Anger Management Tips

To manage anger, we first have to understand it. Anger is a powerful, complex emotion that is sometimes a mask of something else. In therapeutic language, we talk about anger being expressed as a “secondary emotion”, meaning that the beginnings of the feelings of anger came from primary emotions that triggered anger.  Examples of negative primary emotions are sadness, fear, hurt, shame, and guilt. If we aren’t aware of the emotions beneath our anger, and anger is then the secondary emotion, we are more likely to be reactive, and be misguided in how we understand our own feelings. In turn, our anger can result in hurtful or harmful actions.

When anger is a primary emotion, it can help inform action, and help us to avoid danger. An example would be asserting a boundary with someone who has caused us harm. Anger can be signal that something is wrong and needs our attention. Anger serves a purpose and works to protect our vulnerability. We want to pay attention to our feelings of anger because they help us to better understand ourselves and others. Ignoring the impact of anger can be damaging to ourselves as well as our relationships. Research has shown that withholding anger leads to an increased risk of disease in the body.

Anger is an emotion that brings energy to the body and activates our limbic system. There are physiological responses to the emotion of anger that intensifies our thoughts and our emotional reaction. Being aware of how anger shows up in our mind and our body is an important first step to identifying your own triggers of anger and patterns of behaviour.

How we manage anger is also informed by what we learned growing up. For example, some people learn to repress anger as they learned it is not acceptable to express those feelings in the family. For others, anger may have been explosive and lead to conflicts and violence. Our own individual temperament is a factor as well, with some of us being more assertive, and others being more passive.

Dealing with our negative feelings and impulses is part of being human, and we all have the responsibility of learning to manage them, regardless of the source of those feelings. Managing anger is a skill that we can learn.

Steps to Managing Anger
1. Be aware of your goals and values. For example, if what is important to you is to have a kind and loving relationship with your spouse or child, or to model for your family a healthier way of managing anger than what you saw growing up- ask yourself if your behaviour will get you closer to what you want. If not, perhaps your behaviour needs to change.

  1. Keep track of when you get angry. Learn about yourself and what makes you vulnerable. Be aware of your triggers and learn from these experiences.
  2. Practice breathing. When you notice, you are starting to feel irritable, breathe in for five, hold for two, and exhale for five. Do this ten times. This allows for lots of oxygen to flow to the brain, which will help your prefrontal cortex function better and support you in making a more thoughtful decision or considerate response.
  3. Take a pause. Remind yourself that you can take a time out before you react. Walk away or remove yourself from a situation if you need time to process. Unless it is an emergency, create some space for yourself between the “stimulus” and your response.
  4. Make a list of things you can do to self-soothe when you get upset, and to help distract you. For example, go for a walk, call a friend, listen to music, exercise, take a shower, meditate, pet the dog. Finding things that will help relax your limbic system will also help to reduce the physiological impacts of anger and help you to begin to engage a more rational vs emotional mind. If you are working with a therapist, DBT skills may be helpful.
  5. Play it out. Ask yourself, if I react in a negative way to this situation, what will happen? And then what? How will this potentially impact myself and my relationships? How will this action impact my immediate goals and my long-term goals? Is this behaviour in line with who I want to be?
  6. Consider your own power to choose. Whether your anger is toward yourself or others, remind yourself that you are in control of your feelings, they are not in control of you. What choices do I have right now? What am I in control of? How can I move into a state of “wise mind”? What do I need to help me shift?
  7. Look under your feelings. Ask yourself, what led to me feeling this way? What does this remind me of? Is my reaction related to something else that is going on with me or another person I am in conflict with? Validate the feelings you identify, and also remind yourself that feelings are not facts. Feelings can misguide, especially if they originate from a traumatic memory or are being fueled by other sources.
  8. Check your thoughts. Are my thoughts helpful, or harmful? If the thoughts are harmful, it is likely that you are still dysregulated, and your “emotional brain” is in control. Allow yourself to continue to self regulate your body before taking any actions. Your thoughts may be misleading you. Remember we don’t want to believe everything we think! Anger fuels thinking errors such as catastrophizing, mind reading, all or nothing thinking, and focusing on the negative. Be aware that that thoughts are not facts.
  9. Engage problem solving techniques. Is this emotion signalling I have a problem to solve, or is this an emotion to manage? Is there something I can do about this situation in this moment, or would it be better to wait? Is there someone who can help me with this situation? Is this my problem to solve, or is this someone else’s?

Ultimately, learning to manage anger can be hard work, but it is worth it. Be gentle with yourself and others. Recognize the power of anger and its ability to misguide us and cause harm in the relationships that matter most to us. Remind yourself that you are human and to be patient with yourself and the people in your life, affording both them and you permission to be imperfect.