Anger is a valid emotion designed to provide us with energy to deal with potentially dangerous situations or to take action if an important boundary is being crossed. Anger doesn’t get us into trouble unless we use anger unskillfully.
For some folks, anger energy goes from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds and leads to big problems. Many folks did not have the opportunity to learn how to work with anger, especially if we witnessed out of control anger in the home environment growing-up. Many of us watched our parents or other important people in our life use anger unskillfully or even dangerously. We may default to what we learned when we were young. Anger can also feel out of control when we have unresolved trauma. Anger management takes training and practice, but anyone can get better at anger management if they take the time and are motivated to learn.
Anger is connected with primitive, automatic survival defenses, the “Fight-Flight-Freeze” responses that are hard-wired into our bodies for protection. Common signs of anger include tensed muscles, clenched fists, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, narrowed field of vision and awareness, feeling “hot” and an increase in angry, hostile thoughts. If we ignore these signs, anger energy can build quickly and reach a level that moves outside our threshold of control. Because of this, it is important to become aware of these changes early as they begin to take place in the body—-awareness of these changes early helps you to take action to interrupt them and is part of learning to manage anger skillfully. If you wait too long, it will be too late.
The most important anger management tool on earth is taking a Time-Out and doing so before you move outside your threshold of control. You can disengage and move away from whatever is triggering your anger and allow these changes in your body to go back to normal. This means letting your heart rate and other biological responses calm down which can take up to 20 minutes or more if you were really upset. A time-out means you stop engaging and move away from whatever is triggering your anger, at least temporarily. This sometimes means telling your loved-one or partner that you need to stop talking for a few minutes and take a break. If you have road rage, it may mean you need to pull over for a few minutes and calm down. Or you may need to put down the phone and stop twittering or texting. Some folks internally tell themselves to “STOP!” as soon as they notice signs that they are heading toward unskillful anger.
We have to be willing to take a time-out when we notice we are getting upset in a way that is becoming unproductive or unhelpful. When upset, the smart brain (prefrontal cortex) goes off-line and the more primitive parts of your brain take over very quickly. This condition is available to all of us. A time-out allows your smart brain to come back on-line. Sometimes a “time-out” is referred to as a “time-in” (Dr. Dan Siegel) because you are really taking time to calm down your own internal state when you do this. Many of us do not like the associations we have with “time-outs” because it seems childish and smacks of being punished. Really, what you are doing with this practice is taking care of yourself, which is a sign of maturity, not childishness.
Focus on the breath: When we get away from the trigger by taking a time-out or time-in we can start to bring our body back to a our normal state through basic relaxation techniques. The most common way to help bring your body back to normal is breath-work. Take a cleansing breath and then focus on the breath going in and out for a few minutes. Walking or other forms of low intensity exercise can be helpful, too. Some folks listen to calming music.
Observe your thoughts: We will notice an increase in disturbing thoughts when we are triggered to anger. And if you make it a habit of entertaining a lot of angry thoughts, you will likely over-use anger energy in ways that are not helpful. Many times angry thoughts are inaccurate or grossly exaggerated. Why? Because when our prefrontal cortex goes offline, the primitive parts of brain take over and interpret our environment as more dangerous than it really is. Everything feels super urgent and incredibly important, maybe even life threatening, when in fact there is likely no life-threat occurring. The primitive brain is only concerned with survival and so we are wired with a negativity bias that easily gets inflamed when we are upset. This part of the brain sees things in black and white and is not designed for problem solving and it is not concerned with maintaining good relationships. Unresolved trauma will disconnect us from higher brain function, too. We need the prefrontal cortex to be on-line to engage higher order functions.
Learning skills to observe and challenge your most angry or disturbing thoughts is important because angry thoughts and beliefs left un-checked can really get you into a lot of trouble. Better thought-hygiene can be learned using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you have unresolved trauma, learn about ways to heal trauma and get support from a professional for guidance. Mindfulness practice has helped many folks with trauma symptoms to have more control over where they choose to focus their thoughts.
Self-care: The smart brain needs lots of oxygen and glucose to run. Primitive parts of the brain can run on very little. If you haven’t slept or eaten well or are otherwise not taking good care of yourself, you will be more susceptible to losing your temper. So, self-care will be very important for anger management. Abuse of drugs and alcohol will also make it so you do not have good control of anger energy.
Discharge anger energy in healthy ways: Modern humans are much more sedate than our primitive ancestors. Because anger is energetic and involves a surge in stress hormones, one of the best ways to “discharge” these chemicals in our bodies is through regular exercise. Rather than venting and expressing anger verbally, we can discharge stress hormones through healthy exercise and movement. When we exercise and sweat, those chemicals are discharged through the sweating process and soothing chemicals such as endorphins are released that help us to feel a sense of calm and wellbeing.
Anyone can learn anger management if they are motivated and willing to put these skills into practice!