By: Nanette Kerwick, LMSW, CEAP, CAADC, EAC Clinical Specialist – Most human beings get angry. We are naturally emotional creatures. Anger is experienced as a spectrum, from mild irritation to rage. Like other emotions, anger causes physiological and biological changes. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, as do levels of energy hormones (adrenaline and non-adrenaline.)
Anger is caused by things happening externally, such as being angry at a specific person or event. It can also come from something internally (e.g. worrying about personal problems.) In addition, anger can come from memories of enraging or traumatic events.
Since anger is a natural response to what we sometimes think of as a threat, we often want to respond aggressively. It allows us to have feelings and behaviors that are meant to defend ourselves, if needed. Therefore, anger is necessary to our survival. However, we can’t lash out at every person or thing that causes us to be angry. Social norms and common sense tend to dictate our actions in most situations when we become angry.
We use a variety of ways to express our anger. Some are conscious and some are unconscious. Expressing, suppressing, and calming are the 3 main approaches that are used to deal with our anger.
Expressing: If we express anger by using assertive communication, we are happy with the outcome. What that means is we express how we are feeling in a clear way without hurting others. This way, we have a better chance at getting our needs met and leaving the door open to communication.
Suppressing: Sometimes, we will suppress our anger. We will attempt to convert it to something positive or more constructive. The problem with this approach is we turn the anger inward and against ourselves. Anger turned inward can cause high blood pressure or depression. Not expressing anger can also be problematic. It can lead to becoming passive aggressive (getting back at people indirectly) or becoming cynical and hostile.
Calming: When we use calming to deal with anger, we are not only just controlling our outward behavior, but also taking steps to lower our heart rate, calm ourselves down, and let the feelings subside.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT OUR ANGER?
Here are some tips:
1. Relaxation – Deep breathing and relaxing imagery can help calm things down. There are many videos on YouTube and plenty of books on this subject. Yoga and other stretching exercises can also be helpful. Practicing them daily will help form habits so they can be used in stressful situations.
2. Thought Restructuring – Changing the way we think can help us cope in a better way. If we think, “this is all going down the tubes,” we will feel upset and anxious. However, if we think, “this is going to be a struggle, but it is not the end of the world,” we will feel more able to cope. Try not to use words like “always” or “never.” This can set us up for failure, as there is no place to go from there. Those terms also alienate and humiliate those who might be helpful in solving the problem. In addition, logic defeats anger. Be reminded that the “world is not out to get us”; we are just experiencing a bump in the road of life. This may help you create a more balanced perspective.
3. Problem Solving – Anger can come from very real problems that are persistent and need our attention. Also, not every problem has an easy solution. That can add to our frustration and get in the way of what little action we can take. We may have to focus on how we are handling the problem and not the solution. Develop a plan for dealing with the issue head on, while not punishing ourselves. We can choose to tell ourselves that we have tried our best even if the problem is not solved immediately.
4. Better Communication – When we are angry, we tend to jump to conclusions, sometimes the wrong ones. Slow down and don’t respond immediately in a defensive manner. Really listen to what the other person is saying. Think carefully about what how to respond. A good book to read about how to improve communication is When Words Hurt by Mary Lynne Heldemann.
5. Using Humor – Humor can be used to defuse anger in a variety of ways. We can picture someone we are angry with in a silly situation like turning into a frog and attempting to talk or go to a meeting. This picture may calm us down and help us gain some perspective. It is not suggested to laugh it off or become sarcastic. Anger can often cause people to think that “things should go their way.” The “shoulds” are dangerous ground and can make us act unreasonably with ourselves and with our demands on others. Everything will not go our way, every time! Again, that is a set up for failure and more anger.
6. Changing Our Environment – Problems and responsibilities can weigh us down and we just need to get away. Taking daily breaks from work or chores is one way to manage our feelings and stress levels. Fifteen minutes to a half hour can do wonders for our ability to bounce back.
7. Seek Counseling – If you feel that your anger is out of control and it is affecting your relationships or work life, then I encourage you to consider counseling. A good therapist can help you learn new skills for coping differently with your anger in a short period of time. But be careful of a therapist who only teaches “self- expression” or “letting it all out.” That will most likely not be as helpful and, according to research, may make your anger worse.
It’s clear. We cannot eliminate our anger. It is a part of our survival mechanism. There will be lots of things we cannot control that cause us grief, loss, frustration, and rage. That is part of living. Controlling our anger response is the best way to deal with how these events affect us. By better managing this emotion, we will feel like we have done our best and not feel so upset with “natural” responses.