How To Reduce Anger
We are all children of the Great Spirit, we all belong to Mother Earth.
- Chief Seattle
- This article suggests ways to reduce the overall level of anger you feel on a day-to-day basis.
- The more you do the exercises the more your anger is likely to reduce.
- The exercises are best done when you feel relatively calm.
- For coping with anger in the heat of the moment I suggest you read my article: How to Let Go of Anger in the Heat of the Moment.
Suppressing or expressing anger can lead to depression.
Is it good to express anger?
A few decades ago many psychologists believed it was good for people to express anger and encouraged clients to punch cushions, yell and use other methods to “get rid of pent up anger.”
This attitude is now changing: while it has long been known that suppressing anger can lead to depression, more recent studies suggest that expressing it aggressively is likely to do exactly the same. Expressing anger by punching pillows also has two other drawbacks: it doesn’t address the underlying issues that cause your anger, and it doesn’t mean you let go of anger.
The effects of feeling constantly angry.
Feeling constantly angry isn’t fun. Feeling constantly angry isn’t healthy for your body either. Chronic anger raises cortisol levels, which can cause tiredness, weight gain, and put you at greater risk of developing many diseases such as heart disease, muscular aches or arthritis, diabetes and even some cancers. (This doesn’t mean you will develop these diseases, but your risk is higher.)
So if anger is bad for us, is it bad? And are we bad for feeling it?
Anger is an emotion, and as such is it is neither good nor bad. You are not bad for feeling anger, although how you then deal with that feeling could lead to unhappiness for you and other people. Judging anger as wrong is one of the main ways we keep it alive – either we judge ourselves for having it and try to stop it, or we try to blame someone else for our feelings. Neither of these approaches reduces our anger.
Why do so many people think anger is wrong?
It’s not surprising that so many people find anger hard to deal with. We learn at a young age that our anger is wrong. Parents or teachers tell us that we shouldn’t talk back, shout, hit or otherwise express anger. Over and over we hear, “Stop it!”
But we also learn that if adults are angry with us that’s our fault too. Sometimes parents or teachers actually say to children, “You are making me so angry,” or, “If you do that I will be so cross.”
Even if your parents were endlessly patient and loving, the chances are you had encounters with some other adult that left you feeling ashamed of your own anger or afraid of someone else’s. And since you’re reading this, the chances are that your parents were like most and had their own hang-ups about anger. Since they learned to be this way from their own parents, it’s nobody’s fault. This is not an invitation to start blaming parents for your anger, but to notice that conflicting beliefs about anger are commonplace. They are also partly why it can be challenging to let go.
What is the Cause of Anger?
Anger is a response to perceived threat or danger. Many centuries ago the flight or fight response (of which the physical sensations of anger are a part) helped our ancestors survive, but since nowadays we don’t face bears and tigers on a daily basis, the anger we feel is mostly a reaction to thoughts that other people are out to attack us (or those we love.)
Put simply, our anger is generally generated by thoughts and beliefs rather than by actual danger.
Anger Triggers are not the same as Anger Causes
Counsellors often advise that if you get into an argument you should avoid bringing up incidents from the past. While this is sound advice in some ways, in other ways it is not terribly realistic. Almost all anger arises because our minds link what’s happening now with past events. We give meaning to current events based on beliefs we have formed about those past events. (There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just one way our brains organize information.)
Some years ago, I worked in teaching with kids with emotional difficulties. One pupil reacted violently to any teacher who raised their voice. Teachers understood that this was because the pupil had had a father who yelled and hit his children, so to the highly sensitized pupil any raised voice was a signal of danger – and time to fight back. A teacher’s raised voice didn’t cause the pupil’s anger, but triggered it. Teachers tried to always talk quietly to this pupil to avoid this trigger point.
So one way of reducing anger could be to avoid trigger points, and in the short term this can be a useful strategy. But a person who avoids supermarkets because they have previously had a panic attack in one needs to address the root cause of their panic if they are to fully recover. Likewise, to effectively reduce anger in the long term it is essential to let go of the core beliefs behind it.
Beliefs about anger.
As well as having beliefs that rouse us into anger, we also have beliefs about anger itself that create internal conflict. When there’s conflict inside us, it doesn’t take much for that conflict to spill out into the world around us. So becoming aware of your beliefs about anger is a good way to start loosening its hold on you. Some common beliefs about anger are:
It’s wrong to be angry.
I’m bad if I’m angry.
There’s no point getting angry: it does no good.
If I stop being angry with X, he/she will have won.
I have to stop myself getting angry or people won’t like me.
Try the exercise below to develop awareness of your beliefs about anger.
On a piece of paper, write down your beliefs about anger. Do this without censoring what comes into your mind. The aim is not to have a respectable set of beliefs, but to discover what drives you.
Here are a few sentence openings to help you out:
If I get angry it means……………………
If someone is angry with me it means…………………
When you have completed your list of beliefs you will probably see that many of them conflict with each other. This might be enough to let some of them go. You may even get a sense of when a particular belief began. For me this comes with a memory or impression of being a child and when I experience that I know the belief has lost its power. You might have a different experience with this exercise and that’s okay.
When you look at your list of beliefs, notice how you feel. If you feel ashamed or think you should get rid of these beliefs, that’s okay. It’s also not likely to help you.
Because it’s the same kind of thinking that created those beliefs in the first place. Do your best to allow whatever you feel, and then do your best to allow the beliefs too. The aim is to let go of the internal fight that creates anger, not to add to it. Trying to force change might have a short-term effect, but it is exhausting and not likely to lead to long-term success. You developed those beliefs as a coping mechanism many years ago and now you can lovingly let them go. As we let go of the internal fight, we have less need to defend our beliefs and they naturally begin to transform.
