You’d probably agree that anger issues are prevalent in today’s world. We don’t have to look far to see another systemic and social tragedy of uncontrolled anger in the news or on social media. But anger also affects our personal lives: arguing spouses, reactive parents, upset and stressed out bosses and co-workers. Perhaps, you’re feeling more angry than usual yourself.
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Whether you are looking for anger management tips for yourself or help for a loved one with anger issues, learning how to self-regulate, communicate anger effectively, and utilize its energy adaptively is critical.
But how do you express anger respectfully yet assertively? What is healthy or adaptive anger? And how do you soothe yourself compassionately and express anger productively?
Understanding Anger and an Anger Definition
Let’s first explore what anger is before diving into calming techniques or how to let go of anger.
Emotions are energy in motion as we process and interpret our experiences. They require us to feel, interpret, process, and regulate them to respond appropriately. Emotions can be mild or very strong.
Anger is a primary and adaptive emotion. Like all primary emotions, it has a vital function and purpose: to signal to us when we feel emotionally or physically threatened or our boundaries are violated. It functions to help us understand when we feel unsafe, our goals are thwarted, or we (or someone we care about) are being mistreated. This emotion urges us to take action to care for ourselves and others.
Sometimes, the beginning of anger is a slight frustration, which is easy to brush aside. However, if we repeatedly avoid or push down daily irritations without supporting ourselves, these simmering emotions can piggyback and build. When we ignore what our healthy anger is signaling to us, it gets louder so that we will act. Then our knee-jerk reactions to people and experiences can seem unexpected, although many times, the symptoms of the eruption have been brewing for a while.
The stronger and more intense anger becomes, the more difficult it is to modulate, but it usually doesn’t start potently. Many people haven’t learned to regulate anger partially because they wait too long to listen to it.
Anger gets a bad rap because it has so frequently been expressed in unhealthy or maladaptive ways, such as directing anger at someone hurtfully like yelling or throwing things.
There are many faces of anger: frustration, irritation, angst, resentment, aggression (or suppression), rage, etc. And there are just as many ways anger is expressed, both healthily and unhealthily.
Here are some common yet unhelpful ways people express anger:
- Blame someone
- Yell at their spouse or children
- Throw and break a dish
- Kick their dog
- Drive unsafely (road rage)
- Stuff and shut down our feeling and go numb
- Grab their favorite addictive substance like alcohol
- Go on a spending spree with a sense of entitlement and rack up debt
- Physically harm another person or animal
Many people feel a tremendous amount of shame for inappropriate expressions of anger, which only adds to the challenge of acknowledging and processing this emotion. When we shame ourselves for feeling angry to begin with, it becomes much harder to welcome and accept the lessons it’s there to teach us.
One way to look at our relationship with our emotions is through an everyday object such as a stoplight. You can drive through the crossroad unencumbered at regular speed when the light is green.
A green light in our emotions means that feelings are flowing unencumbered and motivating us to act in ways consistent with our physical and emotional needs. When we are excited about a new promotion or joyous at the birth of a child or grandchild, there is no need to stifle the emotion.
However, when you start feeling irritated or frustrated, a yellow light signals you to slow down and listen. These less potent forms of anger are there to tell you to be aware of a change or an event that requires us to pay attention and respond intentionally; just like at a yellow streetlight, we’re intended to slow and prepare to stop.
And you can imagine what a red light means—STOP! When we are feeling anger boiling in us, there’s a red light telling us to stop, be alert, and pay attention. It’s time to put our body/mind/emotions into park, turn off the ignition, and find ways to support the engine in cooling down.
Related reading: "How to Deal with Anger Effectively."
How Anger Can Be Triggered by Our Past Pain
Years ago, a COO of an international company attended one of my executive trainings. He was a passionate, hard-working, and incredibly gifted man. However, his frequent frustration with employees’ mistakes was causing difficulty in his company. Whenever a person slipped up or did not follow through on what they committed to do, he would let loose on them and often fire them.
He had noticed that his employees didn’t feel comfortable around him, but he hadn't made the connection about why. As we talked, it became apparent the immense responsibility and level of perfection he expected of himself. He never let up, working long hours, sometimes seven days a week. In fact, he had an exorbitant amount of vacation days and PTO accumulated. Yet, yelling and swearing made employees hesitant to interact with him and afraid of reprimands or losing their job. This power dynamic was very disruptive to the company’s health and continually corroded teamwork.
