthy emotion when expressed appropriately. Stuffing your anger down and failing to acknowledge it can cause it to manifest in other, destructive ways.

This is just a sample of potential strategies to help you manage your anger. Anything that helps you to remain calm, stay in control of your body, communicate effectively and keep your anger as something that you feel is under your control is worth trying. The preparation that is put into planning for how we will react when we are angered is where a majority of the work lies in keeping anger as a “positive” feeling that is a healthy part of our emotional beings.