Most of us have experienced strong anger at some point in our lives. For some of us, recurrent anger can create difficult and painful issues. Perhaps you can relate to one of these scenarios:
- Your spouse or partner just told you that you need to get help with your anger, or he or she is going to leave.
- Your employer has just put you on a “development program” due to angry outbursts at work.
- You just found yourself shouting at your three-year-old again, and now you feel like a hopeless, terrible parent.
Situations such as these are distressing, and they are painful in a way that naturally motivates us to seek change. But if we want to change how we handle our anger, we first need to understand the role anger plays in our life.
Anger is a misunderstood emotion.
Anger is an emotion that is not very well understood, and one that is often stigmatized in our culture. The response to anger is often some form of punishment, from a sharp parental reprimand to a penalty imposed by a court system. The message is often, “Anger is wrong. Shove it down. Push it away.” Unfortunately, this strategy is doomed to fail. At the very least, we must understand our anger patterns and learn their messages so that we learn to care for ourselves and manage our anger appropriately.
Anger can be understood as what some psychologists call a threat/defense emotion. It is a natural biological response when we feel threatened in some way, preparing us to protect ourselves or our loved ones. As part of this process, the emotional centers of the brain suppress or dampen the logical centers of the brain. This self-protection system is meant to be a “fast on, fast off” system that ideally kicks in to motivate action, then shuts off so that we can relax. Unfortunately, we also have what some psychologists call a “tricky brain.” This tricky brain can weave stories about a situation that has long since ended, dominating our thinking for hours after an event and keeping the anger alive. For instance, we are passed over for an expected promotion at work. Our mind is filled for hours with thoughts of resentment and revenge, complete with scenarios of telling off our boss and storming out of the office with a box of our belongings.
When anger is well regulated, or controlled, it can help us survive and thrive in the world. But when it isn’t controlled, anger can control us, pushing away the people we most need and love, and even threatening our livelihood.
A better way to understand anger
So, if anger isn’t the problem, what is? As you may have guessed by now, the problem is rarely the anger itself. The problem is our relationship with our anger. It is possible to approach anger with warmth and curiosity rather than fighting it. What is its message? And how can we honor that message without creating rifts in our relationships or wreaking havoc in our lives?
It is helpful to know that underneath a strong emotion like anger is often a softer emotion, such as hurt or fear; and underlying the softer emotion is often an unmet need, such as a need to be safe, heard, seen, or respected.
Anger management strategies from mindfulness- and compassion-oriented therapies
Since it is unregulated or out-of-control anger that creates issues in our lives, what we need are strategies to deeply understand, soothe, and regulate our emotions.
A good first step in working with anger is to quiet ourselves, give ourselves space to tune in to our bodies, and let the sensations, images, and thoughts that arise lead us to understand our underlying beliefs. Once we have identified the beliefs and unmet needs underlying anger, we can work with them more effectively.
Easier said than done, right? When navigating new terrain, it helps to have a “map” and some strategies. So, here are a few simple but powerful steps from the mindfulness- and compassion-based therapy traditions that you can take when strong anger arises.
Take a moment to check in with your body and your feelings. Let yourself drop the thoughts, just for a moment, and tune into the body. Is there tension in the jaws? Do you notice a sour feeling in the stomach? Are your hands clenched? What physical sensations are you noticing?
Check in with your thoughts. Recognize that when you are angry, you are temporarily cut off from your full range of normal resources and creative ideas.
Take time to soothe and regulate your body and emotions. Two helpful and surprisingly powerful techniques we can use are “soothing rhythm breathing” (from Compassion Focused Therapy) and “willing hands and half-smile” (from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT). These methods take advantage of the fact that just as our thoughts send messages to our bodies to prepare to fight, our body language also sends messages to our minds. These messages can increase the anger response or calm it.
Soothing Rhythm Breathing. Spend a few minutes breathing easily and slowly, allowing the out-breath to be a few seconds slower than the in-breath. On the out-breath, you may choose to think to yourself words such as, “let go.” Really focus on the sensation of letting go…the body calming…the thoughts stilling. This breathing pattern calms the threat response in the body, allowing the body to relax, which in turn slows down our racing, threat-focused thoughts.
Willing hands and half-smile. Allow your face to relax, then allow a gentle half-smile to play across your lips. Let your hands relax at your sides. These two actions communicate to our body and mind, “I am safe. I am okay.” As with soothing rhythm breathing, willing hands and half smile help to reduce the threat response in our body and mind.
Create a plan. Once the anger has calmed, take a fresh look at the situation through your new, broadened perspective. With a clearer mind, you can now assess the situation calmly and make a new plan.
But what if the damage is already done?
So, you’ve already lost your cool. The damage is done. What can you do to take care of yourself and repair any relational damage?
First, while it is normal to feel guilty or ashamed after acting in anger, it is crucially important that you are kind and understanding with yourself. Yes, with yourself! Acknowledge that you did the best you could with the knowledge and wisdom available to you. So, take a breath, drop the blame, remind yourself that you can and will do better in the future. Beating yourself up for your mistake will place you right back in threat mode again, creating a vicious cycle of self-recrimination, tension, and sadly, a greater likelihood of losing your cool again. Self-soothing strategies using the senses can help to calm yourself and promote emotional recovery: listening to relaxing music, smelling calming scents, looking at a peaceful landscape.
Next, do what you can to make amends to repair any relationship damage. Assess to see what you can do differently in the future. Then forgive yourself and move on.
When we develop a sense of warmth and curiosity toward our anger, understand its message, and develop a toolbox of techniques and strategies for managing it, we free up our energy to think creatively and openly about the challenges in our lives. This increased self-respect and confidence will allow us to take appropriate responsibility for our mistakes and assert ourselves when we need to ask others for change. In this way, anger can become a helpful friend rather than a feared enemy.