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Helping Yourself & Others

Chances are, if you have an anger problem, you know it.

Everyone’s anger levels change over time. Varying stresses and events can alter how you feel and behave, especially related to anger at any given time in your life. Moving, a death in the family, having a child, or losing a job can all impact how we feel and process anger. If you, or someone close to you, is having trouble managing anger, there are steps you can take to get control over your anger and your life.

Managing anger

The field of anger management is constantly evolving as researchers learn more about anger. Anger management approaches with the best evidence of success focus on learning how to reduce the intensity of the anger, thinking differently about events that make you angry, and expressing yourself in constructive rather than counterproductive ways. You can’t always change the people and events that make you angry, but you can learn to control your reactions and respond more effectively.

Relaxation: Reduce anger’s intensity

When we’re angry, we tend to act fast and jump to conclusions, and those conclusions may or may not be accurate, especially in the rush of adrenaline that comes with anger. The solution is to slow down, especially when in a heated discussion or situation. Don’t say the first thing that comes to mind. Consider asking for a time-out and returning to the conversation after a break.

Knowing how to relax can help in angry moments. Simple relaxation exercises like deep breathing or imagining a relaxing situation can help you cool off and reduce the physical and emotion intensity of the anger you’re feeling. Listening to calming music also works. Then you can make better choices about how you want to respond.

Simple relaxation steps to try:

  • Breathe deeply from your “gut” rather than your chest
  • Repeat a calm word or phrase like “relax” or “calm down” while breathing deeply
  • Picture a relaxing experience, either from memory or imagination
  • Slow stretching can also relax muscles and make you feel calmer
  • Listen to relaxing music

Our relaxation response is like a muscle: the more we use it, the stronger it gets. Try planning time for yourself to relax every day. Scheduling downtime, especially at points of transition between work and home, not only allows you to regroup and refuel, but it also allows you to spontaneously brainstorm and think through solutions to ongoing problems. This can create more daily harmony and lead to bigger changes over the long term.

Think differently

Being angry generally makes our thinking exaggerated, illogical, and dramatic. Here are some ways to think differently about the irritations that trigger anger:

  • Change your self-talk. Avoid words like “never” or “always” and replace exaggerated thoughts like, “This always happens to me,” to more rational ones like, “It’s not the end of the world.”
  • Recognize that the world is not “out to get you.” Remind yourself that things will not always go your way and that doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault.
  • Pick your battles. Are there things you can let go of and forget about? Ask yourself what will really matter tomorrow, next week, or a year from now.
  • Manage your expectations. Are you expecting too much of yourself and others? Perfectionism can be a source of frustration. Ask yourself if it’s “good enough.”
  • Use your sense of humor. Sometimes taking yourself less seriously can provide immediate comic relief.

Problem solving: Express anger in positive ways

Not all anger is misplaced. Sometimes our anger and frustration are caused by very real problems in our lives. If your daily commute through traffic leaves you in a state of rage and frustration, give yourself a problem-solving project—map out a different route, one that’s less congested or more scenic. Or find another alternative, like a bus or commuter train. Anger can also motivate us to make positive changes. If an injustice makes you angry, look for ways to put your energy toward a change, like volunteering for a good cause.

Identify patterns

You also might notice that the same routine seems to trigger frustration and bad temper. Maybe you and a coworker always seem to clash, or you and your partner tend to argue when trying to get the kids ready in the morning. If you notice patterns in when you get angry, try shaking up the routine. Choosing a time and place for important conversations can make a big difference in resolving issues. Maybe you and the coworker can get away from work for a cup of coffee. Or you and your partner can agree not to discuss issues in the morning, but plan an outing without the kids instead.

When its beyond our control

While problem-solving skills can help us manage our anger in some situations, many of us share a cultural belief that every problem has a solution. It can add to our frustration to find that this isn’t always the case. The best attitude when a situation is beyond our control is to focus on what we can control—our own response.

When we make a serious attempt to face problems constructively, we are less likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing thinking. We can choose where to put our energy, focusing on problem solving in areas where we have some control and learning to let go in those areas that are beyond our control.

Seeking professional help

What if you’ve tried everything you can think of but still find that anger is causing problems in your life?

Guidelines for when to seek help:

  • Your family, coworkers, or friends are afraid of your reactions
  • You’ve tried to intimidate someone with your anger
  • You’ve physically lashed out or harmed someone
  • You’ve had run-ins with the police
  • Your employer, coworkers, friends, spouse, or partner have told you that you need help with anger
  • You’re experiencing symptoms of other conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse

The first step is to see a healthcare provider. Your provider can refer you to a reputable anger management class or recommend counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal of anger management classes or therapy is not to eliminate anger; all of us continue to feel anger throughout our lives. Rather, professionals can help you learn to change the way you think about and react to situations that make you angry. They can also help you learn to reduce the intensity of the physical and emotional responses to situations that make you angry so that you can make better choices about how to respond. We’re not doomed to be in the grip of anger. We learned our responses to anger, which means we can continue to learn new, more productive ways of responding to anger.

Helping others with anger

What if you are affected by someone else’s anger?

If you’re confronted by someone whose anger is out of control, often the best response is to walk away. Anger becomes worse when it escalates. A cooling-off period really can work, as long as the issue gets addressed when things are calmer.

If your daily relationship is affected by someone’s anger, consider having a conversation to explain your concerns. Choose a time when tempers are not flaring. Your partner, for instance, may not be aware how much his anger is spilling over and affecting other people. Let him know that there is help available.

It also might help you to think about how you respond to anger. In the article "Help, I Live With Someone With Anger Issues!," Dr. Elvira Aletta points out that not all of us learned effective ways to respond to someone else’s anger.

Dr. Aletta's four responses that MAY NOT help the situation:

  • Retreating behind silence and emotional withdrawal until the storm is over
  • Feeling cornered and coming out swinging, matching the other person’s rage and even escalating it
  • Denying the anger; refusing to recognize it
  • Running away from anger as quickly as possible

Dr. Aletta recommends trying the following strategies:

  • Make protecting your self-esteem your top priority
  • Take responsibility for your own anger and take charge of how you react to another person’s anger
  • Resist the urge to take anger personally, no matter how much you are provoked
  • Avoid escalating an argument by getting defensive, raising your voice, or retaliating
  • Stay reasonable; keep your tone on the quiet side. A whisper can often be a bigger attention-getter than yelling

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