We all get angry. Some mental health professionals even say that anger can be a good thing as it lets us know that we are being threatened in some way so we can respond. However, almost everybody agrees that unchecked, or unmanaged, anger can and often does have negative results. When our anger is out of control, even for a short time, we can do irreparable damage to our relationships, belongings, reputations, and even physical damage to others and ourselves. In the most extreme cases, even one person’s anger can throw the entire world into chaos.
How does anger work?
The first step in managing anger within ourselves is to recognize it before it overwhelms us. In order to do this, it’s important to understand how anger works. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions it has three parts: a behavioral part, a autonomic response, and a hormonal response.
In practical terms, what this means is that when we encounter any situation or object we make some automatic judgments. Most of us are not even consciously aware of these judgments as we are making them. If we determine that the situation or object is somehow a threat we will usually automatically respond.
Typically, this response will fall into either a “fight or flight,” or “tend and befriend” category, and will begin with some kind of behavior. We may run away, shout, hit, curse at, warn, or even freeze in the fight or flight mode. Or we may speak soothingly (for instance if we encounter an angry dog and know we cannot escape or beat it up), rationalize with the threat, offer gifts, etc. in the tend and befriend context. Either way, we will take some action, or behave in a way that we think is most appropriate.
As the situation continues our body’s autonomic nervous system will secrete chemicals into the body to increase our energy, alertness, and even strength so we can deal with the threat. So if we decide to flee, we will be able to run faster and longer than we normally could. If we decide to fight, we will be stronger and be able to endure more pain. Likewise, if we decide to negotiate, we may become more alert to the way the threat reacts to what we say and do. These autonomic responses are reinforced by hormonal responses as epinephrine and norepinephrine are released into the bloodstream, and steroids are released into the brain, to provide even more heightened awareness, strength, endurance and speed.
How can we manage anger?
So, what does this have to do with managing anger? Anger is a powerful emotion, and typically comes over most of us very quickly. Its not a slow boil, but a volcano. In order to manage our anger we need to recognize it before it gains momentum. Understanding the mechanics of anger may help us recognize anger’s first signs, such as:
Recognizing situations where you typically become angry. If you know that “every time someone cuts me off in traffic I lose my mind,” then you know to be more aware of anger when you are driving. Knowing when you are most likely to get angry will help you prepare for those situations so that you may not get angry the next time you encounter one. You can do this by role-playing in your mind how you will react, or exploring the reasons the situations make you angry in a safe environment. A very effective way is to journal the situation, paying attention to the thoughts and sensations you feel when you even think about the situation, and countering those thoughts with soothing alternatives.
Noticing the sensations you feel in your body when you are getting angry. Most people typically feel tension in their muscles, especially in the neck, shoulder and stomach areas, when they are getting angry. Many also feel tension in their temples, and around their jaws. Some people may begin clinching their fists, or displaying some other physical habit when they become stressed. It’s common for people to feel warm as their blood pressure rises, or to start breathing more rapidly. All of these are common signs of growing anger. As you practice and become more aware of your internal sensations, you will begin to become familiar with how you respond to stress, and which physical sensations happen to you as you are becoming angry. When you notice these, you will learn to sooth yourself with calming thoughts, breathing, or other strategies.
Pay attention to your self-talk. Human beings are the only species on the planet known to be able to generate emotional responses by simply thinking about situations or people. Our thoughts are generally composed of self-talk, both conscious and unconscious. The way we think, or speak to ourselves, has a tremendous effect on our emotions. When we are angry, for instance, we usually have hostile or angry self-talk. In fact, some experts contend that it is the self-talk that drives our emotions, not the other way around. But once those emotions take hold, the self-talk reinforces them. So be on the lookout for your own thoughts. What are they telling you? If you notice them becoming too critical, negative, or angry, talk back to yourself with soothing, rational thoughts. All of this self-talk does not make you crazy! It is an effective way of managing your emotions, including anger.
Get away from the situation. When all else fails, and you feel like you have reached the point of no return, simply extract yourself from the situation. If you can do so physically, like leave, then that is probably the best way. However, even if you are trapped and cannot physically leave, try to dissociate yourself from whatever is going on around you. Breath deeply, close your eyes if it’s safe, and take yourself to another place. This may sound strange, but in most cases we become angry because we feel like something is happening to us, or our values are being attacked. If we can remove the “me” from the situation we have a better chance of managing our anger until we can come back and deal with the situation in a more calm and effective manner.