Has anyone ever told you that you have a short fuse? Do you sometimes do or say things when you lose your temper that hurt yourself, your clients or your co-workers? Do you have a problem keeping your anger in check? Many people wish they could express their angry feelings in a way that wouldn’t negatively affect their personal relationships or their career, but often people simply don’t know how to do that. Learning about your anger and understanding your response to it can help you control outbursts and assist you in developing methods for preventing anger flare-ups.
Anger is often considered a “bad” feeling that should be stifled or suppressed. In truth, getting angry is a normal, healthy component of being human. Anger is an important emotion that helps us respond to situations in which we feel threatened. Sometimes the threats are very real (as when someone endangers our physical safety), and sometimes they are imagined. In either case, when we feel we are losing control of a situation and are vulnerable or at risk, we get mad! This arousal to threat is based on self-preservation and survival instincts and is what has allowed us to endure as a species. However, when anger gets out of control, it can become destructive and problematic. It is therefore important to learn how to manage anger and use it in a constructive way.
As with all emotions, we experience certain physiological changes when we get angry. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for preparing us for “fight or flight,” is activated when we feel threatened, and a number of responses take place. For example, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, the pupils dilate, breathing becomes more rapid, the sweat glands are activated, and the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline into the bloodstream (Boeree 2002). This automatic physiological response is the first stage of anger.
The second stage of anger involves how we use behavior to express ourselves. Behavioral manifestations of anger vary greatly from person to person—and they’re what get us into trouble. Some people
direct their anger inward and sulk, seethe or become withdrawn. Instead of expressing their feelings, they bottle them up and release them in destructive ways—often on themselves. Manifestations of anger turned inward can include binge eating (or drinking) and engaging in sneaky or risky behavior (such as drug taking or casual sex) in an attempt to diffuse hostile feelings. Other people direct their anger outward at the source of the perceived threat. They may clench their fists or jaw to intimidate the other person, or be sarcastic to belittle someone. They may pace, fidget, stare intently, yell, scream, throw or break things, hit or use name-calling. Through such behavior they often end up hurting themselves or others. Whether directed inward or outward, the behavioral manifestations of anger are usually accompanied by patterns of thinking that make the initial physiological responses worse and keep the angry feelings alive longer.
Getting to know your thinking patterns when you are angry is the key to recognizing what types of scenarios make you mad. To do this, recall how you behave when you are angry, and take note of the things you do, say or think. Pay close attention to whether you have a tendency to do any of the following:
- Do you repeatedly think or say a phrase that continues to make you feel angry after something happens (e.g., “Who does that client think he is?” or “My program director always picks on me!”)?
- Do you make assumptions about people or scenarios and get caught up envisioning an unfair or negative outcome (e.g., “My personal training manager can’t stand me, so I know he’ll try to ruin my chances of a promotion”)?
- Do you have or voice strong opinions or judgments about certain people or topics (e.g., politicians or religion)?
- Do you feel embarrassed or defensive in particular situations or when interacting with certain people (e.g., during performance reviews or when dealing with your in-laws)?
- Do you bring up things that happened in the past when dealing with present issues (e.g., “Well, that one time you said . . . .”)?
- Do you just react to things, rather than taking the time to think through what the consequences will be if you blow up (e.g., by tearing up a parking ticket)?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you are well on your way to being able to predict when something will make you angry. Why? It is not the situation itself, but our thought patterns—particularly those that involve replaying a scenario or repeating a negative phrase—that escalate our angry response to situations (Bushman 2002). Therefore, the level to which your anger rises is entirely up to you!
Think of anger as a pot of water simmering on the stove. If you turn the heat up, the water will begin to boil. If you turn it down, you can prevent the water from bubbling over. So the best way to fend off an angry outburst is to learn to turn the heat of anger down.
When we are angry, it is difficult to think clearly. That’s why it is important to consider how you can calm yourself down. Developing a planned response to anger can help you deal more effectively with your emotions. It can also minimize the damage and regretful feelings that follow a flare-up. Here are some steps that you should incorporate into your plan:
- Recognize when your thoughts are starting to fuel the fire. Become aware of what you tell yourself in order to stay angry. Also note how you begin
to show physical aggression (e.g., by pointing a finger, advancing forward or raising your voice).
- Acknowledge that the things you think and do are entirely within your control.
- Decide not to continue thinking negative, aggressive or damaging thoughts. Begin to substitute calming statements and cooling thoughts; good examples are “I can handle this without losing it” or “This is not that big of a deal.” Also cease performing any aggressive or angry behaviors or movements.
- Physically take a step back, and breathe slowly and deeply to engage the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. That branch is responsible for bringing the body back from a heightened physiological state (sitting down and focusing on your breathing helps you slow your heart rate and drop your blood pressure). Excuse yourself and walk away to allow yourself time to think.
- Come up with ways to express your anger in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner. Try talking things out with the individual you are upset with, writing letters to superiors in the workplace detailing your concerns or filing complaints with regard to rude store employees. You can also write in a journal, practice relaxation techniques or do a physical activity, such as washing the car, running or going to the gym. In all these instances, remember to concentrate on letting go of your angry feelings, not holding on to them.
The adrenaline that gets released into your bloodstream during the first stage of anger can take several minutes or even hours to metabolize. It may therefore take awhile
to calm down after an angry outburst (Boeree 2002). As a result, you should not try to approach a tense situation with the intent to resolve it immediately. Wait for your anger response to subside so you can address the issue rationally.
Once you are calm, you can think of some productive ways to approach the situation. For example, if you are angry about people speeding up and down your street because it endangers your children, don’t shout at the drivers or throw things at their vehicles. Write a letter to your local council outlining your concerns and requesting a stop sign or other speed control measure.
Talking things out in a rational manner once you are calm is also the most
effective way to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Furthermore, when you know you have done or said things in anger that have hurt others, be sure to swallow your pride and apologize.