I seldom experience anger. Frustration? Absolutely. Sadness? 100%. Joy, anxiety, apathy? Check, check, check. But true, blood-boiling anger would barely be a character at all if the animators of Inside Out were to draw the key emotions of my brain. Which is precisely why I'm caught off guard when I do feel it. The surge of adrenaline and thoughts of "it's not fair!" surprise me to my core and afterwards I'm left wondering how on earth I was able to feel such an unfamiliar emotion with such intensity.
I've learned, however, that these moments are a gift for me as a therapist (and blogger) as they provide me with a newfound dedication to finding answers to questions that weren't even on my radar. So, without further ado, today's post is all about how to handle anger.
First Thing's First: how do we define anger, anyway?
Here are the best definitions of anger in my opinion:
a. Anger is the energy of boundaries, a.k.a the emotion that shows up when we feel as though our boundaries have been violated
b. Anger is an emotional response to a perceived injustice
In the world of psychology, anger is often defined as a secondary emotion—that is, an emotional reaction to other emotions. (Conversely, primary emotions are those that arise as a direct response to some sort of cue.) However, other schools of thought consider anger to be one of the four core emotions of happiness, sadness, and fear.
I, myself, believe that anger can be anger in its own right. How many times have I been angry and asked myself, "Is it really hurt or pain that's here?" and realized, "No, Kristina, you're just straight up pissed off."
Signs of Anger
Here are some tell-tale signs that you're in the thick of anger (in case you couldn't tell from your clenching fists):
You're suddenly saying "should" a lot (they shouldn't have done that, they should have known better, I should be respected...)
You feel as though an unwritten rule has been violated
You start using global ratings to define people. Global ratings are when we use simple, over-the-top adjectives for others (i.e. "they're total idiots")
How to Cope
If someone comes to therapy with the goal of working on anger, I might have us informally go through questions from the Anger Disorders Scale (ADS), a 74-item questionnaire that assesses five specific domains of emotional experiences:
a. Arousal: how physiologically aroused do you become when you're angry? What is the intensity of the emotion and how long do you stay angry for?
b. Provocations: what usually stimulates your anger? Are there any themes or trends about what angers you?
c. Cognitions: what thoughts do you have about yourself, other people, and/or the world when you're angry? What "unwritten rule" do you feel has been broken? Here, we might also look at how likely you are to become resentful or how likely you are to ruminate (that is, go through a situation over and over and over in your mind).
d. Motives: what do you feel compelled to do when you're angry? Do you become coercive? Do you want to seek revenge? Do you want to release your tension somehow?
e. Behavioural expressions: what do you actually do with your anger? Do you become physically aggressive? Passive aggressive? Do you vent to other people?
Reflect on what patterns you notice when you become angry. What might others see when you're angry? What has the impact been of this on you and other people? Are you committed to changing these behaviours—and if so, why? What would be different about your life if you were able to control your anger?
2. Remember that anger makes you someone's puppet.
I listened to a lecture once by a man named Christian Conte, a certified domestic violence counsellor, who said,"Every time we allow someone else to determine how we feel or what we do, we actually become the person's puppet... Why would we give our power away to people who are mean to us?"
Conte suggests that people find an object that represents their "power" (even if it's just a rock) and that every time they feel angry, they look at it as a way of remembering to hold onto their power. I like this idea a lot.
3. Put. the phone. down.
Texting often makes it all too easy to say things that you'd be more likely to keep to yourself in person. There's a degree of detachment that comes with texting and a lot can become lost in translation, too.
When I was recently experiencing a bout of anger, I actually asked my partner to hold onto my phone for the night. It took the temptation to text away and enabled me to just cool off for a bit. If you don't live with someone, turn your phone off and put it in another room in a drawer so it's completely out of sight.
4. Find the humour in the situation.
I'm lucky to have two friends from when I was a journalist who I not only deeply trust, but who happen to be absolutely hilarious. The WhatsApp group between the three of us has become one of the most special and therapeutic places for me to talk about life without filtering myself, and they're always sure to find a way to make me laugh when I'm taking myself too seriously.
If you're lucky enough to have funny friends like me, vent to them as a way of gaining some reprieve from the intense emotions you're experiencing. TikTok is another great option as you'll find a plethora of videos of people unabashedly making fun of themselves and the annoyances of daily life.
5. Put things into perspective.
The most centring thing I say to myself when I'm experiencing any intense emotion is, "Will this matter in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months, or 5 years?" This reminds me that what I'm experiencing is temporary and insignificant in the grand scheme of life.
6. Find people who "get it."
If there's someone who can relate to the situation you're going through, reach out to them. If you're angry about racial injustices, speak with someone who understands this with their whole being. Not the person who has read 2093823805 books about it or the person who wants to be an ally, but someone who has had a similar lived experience of what you're going through. Feeling seen and understood by another person in difficult moments can be the most healing thing in the world.
