Anger is an emotion we all experience from time to time. Handled in a healthy way, it can be a catalyst for positive change. “Constructive anger” can seem like an oxymoron, but we can look at it as a warning that something is wrong and a powerful motivator to better ourselves and our lives.
For many, particularly if they didn’t grow up with good role models on how to manage their anger, it can be confusing. It can lead them to actions they later regret like yelling at their coworkers or members of their family, sending rash emails or even physical violence. Moreover, people with mental health conditions such as PTSD are more prone to experience intense anger that can result in alienating their loved ones and making the road to recovery more difficult.
We need to keep in mind that anger is a valid emotion, and its outcome can be positive or negative depending on how you approach it. Learning how to manage your anger doesn’t mean you stop feeling it, but that you recognize the signs, acknowledge it, understand it and express it in more productive ways.
Understanding Your Anger
It’s much easier to deal with your anger when you know what you’re actually angry about. Factors like stress and sleep deprivations are known to make people more irritable and impulsive. Likewise, some people have personality traits that make them more vulnerable to stress and more prone to angry outbursts.
For instance, you could just be more observant than others which makes you notice things that get on your nerves. Things that others remain blissfully unaware of. You could also be less comfortable with change, and this causes you a significant amount of stress, so you become angry.
Our personality traits and background determine our beliefs and thought patterns which can fuel or reduce negative emotions. It’s often hard to pinpoint the reason behind your anger, so it helps to keep a sort of anger journal. Here you take notes whenever you get angry and try to identify triggers. You can also talk to a friend or consult a psychotherapist. Research has demonstrated that cognitive-behavioural interventions are very effective because they help you learn how to shift away from the thoughts and behaviours that reinforce your anger.
Recognize the Warning Signs
It may feel like you go from calm to angry in an instant, but there are usually physical signs that your frustration is turning into anger. Your blood pressure rises, and you’ll feel your heart racing. Maybe your face feels hot, and you start to clench your fists. These warning signs give you a chance to remove yourself from the situation before you say or do something that might have negative consequences.
When you start paying attention to these physical symptoms, you will get better at identifying them before you reach the boiling point.
Step Away From the Situation
Once you’ve recognized the signs that you’re starting to lose your calm, trying to continue the argument will only make it worse. The best thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation that triggered your anger.
Let’s say a conversation with your partner gets heated. If you feel like you’re about to explode, tell them you need a break. You can explain that this isn’t an attempt to dodge a difficult subject, but you’re in the process of learning how to better manage your anger. You don’t feel like you can have a productive conversation and reach a good solution right now, and you need a chance to calm down.
It’s generally helpful to give them a time and place when you can resume as this reassures them that the issue will be discussed, just at a later time. For example, you can say you’ll discuss it the next day after you put the kids to sleep.
While you’re taking this break, you can evaluate what exactly made you angry. It’s not always on you to calm down and change. It can be that your partner said or did something that was emotionally invalidating or abusive, which triggered your reaction. In this case, it’s still better to resume the discussion at a later date because it will give you time to explain your point of view.
You won’t always be able to remove yourself from a situation that’s making you angry. For example, you might be stuck in a traffic jam. As you’re sitting in your car, you’ll find yourself thinking things like: “Not another traffic jam! I can’t stand this anymore!” or “This is going to ruin my whole day!” You can’t just leave your car in the middle of the road, so it helps if you try to reframe the situation: “Since there are many people living in this city and they’re all trying to get somewhere, there will occasionally be traffic jams.” The idea is to focus on facts and avoid exaggerations and catastrophic predictions.
As we mentioned earlier, you can trace your anger and angry thoughts to a belief – in this case, the belief that traffic jams should never happen. Once you realize that holding on to this belief is what’s fueling your anger, it will be easier to let go of it.
Switch Your Focus to Relaxation
Instead of focusing on your angry thoughts, switch to relaxation. You’ll first channel your attention entirely to what your body is experiencing. Pinpoint the symptoms we discussed earlier. Then you can use relaxation strategies to reduce these sensations, and you’ll notice that once you calm your body, your mind will also stop ruminating on upsetting situations.
The two most common relaxation techniques are breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. They do take some practice, so we recommend you commit to dedicating 20 to 30 minutes about three times per week. You think about a situation that has recently made you angry (you can check your anger journal). When you feel the physical symptoms intensifying, switch your focus to your breathing and then relax your muscles starting from your feet upwards. As you’ll get better at them, you’ll see that you can make use of them discreetly, on the spot and they’ll help you keep calm in situations that used to make you lose control.