Contrary to popular belief, anger can be good for you. It’s evolved to be a powerful motivating force and a universal emotional signaller which, when channelled constructively, can help us make better decisions and forge more fulfilling relationships. However, if it is consistently channelled into unhelpful behaviour, anger can affect our relationships, careers, mental and physical wellbeing for the worse. It can undermine the immune system and has been linked with health issues ranging from colds, flu and digestive disorders to cancer and heart disease.
Experts believe that anger problems may be as common as depression and anxiety. However, those with anger issues are thought to be less likely to acknowledge these issues, or to seek help. Whether you want to learn how to control those little outbursts we all succumb to from time to time, or discover how to tackle more pervasive anger issues, we’re here to help. Find out how to control anger with our step-by-step guide.
Do I have anger issues?
If you’re asking yourself this question, you probably know the answer. However, it’s important to remember that feeling angry from time to time, or even quite frequently, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have anger issues. Anger is a normal, healthy human emotion. It only becomes a problem when it is expressed in unhelpful ways which negatively affect your mental or physical health, relationships or career.
The unhelpful expression of anger can take several forms. The most common are:
This can range from shouting and slamming doors to throwing things and being physically violent, verbally abusive or threatening.
This can include self harm, talking to yourself in a derogatory manner or denying yourself basic needs such as food.
This may include ignoring the person you are angry with, responding in a sarcastic or sulky manner, or deliberately doing things that they ask you to do poorly, late or at the last possible moment.
If your anger provokes destructive reactions (for example, you have broken things, or injured yourself by punching a wall), you tend to react quickly and aggressively to minor incidents such as someone bumping into you or spilling a drink, or you often find yourself regretting the choices you make and/or actions you take when you are angry, you may have an issue with anger. Read on to find out what you can do about it…
How to control anger
If you want to forestall unhelpful reactions, you need to learn to recognise the warning signs. When we become angry, our heart rate and breathing quicken to prepare us to take action. You may also notice your shoulders tense, your fists or jaw clench, your feet tap or your face flush. If possible, remove yourself from the situation as soon as you recognise your personal warning signs – take a 10 minute walk, or simply lock yourself in the bathroom and spend a minute or two practising deep breathing exercises. If you can’t get away, count to 10 before you react (or wait for 2 minutes if you are involved in a text or email exchange).
Calming your immediate physical responses will enable you to act with a clearer head, so use this time to breathe deeply, making your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. “You automatically breathe in more than out when you’re feeling angry, and the trick is to breathe out more than in. This will calm you down effectively and help you think more clearly,” clinical psychologist Isabel Clarke advises. Breathe from your diaphragm or ‘gut’ rather than your chest, and focus on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your body, or on the physical sensations of your body’s anger response – evidence suggests that paying mindful attention to these sensations may diminish their psychological impact.
How to release anger
Lashing out may not help, but neither does bottling it all up. Practise expressing your feelings in an assertive manner. Try to state your concerns and needs clearly and directly, without making demands, threats or accusations. Use ‘I’ statements (e.g. “I felt angry when…”) rather than ‘you’ statements (e.g. “You make me so angry when…”) and try to rephrase demands as requests. Psychologists recommend avoiding the words ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘should’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘must’, ‘mustn’t’, ‘ought’, ‘oughtn’t’ and ‘not fair’ when talking to others – and even when talking to yourself (e.g. “this always happens to me”). Try to replace these words with more accurate appraisals (e.g. “this sometimes happens to me, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and getting angry isn’t going to help”). You can also try pinching yourself whenever you catch yourself using a ‘banned’ word. Emotions still running high? Humour is one of the most effective ways to defuse simmering tension, according to psychologists. Avoid sarcastic sniping and stick an episode of Only Fools and Horses on the box instead.
If talking things through isn’t an option, try writing in a journal, going for a run, meditating, doing some colouring, taking an online yoga class or, if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, turning up the radio and singing your heart out. Punching a pillow (or wall) could actually increase anger, researchers warn, but immersing yourself in a mindful creative or physical activity can help release pent-up emotions.
Anger serves to motivate change – if you’ve been harbouring a simmering sense of frustration and resentment over the same issue for weeks, months or years, it’s time to tackle it. Brainstorm possible solutions (if the state of your son’s bedroom makes your blood boil every time you drop off his clean socks, ask him to keep the door closed and collect his own washing, for instance). When nothing can be done, though, try to forgive. Science has confirmed the age old wisdom that forgiveness can quite literally relieve the giver of the burden of carrying a grudge. Write them a letter or email – whether or not you choose to send it is up to you.
How to deal with anger in the long-term
Some people are more prone to feelings of anger – and to destructive reactions to angry feelings – than others, say psychologists. Poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety and/or learned patterns of behaviour which hark back to childhood often underlie chronic anger issues. Keeping a mood diary in which you record the thoughts, feelings and circumstances surrounding angry episodes can help you to identify your typical triggers and the thought patterns associated with them. Anger is often a reaction to fear, says psychiatrist Dr. James Willard. “Asking yourself, ‘What might I be scared of?’ can give you a different set of choices about how to respond.”
Talking about your feelings with a friend or family member, or simply keeping a journal, may help you to unpick your triggers and challenge unhelpful patterns of thought. If you feel you require additional support, your GP should be able to point you in the direction of a local anger management program. These may take place over a single day or weekend, or provide longer-term support. They often combine one-to-one counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (which can help you to identify and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns) with small group work. If you opt for a private course of therapy, ensure that the therapist is registered with a professionally-recognised organisation such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Whether or not you choose to seek professional help, making meditation and/or physical exercise part of your regular routine will help you to keep your physiological responses to anger under control. Try yoga, running, swimming or simply taking a daily walk. You can also try ‘rehearsing’ your response to difficult situations. Replay an experience which made you angry, and to which you reacted in an unhelpful manner, in your mind. Now play it again, but this time, ‘pause’ it before you respond. Imagine yourself responding in a more considered, constructive way. Continue to repeat this exercise, seeing yourself responding to this scenario and others in as many different ways as you can imagine. With regular practise, you’ll begin to ‘train’ your brain to respond to anger in new ways.