Anger gets a bit of a bad rap. People talk about anger as though we should never feel it and we certainly should never act on it. Neither of those are true. There are times when it’s not only reasonable to feel angry, it’s right to feel angry. If you’ve been wronged, treated unfairly, or provoked, you should get angry. In fact, would worry more about someone who didn’t feel angry in those circumstances.
That said, we all know that anger can get out of hand. How you handle it is different from whether or not you feel it. Again, it’s ok to act on anger too. It’s just that, usually, it’s best to be polite, assertive rather than aggressive, and calm when you act on it.
One of the worst things that can happen when someone gets angry is for them to say something they regret. It happens all the time. They become overwhelmed with anger and their desire for revenge overtakes everything else. Boom, they say something cruel or hurtful that can’t be taken back.
It’s a difficult thing to do but people need to find a way to stop, think through how they are feeling and how the other person is feeling, and then decide if and how they want to respond. Learning to do that can be the difference between letting your anger get the best of you and using your anger in a positive way.
Like any emotional problem, sometimes learning to deal with unwanted anger requires professional help. If you feel frustrated or angry often and nothing you’ve tried seems to help or if your anger has caused you problems at work, school, or in your personal life, you might want to meet with a professional therapist.
To help find a professional, the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org) has a Psychologist Locator. While not the only way to find help, it could be a good place to start.
I’m not encouraging you to go to bed angry. You’ve probably heard not to do that and that’s actually pretty good advice. However, getting regular, healthy sleep is an important part of managing anger.
A lack of sleep diminished activity in the area of the brain- the frontal lobe- associated with impulse control. Consequently, sleep deprivation makes it harder to control your angry impulses and you’re more likely to do something you regret when you get angry.
The “Catharsis Myth” is the idea that venting anger is good for you. The idea is that by acting aggressively, viewing aggressive content, etc. we release our anger in a way that is healthy and safe.
The problem, of course, is that catharsis doesn’t work. In fact, the research on catharsis shows that it increases anger rather than decreases it. According to Bushman and colleagues (1999), it increases cardiovascular disease risk and increases the likelihood you will become aggressive toward those around you (including innocent bystanders).
To learn more about the “Catharsis Myth,” see Four Questions on the Catharsis Myth with Dr. Brad Bushman.
Learning to relax is obviously a useful strategy for dealing with unwanted anger. There are lots of ways to relax, however (see here for examples of mediation, deep breathing, and taking timeouts). One of the best is to use visual imagery where you visualize a relaxing experience from your memory or your imagination (a trip the the beach, a hike in the woods, etc.).
In fact, if you’re not good at coming up with visualizations on your own, you can even find a few websites with free visualization scrips for you to practice with (see here for an example).
Anger isn’t caused directly by things that happen around us. It’s caused by our interpretation of those things that happen around us. Imagine if someone cuts in front of you in line at the grocery store. You can interpret that a couple of different ways: intentional (“he saw me and just didn’t care that he was cutting in front of me”) or unintentional (“he must not have seen me”).
Sometimes, considering alternative interpretations of the provocation can be a nice way to alleviate anger. Ask yourself what evidence you have to support your angering interpretation. Try to consider other ways of looking at the situation and maybe even try to test those alternative interpretations. What would happen if you, for example, were to say politely to the person that they accidently cut in front of you?
When you find yourself becoming angry, try to visualize yourself as calm and peaceful. Imagine yourself relaxed, your voice calm, and your hands steady. You’ll find that as you imagine yourself this way, you’ll start to become this way. Over time, your anger responses will reflect this.
For some people, it helps to have a phrase they repeat over and over. Words or phrases like “relax,” “take it easy,” or “anger isn’t the solution” can help distract people as they get through the initial angry response.
Sometimes anger results from expectations that are too high. We expect everything to go smoothly and perfectly and then, bam, something goes wrong and we get angry. If we just adjust our expectations a bit to include the fact that things are complicated and don’t always go as we hope they will, we’re likely to feel less anger when things go wrong.