Dealing with Anger Constructively
In the counseling field, we like to say, "Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they just are." While this is true, feelings come with behaviors. For example, when we feel sad, we might cry--a pretty effective way of letting those feelings out. Anger, on the other hand, is much more difficult to handle.
In a small group counseling seminar I attended a few years ago, we were all asked to identify the emotion that made us feel the most uncomfortable. Nearly all the participants (all professional counselors or trainees) identified anger as the most difficult emotion to process, both in others and in themselves.
No one is immune from anger. It is a natural reaction when we are wronged, frustrated, or otherwise pushed to our limits. The key, however, is dealing with the emotion in a way that helps you rather than perpetuating more negative emotions or hurting others.
Physical Activity as an Anger Outlet
When we engage in strenuous physical activity such as running, bike riding, lifting weights, swimming, or aerobic activity, our brains release neurotransmitters that reduce stress. This makes exercise one of the most effective means of constructively letting out anger. Even 20-30 minutes of exercise has been found by researchers to have a positive effect on mood and can, in fact, be as effective as some antidepressants in reducing depressive symptoms, which can include irritability and anger.
Some have suggested "aggressive" means of exercise as means of anger management, for example, hitting a punching bag or pillow. However, the research on this means of anger management is still mixed. While some claim it is effective, some studies and first-hand reports from individuals who have tried this have found that it simply escalates the anger. This may be because the brain may associate hitting a punching bag with aggression, thus, perpetuating the feelings of anger. Given the inconclusiveness on the effectiveness of this type of exercise, it may be better to stick to a non-aggressive form of exercise when you are angry and save the punching bag for a day when you are feeling calm.
Creative Anger Outlets
Writing--and in particular, journaling--can be an effective means of processing angry feelings. This is best done using a private journal, such as a notebook designed for your eyes only. If you have a non-shared computer, an electronic journal can be a good choice, too. It may be a good idea to avoid social medial journaling sites, however, since what you write may not be completely private.
When you let out your anger in writing, you are able to say things that you may feel but not mean without running the risk of hurting others' feelings and potentially destroying relationships. Additionally, writing about your angry feelings gives you a chance to express not just your knee-jerk reactions, but also a way to process those feelings. For example, you can journal about the following:
- How the situation is affecting you
- Whether your anger is actually stemming from unresolved hurts from your past
- Whether the situation has brought up anger about issues unrelated to the situation at hand
- Possible ways you can resolve the situation
- Any acknowledgement that you may be overreacting (something you may not want to admit verbally or be ready to admit)
If you are not a fan of writing, keeping an art journal can serve a similar purpose. Sketching, painting, or creating other visual representations of your anger can be equally as cathartic.
If you are musician, playing a song (or even writing a song) that expresses your emotions may help as well. Even if you are just a music lover, listening to music that puts anger or hurt into artistic may help you feel less alone.
Calming the Mind
If you cannot still your mind in the heat of anger, you are part of the vast majority of people. However, stilling yourself is something you can work toward. If it possible to be alone, this is an ideal way to start calming yourself through your thoughts alone. Sometimes, physical comforts such as a hot shower or bath or a short nap can help you start to clear your mind.
If you are religious or spiritual, prayer or a guided meditation can be a good start to letting go of the raw emotion so that you can start to understand the true dynamics of your anger--for example, what triggered the anger and what constructive things you can do to resolve the situation.
Simple deep-breathing exercises can be highly effective, too, and are something you can do nearly anywhere. Everyone has physical signs that they are becoming agitated and angry. Common anger signals include:
- A lump in your stomach
- Tight/clenched muscles
- Racing heartbeat
- Fast breathing
- An adrenaline rush
If you can identify these early on, breathing deeply may help ward off the anger. Effective deep breathing takes a little practice. The key to it, however, is breathing from your diaphragm, not your chest. To see if you are using diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your chest, near your heart, and the other on your stomach. Breathe in as deeply as you can. If you are breathing correctly, your hand on your stomach will move while your hand on your chest will stay still. Keep in mind that this might take some practice, as this feels unnatural to many people.
You may also want to try simply paying attention to your breathing as a way of blocking out thoughts until the physical signs of anger go away. A simple way to do this is to sit or lie down in a quiet place, close your eyes, and breathe through your nose. Focus on the feeling of the air from your nose running over your upper lip. If you find you mind wandering (and most people will!) simply bring you thoughts back to the feeling of your breath.
Acknowledge Underlying Hurt or Other Emotions
You may have heard before that anger and sadness are flip sides of the same coin. In some instances this is true. For example, if you become angry at your child for getting suspended from school, the underlying anger may stem from disappointment, worry, or sadness. Likewise, if your spouse forgets your anniversary, you may be angry, but deep down, feel sad and unloved. Tapping into these emotions can help you get away from anger to deal with what you are truly upset about. Once you tap into these emotions, you might find yourself crying or looking for emotional comfort. These acts are, in many cases, more constructive than angry reactions because they hit at the root of the problem and typically do not lead you to say or do things that start arguments or make the situation worse.
Even better, if you are able to identify what you are actually feeling, expressing your feelings to the person who made you angry using "I statements" can start the process of resolving the conflict.
Consider this statement, drawing on the example of the spouse who forgot the anniversary.
In anger, you might say to your spouse, "You're an awful husband. I can't believe you're so thoughtless. I can find someone better than you!"
This type of statement would, in many cases, cause the tension between the husband and wife to escalate. Consider the following alternative, though:
"I feel so sad that you forgot our anniversary. I was looking forward to doing something special with you because I love you so much."
Notice the differences between the two responses. While the second statement may have anger underlying it, it does not place blame, but rather, expresses the root of what the wife is feeling. Chances are, this second statement will lead to discussion rather than arguing.