A pushy driver nudges your bumper in heavy traffic ... A colleague takes credit for your ideas ... You get left out of the loop on an important decision ... You call your credit card company, enter a sixteen-digit account number and your mother's maiden name, ratchet through four menus and hear, "All service representatives are busy..."
The more complicated your life gets -- the more people you interact with on a daily basis -- the more incidents occur that can irritate, annoy, provoke, incense, madden, infuriate, and enrage. Anger and all its cousins are permanent occupants of your emotional menage.
Anger Is Normal, But...
Most people don't enjoy feeling angry. It's uncomfortable -- even more uncomfortable if you lash out and someone gets hurt or angry back. Anger can have unpleasant repercussions and destructive consequences for everyone concerned.
Repressing anger -- keeping it bottled up inside -- can cause headaches, back pain, nausea, or other symptoms. "Letting it all out" isn't good for you either. Anger in hard driving type-A personalities has been associated with coronary heart disease and sudden death. And no matter what your "type," acting on anger can make you angrier, each angry outburst prolonging and deepening the distress. Anger can lead to full-blown conflict, damaged relationships, even aggressive or violent acts.
Emotionally-driven automatic responses are usually learned in childhood, so by adulthood reacting angrily can be a habit. Plus it's easy: Clench your fists, tighten your muscles, turn red in the face, and yell. The payoffs are pretty obvious: momentary relief coupled with the appearance of being in control.
It's a Hormone Thing
According to Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam,1996) threats to life, security, and self-esteem trigger a two-part limbic surge. First, hormones called catecholamines are released, generating a rush of energy that lasts for minutes. Second, an adrenocortical arousal is created that can put you on edge and keep you there for hours, sometimes days. This explains why you are more likely to erupt in anger over something relatively innocuous if the incident is preceded by an earlier upsetting experience. Though the two events may be completely unrelated, the anger generated by the second incident builds on the anger left over from the first.
What to Do With Your Anger
Instead of reacting impulsively, train yourself to keep a lid on angry feelings until you have cooled down. Then confront the situation -- or person -- calmly. When flooded with negative emotions, the ability to hear, think and speak are severely impaired. Taking a "time out" can be enormously constructive. However, five minutes may not be enough; research suggests that people need at least 20 minutes to recover from intense psychological arousal. During those minutes (and at other times, too), try some of these techniques for coping with and defusing anger:
1. Become aware of what precipitates your anger. Most of us have identifiable triggers. Once you know the roots of your anger, you can deal with it more constructively.
2. Monitor the feelings and bodily sensations you experience when you are becoming angry.
Learn to use these sensations as cues to stop and consider what is happening and what to do about it.
3. Change the thoughts that trigger anger, interpreting the situation from a different (less provocative) point of view.
Often, this involves looking at the situation from the other person's perspective. Instead of, "Sue's deliberately trying to make me look bad," think "Sue must be having a bad day." Instead of "How dare you cut me off, you damn homicidal idiot!" think "Maybe that driver didn't see me." Changing thoughts produces new feelings which displace the anger.
The quicker you can reinterpret a situation the better. Brooding fuels anger, but seeing things differently quells it. Reframing a situation is one of the most potent ways of controlling anger.
4. Write down angry thoughts.
Once you have them on paper, challenge and reappraise them. Or write a letter to the person you are angry with and then tear it into a hundred pieces. But be careful: The longer you dwell on what made you angry, the more reasons and self-justifications you can find for being angry. Try not to fan your own fire.
5. Identify and express the feelings that precede anger.
Anger is often a secondary emotion, erupting in the wake of other feelings, like frustration, resentment, humiliation, or fear. Try to become aware of the underlying emotion and express that feeling instead of anger.
6. Respond assertively.
The goal isn't to suppress anger, but to express it in non-aggressive ways. Blaming, accusations, threats and name-calling are aggressive responses. Calmly and assertively stating your thoughts and feelings about a situation, without blaming, is a far more powerful way to respond in conflict.
Anger is a high-arousal state, so one of the most helpful things you can do is engage in an activity that lowers blood pressure and heart rate, like yoga, stretching, deep breathing, massage, visualization, guided imagery or meditation. Activities like gardening, painting, and woodworking may also be very helpful. Running, walking, dancing, swimming and other forms of aerobic exercise "work off" anger and leave you feeling relaxed.
8. Relinquish your anger.
If angry feelings about a particular person or situation are eating at you and none of the above techniques prove helpful, try doing what may be the most courageous and difficult thing of all: just let it go. If the anger is based on some old wound deep inside, letting go starts a healing process. Consider enlisting the support of a professional counselor or therapist.
About the Author
Dianne Schilling is a writer, editor, graphic artist and instructional designer who specializes in the development of educational materials and customized training programs for business and industry. She holds a masters degree in counseling and is a founding partner of WomensMedia.com Send e-mail to