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Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You
We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it: whether as a fleeting annoyance or as
a full-fledged rage.
Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of
control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems: problems at work, in your personal
relationships and in the overall quality of your life. And it can make you feel as though
you're at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion. This brochure is meant to
help you to understand and get a handle on handling anger.
What is Anger?
The Nature of Anger
Anger is 'an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to
intense fury and rage,' according to Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who
specializes in the study of anger. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological
and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as
does the level of your energy hormones, adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a
specific person (Such as a coworker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a canceled
flight), or your anger could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal
problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings.
The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is
a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings
and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A
certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, we can't physically lash out at every person or object that
irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms and common sense place limits on how far our
anger can take us.
People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their
angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming.
Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive --not aggressive -- manner is the
healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your
needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean
being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.
Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when you hold
in your anger, stop thinking about it and focus on something positive. The aim is to
inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior. The danger
in this type of response is that if it isn't allowed outward expression, your anger can
turn inward -- on yourself. Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood
pressure or depression.
Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of
anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without
telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems
perpetually cynical and hostile. People who are constantly putting others down,
criticizing everything and making cynical comments haven't learned how to constructively
express their anger. Not surprisingly, they aren't likely to have many successful
Finally, you can calm yourself down inside. This means not just controlling your
outward behavior but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your
heart rate, calm yourself down and let the feelings subside.
As Dr. Spielberger notes, 'when none of these three techniques work, that's when
someone - or something -- is going to get hurt.'
The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the
physiological arousal that anger causes. You can't get rid of, or avoid, the things or the
people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your
Are You Too Angry?
There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry feelings, how prone
to anger you are and how well you handle it. But chances are good that if you do have a
problem with anger, you already know it. If you find yourself acting in ways that seem out
of control and frightening, you might need help finding better ways to deal with this
Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?
According to Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in anger
management, some people are really more 'hotheaded' than others; they get angry more
easily and more intensely than the average person. There are also those who don't show
their anger in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily
angered people don't always curse an throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk
or get physically ill.
People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low
tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be
subjected to frustration, inconvenience or annoyance. They can't take things in stride,
and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example,
being corrected for a minor mistake.
What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause may be genetic or
physiological; there is evidence that some children are born irritable, touchy and easily
angered, and that these signs are present from a very early age. Another may be
sociocultural. Anger is often regarded as negative; we've taught that it's all right to
express anxiety, depression or other emotions but not to express anger. As a result, we
don't learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.
Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically, people who are
easily angered come from families that are disruptive, chaotic and not skilled at
Is It Good to 'Let it All Hang Out'?
Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a
license to hurt others. Research has found that 'letting it rip' with anger actually
escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry
with) resolve the situation.
It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop
strategies to deep those triggers from topping you over the edge.
What Strategies Can You Use to Keep Anger at Bay?
Simple relaxation tools such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery can help calm down
angry feelings. There are books and courses that can teach you relaxation techniques, and
once you learn them you can call upon them in any situation. If you are involved in a
relationship where both partners are hot-tempered, it might be a good idea for both of you
to learn these techniques.
Some simple steps you can try:
- Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest won't relax you. Picture
your breath coming up from your 'gut.'
- Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as 'relax', 'take it easy'. Repeat it to
yourself while breathing deeply.
- Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience, from either your memory or your
- Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles and make you feel much
Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically when you're in a tense
Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry people tend to curse, swear
or speak in highly colorful terns that reflect their inner thoughts. When you're angry,
your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts
with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling yourself, 'oh, it's awful, it's
terrible, everything's ruined,' tell yourself, 'it's frustrating, and it's understandable
that I'm upset about it, but it's not the end of the world and getting angry is not going
to fix it anyhow.'
Be careful of words like 'never' or 'always' when talking about yourself or someone
else. 'This machine never works,' or 'you're always forgetting things' are not just
inaccurate, they also serve to make you feel that your anger is justified and that there's
no way to solve the problem. They also alienate and humiliate people who might otherwise
be willing to work with you on a solution.
For example, you have a friend who is constantly late when you make plans to meet.
Don't go on the attack; think instead about the goal you want to accomplish (that is,
getting you and your friend there at about the same time). So avoid saying things like,
'You're always late! You're the most irresponsible, inconsiderate person I have ever met!'
The only goal that accomplishes is hurting and angering your friend.
State what the problem is, and try to find a solution that works for both of you; or
take matters into your won hands by, for instance, setting your meeting time a half-hour
earlier so that your friend will, in fact, get there on time, even if you have to trick
him or her into doing it! Either way, the problem is solved and the friendship isn't
Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything, that it won't make you
feel better (and may actually make you feel worse).
Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it's justified, can quickly become
irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world is 'not out
to get you,' you're just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life. Do this each
time you feel anger getting the best of you, and it'll help you get a more balanced
Angry people tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement, willingness to
do things their way. Everyone wants these things, and we are all hurt and disappointed
when we don't get them, but angry people demand them, and when their demands aren't met
their disappointment becomes anger. As part of their cognitive restructuring, angry people
need to become aware of their demanding nature and translate their expectations into
desires. In other words, saying 'I would like' something is healthier than saying 'I
demand' or 'I must have' something. When you're unable to get what you want, you will
experience the normal reactions --frustration, disappointment, hurt -- but not anger. Some
angry people use this anger as a way to avoid feeling hurt, but that doesn't mean the hurt
Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems
in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced, and often it's a healthy, natural response to
these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and
it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn't always the case. The best attitude
to bring such a situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution but rather on how
you handle and face the problem.