It turned out that when this COO was growing up, his father reacted critically and harshly whenever he made mistakes or let down and played with friends instead of doing chores around the house. Sometimes, his father would even threaten to send him away. Now, as a leader of a big company, his employees were triggering these old memories.
Regardless if you’re a leader in a company, a stay-at-home mom, or a single person vacationing with friends in Costa Rica, the skill of self-regulating is imperative to your health and happiness and those around you.
One aspect of emotional intelligence is regulating and expressing our emotions and needs effectively. The first step is always to take responsibility for our emotions. Just like the above example, we can often fall into a pattern of blaming others for our feelings. The truth is that no one makes us feel anything. The triggers are inside of us.
When we own our emotional experience(s) as OURS, we can begin practicing taking responsibility by regulating our emotions through compassionately observing and investigating what they are signaling to us.
The Best Anger Management Is Mindful Compassion
In Lion’s Roar blog "Loosening the Knots of Anger," Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how to detangle the knots of anger through mindfulness.
Mindfulness recognizes anger, is aware of its presence, accepts and allows it to be there. Mindfulness is like a big brother who does not suppress his younger brother’s suffering. He simply says, “Dear brother, I’m here for you.” You take your younger brother in your arms and you comfort him. This is exactly our practice.
The above metaphor of the older brother attending to his younger brother’s pain is poignant. Self-Acceptance with nonjudgment is key. We all need to treat ourselves with the same presence and empathy. When we can be present with our thoughts and emotions without judgment, we can bring curiosity to our unmet need(s) that our emotions are signaling to us. From increased self-awareness, we can then step more confidently into effective action to meet our physical and emotional needs.
How to Calm Down from Anger
There are healthy and productive ways to process and handle anger effectively. Below are some great ways to calm.
- Self-soothe with supportive and encouraging self-talk.
- Take a self-calming break and do a short mindfulness exercise.
- Breathe deeply until the anger subsides.
- Count backward by 7s from 100.
- Journal your angry thoughts.
- Go for a brisk walk or hearty run.
- Talk to a trusted friend who is able to empathize.
- Grab two ice cubes from the freezer and hold one in each hand to help you cool down—literally!
- Go to the nearest sink, rinse your hands and wrists with cool water; focus on the sound and feel of the running water.
- Get an eight-ounce glass of cool water and drink it slowly.
- Engage in 10-20 minutes of intense physical activity (run, sit-ups, pushups, etc.)
If you’re looking to deal with anger in healthier ways, try the suggestions above or a combination. Experiment and see what works best for you.
How to Practice Self-Inquiry
Once the intensity of anger quiets, it's also important to get curious about our anger. Check in with yourself and pinpoint possible triggers. Gently ask yourself questions about what might have ignited the emotion:
- “Am I hungry?” (Yes, low blood sugar can increase anger.)
- “Am I feeling powerless?”
- “Might I be protecting myself from feeling hurt?”
- “Did I feel disrespected?”
- Do I feel unsafe in some way?
- Is a lack of safety real, or has my perception of the situation been exaggerated?
When my children were young and had friends visiting, their playfulness was sometimes loud and rowdy. I could be simply making a bed in the next room, and I would notice my breathing getting faster and shallower. In a few minutes, I was in full-blown hypervigilance and fear.
Inquiry brought me back. I asked the last question and realized that the intensity of the children’s clamoring play and raised voices had triggered memories of the violence I experienced growing up. To self-soothe, I would walk into the room where the children were playing to affirm they were safe. Returning to the bedroom, I would tell myself that I was no longer a child and was safe, breathing deeply as I repeated those words. Soon the anxiousness subsided.
Sometimes anger can be present experiences invoking healthy emotions, and other times, our past unresolved pain can be the trip wire.
Once we have down-regulated the intensity of our anger and identified what it is signaling to us, it's much easier to take effective action, whether this is soothing our pain that was triggered from the past or expressing our feelings and advocating for our needs in a respectful way to others (e.g. partner, child, friend, coworker, etc.).
If you’re asking yourself, "Why am I angry all the time?" or have difficulty managing your anger, unresolved pain or suppressed emotions may need inquiry and healing. It can be extremely beneficial to get professional support. A skilled therapist could help you explore and identify your triggers, provide tools for self-calming, and help you integrate past trauma.
Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. And getting support IS kind.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to develop emotional intelligence skills, contact us at email@example.com.