Making up stories is another way we generate anger.
Of course, it’s not just our beliefs about anger that keep us stuck, but also beliefs about other people and the world in general. We all make up stories about people we’ve never met or who we meet fleetingly. I’ve stood in a supermarket queue, looked at the food in someone else’s basket, and made up a whole story about where they’ve been and what they are about to do. (The smartly dressed woman with the ready meals was on her way home from work, and she does this every night. The man with tortilla chips, dips and a six-pack of beer was having a party.)
Those stories don’t generate anger, but supposing the checkout operator doesn’t look at me once as she scans my groceries, and I believe she’s ignoring me? Supposing I then remember the checkout operator last week did the same? I might even decide that all checkout operators in this store are rude and vow to never come back.
It’s not just people we meet occasionally that we make up stories about.
A man we’ll call Dave is angry with his brother because he forgot his birthday two years in a row. Dave thinks that if Al really cared he’d remember.
The story here is: “He doesn’t really care about me.”
Now that Dave believes this he goes looking for evidence to back it up, and it doesn’t take long to find some. Al only calls Dave once a fortnight but he knows Al calls their sister every week. And then there was that time Al hit Dave with the baseball bat when he was ten and Dave was eight.
By now Dave has a full-blown story about how his brother doesn’t care about him, and he is hopping mad. So when Al rings to say he’s got tickets for a baseball game and invites Dave to come, Dave believes he’s only doing it because their sister told him to. He refuses to go.
How much of Dave’s story is true? If Dave had remembered that Al often forgets his own birthday he would probably feel differently, and realize that Al’s forgetfulness was nothing personal.
How many times have we all behaved like Dave? Again, if you recognize yourself in this, don’t try to force yourself to change, but instead begin to see the times when you feel anger as opportunities to become more aware of underlying beliefs that drive you. The exercise below could help you do that.
Think about someone you feel angry with.
Write down what they did that you feel annoyed about.
Now write down what you think it means about them and about you.
Now imagine a friend is telling you this story. Would it still seem the same, or would you be more able to see that there could be different meanings?
Write down as many different possible meanings as you can.
How to use your anger as an opportunity for awareness.
If you feel very anxious or apathetic about life it can be hard to take the steps you need for success. If we look carefully, anger can show us where we are short-changing ourselves. This does require looking at events in a different way.
For instance, if I have an unpublished novel sitting in a drawer and feel angry when yet another poorly written novel has become a best seller, I could choose to rant to my friends about how unfair life is and how publishers never recognize talent when they see it. Or I could decide that perhaps it’s time to take more effective action to get my own novel published.
Or, perhaps I feel anger when my kids repeatedly forget to feed the cat after promising to do this, and I see it matters to me that when someone makes a promise they follow through. Again, this gives me a few options: I can discuss with my children the importance of following through on promises and maybe work out a plan that will help them to do the job they have agreed to do.
I can also look honestly at my own life and see if there are times I might also not follow through on promises. One example might be in the promise to myself that I will take action to get that novel published. If I don’t feel able to take the action needed to achieve my goal, then I have more choices to make: I can look for ways to get support to take the required action or I can tell myself it’s impossible and nobody will ever be interested in my novel – or in me.
It’s easy to see that if I choose the latter way I’m likely to feel both angry and depressed, yet for many people taking action to achieve goals (including to reduce anger) feels almost impossible and so the cycle of anger and depression continues. In many, many of us lack of self-worth is at the root of anger.
Ironically believing that others or situations are responsible for “making” us angry creates a sense of powerlessness and feeds that lack of self-worth, but when we take responsibility for our own anger we feel better about ourselves. Again, don’t try to force yourself to take responsibility or you will more likely just turn your anger on yourself.
Think about something you have felt angry about for a while. Now notice why it matters to you.
Are there things you could do to change the situation? What would one step be?
How do you feel about that? Anger often covers other feelings such as fear or wanting approval. Allow your underlying feelings.
(You may feel better after doing this exercise once, but if you aren't used to allowing your feelings it may take a few times to feel anything.)
Trying to justify our anger feels like we are stuck in a loop
The effects of trying to justify anger.
Often, when we feel guilty for feeling angry we try to justify how we feel. To justify our anger we need to hold on to it, and the stories we tell just get us more and more angry. Sometimes deep down, we even know that what the other person did wasn’t that big a deal, but we get scared to let go for fear of looking foolish. We feel ashamed of our anger, but can’t let it go. (As one of my kids once said, “I want to win even when there’s nothing to win.)
The best way I know to break this cycle is simply to give yourself permission to feel your anger. It’s okay to feel angry. Remember, it’s not right or wrong; it’s just an emotion.
Think about something you feel angry about. Notice the urge to justify your stance. Instead of this, can you allow yourself just to feel the sensations in your body? Give yourself permission to feel how you feel.
And would it be okay if those feelings dissolved, if they just disappeared?
Some books that can help you further
This last exercise is based on exercises found in The Sedona Method and I have included a link to the book by the same name on Amazon.
For further reading on letting go of beliefs that fuel anger I recommend any book by Bryon Katie. A link to one of her books on Amazon is also included.
I am not a health professional, but all the exercises suggested here have helped me let go of anger. If after doing any of the exercises in this article you feel worse rather than better, it does not mean there’s anything wrong with you or the exercises, but that they may not the best ones for you at this time. In that case, I strongly suggest you see a counselor or coach.