Make a plan, and check your progress along the way. (People who have trouble with
planning might find a good guide to organizing or time management helpful.) Resolve to
give it your best, but also not to punish yourself if an answer doesn't come right away.
If you can approach it with your best intentions and efforts, and make a serious attempt
to face it head-on, you will be less likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing
thinking, even if the problem does not get solved right away.
Angry people tend to jump to --and act on-- conclusions, and some of those conclusions
can be pretty wild. The first thing to do, if you are in a heated discussion, is to slow
down and think through your responses. Don't say the first thing that comes into your
head, but slow down and think carefully about what you want to say. At the same time,
listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.
Listen, too, to what is underlying the anger. For instance, you like a certain amount
of freedom and personal space, and your 'significant other' wants more connection and
closeness. If he or she starts complaining about your activities, don't retaliate by
painting you partner as a jailer, a warden or an albatross around your neck.
It's natural to get defensive when you're criticized, but don't fight back. Instead,
listen to what's underlying the words: the message that this person might feel neglected
and unloved. It may take a lot of patient questioning on your part, and it may require
some breathing space, but don't let your anger --or a partner's-- let a discussion spin
out of control. Keeping your cool can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.
'Silly humor' can help defuse rage in a number of ways. For one thing, it can help you
get a more balanced perspective. When you get angry and call someone a name or refer to
them in some imaginative phrase, stop and picture what that word would literally look
like. if you're at work and you think of a co-worker as a 'dirt-bag' or a 'single-cell
life form,' for example, picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting at your
colleagues desk, talking on the phone, going to meetings. Do this whenever a name comes
into your head about another person. If you can, draw a picture of what the actual thing
might look like. This will take a lot of the edge off your fury; and humor can always be
relied on to help un-knot a tense situation.
The underlying message of highly angry people, Dr. Deffenbacher says, is 'things oughta
go my way!' Angry people tend to feel that they are morally correct, that any blocking or
changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should NOT have to suffer
this way. Maybe other people do, but not them.
When you feel that urge, he suggests, picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme
ruler who owns the streets and stores and office space, striding alone and having your way
in all situations while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your
imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe you are being a little
unreasonable; you'll also realize how unimportant the things you're angry about really
There are two cautions in using humor. First, don't try to just 'laugh off' your
problems; rather, use humor to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don't
give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that's just another form of unhealthy anger expression.
What these techniques have in common is a refusal to take yourself to seriously. Anger
is a serious emotion, but it's often accompanied by ideas that, if examined, can make you
Changing Your Environment
Sometimes it's our immediate surroundings that give us cause for irritation and fury.
Problems and responsibilities can weigh on you and make you feel angry at the trap you
seem to have fallen into, and all the people and things that form that trap.
Give yourself a break. Make sure you have some 'personal time' scheduled for times of
the day that you know are particularly stressful. One example is the working mother who
has a standing rule that when she comes home from work, for the first fifteen this brief
quiet time, she feels better prepared to handle demands from her kids without blowing up
Some other tips for easing up on yourself:
Do You Need Counseling?
- Timing: if you and your spouse tend to fight when you discuss things at night --
perhaps you're tired, or distracted, or maybe it's just habit -- try changing the times
when you talk about important matters so these talks don't turn into arguments.
- Avoidance: if your child's chaotic room makes you furious every time you walk by
it, shut the door. Don't make yourself look at what infuriates you. Don't say'well, my
child should clean up the room so I won't have to be angry!' That's not the point. The
point is to keep yourself calm.
- Finding alternatives: if your daily commute through traffic leaves you in a state
of rage and frustration, give yourself a project -- learn or map out a different route,
one that's less congested or more scenic. Or find another alternative, such as a bus or
If you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it is having an impact on your
relationships and on important parts of your life, you might consider counseling to learn
how to handle it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can
work with you in developing a range of techniques for changing your thinking and you
When you talk to a prospective therapist, tell her or him that you have problems with
anger that you want to work on, and ask about his or her approach to anger management.
Make sure this isn't only a course of action designed to 'put you in touch with your
feelings and express them' --that may be precisely what your problem is.
With counseling, psychologists say, a highly angry person can move closer to a middle
range of anger in about 8 to 10 weeks, depending on circumstances and the techniques used.
What About Assertiveness Training?
It's true that angry people need to learn to become assertive (rather than aggressive),
but most books and courses on developing assertiveness are aimed at people who don't feel
enough anger. These people are more passive and acquiescent than the average person; they
tend to let others walk all over them. That isn't something most angry people do. Still,
these books can contain some useful tactics to use in frustrating situations.
Remember, you can't eliminate anger -- and it wouldn't be a good idea if you could. In
spite of all your efforts, things will always happen that will cause you anger. Life will
always be filled with frustration, pain, loss and the unpredictable actions of others. You
can't change that; but you can change the way you let such events affect you. Controlling
your angry responses can keep them from making you even more unhappy in the long run.
Copyright © 1997 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.