Online communities can also be really helpful here. Reddit has discussion threads about basically every topic you've ever thought of in your life. Frustrated about COVID? There's a thread for that. Annoyed with the ignorant comments your friends are making about infertility? There's a thread for that, too. Seriously, just go to Google and type in "[topic of annoyance] Reddit" and you will find what you're looking for.
Well-established and trusted newspapers and magazines can also have a great deal of resources about a variety of mental health-related topics. For example, The Atlantic has a whole "Dear Therapist" section that covers everything from dealing with frustrating in-laws to not wanting a family member in your bridal party. Never under-estimate how many resources you can find with a simple Google search.
7. Vent, but to a point...
I believe having a good, unfiltered, emotional, let-it-all-out kind of vent can be extremely cathartic. However, there's a difference between venting and ruminating. Venting is about having a momentary release of thoughts and emotions. Ruminating, by contrast, is about thinking the same thoughts over and over again to the point where it's no longer productive or therapeutic. In fact, a study by the journal PLOS ONE showed that ruminative thinking is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety and that it determines the level of stress people experience. Their study also suggests that the psychological response we have to an event is more important than what actually happens to us when it comes to our mental health.
Although rumination is commonly thought of as a mental habit, there are plenty of sneaky activities that maintain ruminative thinking, including:
Telling10 people about what happened to you instead of just one person
Looking at 15 Reddit threads instead of just a couple
Venting to your partner for three hours rather than 15 minutes
Journalling about what happened for a solid hour rather than 10 minutes
Research from the journal Personality and Social Psychology also suggests that unlimited venting increases (rather than decreases) anger and aggression and that doing nothing at all is more effective than venting. The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology reiterates this finding and discovered that the "complainers" in their study not only reported a lower mood and less satisfaction on the day that they were venting, but that they experienced a lower mood the next morning. This shows that unlimited venting can have lingering after-effects that can harm our mental health.
I think it's unrealistic (and cruel) to entirely deprive ourselves of the healing power of venting. However, it's important to find a happy medium between short-lived, therapeutic venting that comes with a degree of catharsis, validation, and understanding versus the type of long-lasting, ruminative complaining that only makes things worse for ourselves (and likely annoys others).
8. Take some space.
Whether you're mad at a person, situation, or societal injustice, take a breather from the thing that's aggravating you if you can. Take some time apart from your friend and text them less frequently as a way of getting a breather. If it's your roommate or partner who's annoying you, schedule some solo activities that are preferably out of the house as a way of disconnecting from them. Go for a long, socially-distanced walk with one of your friends as a way of preventing you from saying something you'll regret to the person with whom you're angry.
9. Redirect your energy towards something more positive and selfless.
Anger can cause us to hyper-fixate on the situation or person that's bothering us. Put all of that valuable energy into something outside of yourself that makes you feel good. Perhaps you can write some hand-written letters for your family members or call that friend you've been meaning to make time for recently. Bake something and drop it off at your neighbour's door as a way of getting out of your own head. Do something—anything—that causes you to focus on the wellbeing and happiness of others rather than your own anger.
10. Get it out.
There is a huge physiological component to anger. In a recent moment of anger I experienced, I found myself pacing and pacing and pacing around my house. It wasn't my thoughts that were making me uncomfortable, but the sheer amount of adrenaline that was rushing through my veins that made it feel like it was simply impossible to sit still.
In moments like these, activities like breathing exercises and meditation aggravate me even more, personally. These are the times where I need to legitimately go for a run or do a high-intensity interval training workout at home with music blaring through my earbuds so that I can allow my nervous system to recalibrate. Whether it's doing some gentle yin yoga or doing an at-home kickboxing class, find out what activities help recalibrate your nervous system during angry episodes.
The Bottom Line
There is a lot of good that comes with anger. It can provide a powerful dose of motivation and energy that incites change in the world. It can empower us to stand up for ourselves and tell people that "enough is enough." And yet, there can always be "too much of a good thing" and anger is no exception.
If you find yourself getting angry frequently, identify some patterns and trends to your anger. How long does it stick around for? What seems to maintain it? What seems to relieve it?
From there, practice finding the humour in the situation so as to not take yourself so seriously. Put things into perspective by asking yourself if the aggravating event will matter in five minutes, five weeks, or five months. Put your phone down and get some distance from the person or situation that catalyzed your reaction. Release the physiological energy that's associated with anger, whether that's through doing yoga or meditation exercises or going for a sprint outside. Set limits around your ruminative patterns and remember that venting helps, but only to a point.
Finally, remember this wise quote by American writer Ambrose Brierce: "Speak when you are angry and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret."
If you or someone you know is struggling with anger management, please contact email@example.com to discuss virtual or in-person psychotherapy at our Markham or Woodbridge office locations.