One of the easiest things about experiencing anger is finding a colorful word or phrase to describe it: Steaming. Fuming and fired up and furious. Pissed off. Ready to flip your lid. Livid.
Such an extensive lexicon speaks to the universality of anger, one of the most primitive emotions humans experience—and in some ways one of the most complex. “People don’t like to feel angry, and most people who do feel angry want to get rid of the anger,” says Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies the causes, consequences, and solutions to human aggression and violence. “But it also makes people feel powerful.”
That can be channeled into a positive force; consider that anger has fueled many social and political movements, Bushman says, from women’s suffrage to Black Lives Matter. The feeling can signal that something we’re experiencing or observing is misaligned with our values or how we want others to treat us or our fellow humans.
Unfortunately, experts say, most of us don’t know how to deal with anger in a healthy way. “It’s the negative emotion that people have the most difficulty regulating,” Bushman notes. “This isn’t something that comes easy. That’s why courts send people to anger-management classes—if it were easy, they wouldn’t have to do that.”
Anger drives numerous societal problems, Bushman says: It’s one of the largest risk factors for aggressive and violent behavior, including road-rage incidents, domestic violence, and murders. Plus, it can lead to short- and long-term health effects, including heightened inflammation and risk of chronic illness; reduced lung function; chronic pain; digestive problems; and increased depression and anxiety. Anger spikes both blood pressure and heart rate, inflaming heart problems: Research suggests that, in the two hours after feeling angry, a person’s risk of a heart attack jumps nearly fivefold.
We asked Bushman and other experts to share the healthiest ways to cope with—and express—anger.
1. Focus on relaxing instead of venting
There’s a common analogy for anger: It’s like steam accumulating in a pressure cooker. To avoid an explosion, the theory goes, you should blow off some of that steam. But “that’s actually the worst thing you can do,” Bushman says.
When we’re angry, he explains, we’re highly aroused. And “when you vent your anger or blow off steam, you’re just yelling, screaming, kicking, hitting, whatever it is, and it keeps arousal levels high. It’s like using gasoline to put out a fire—it feeds the flame.”
Instead, you should reduce that arousal level. Often, people assume it’s a good idea to go running or work out when they’re angry, but just like yelling, that would heighten arousal. Bushman suggests turning down the heat by practicing deep breathing, meditating, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation.
2. Take a time out
Tony Fiore has been teaching anger management—with a focus on repairing relationships—for decades. One of the first tips he imparts to his clients: It’s OK to get away from each other. “If you prevent somebody from leaving, they can become like a wild animal,” says Fiore, a psychologist who’s the author of books including Anger Management for the 21st Century. “Sometimes getting away for 10 minutes—or an hour or a couple hours—drastically changes things when you come back.” Use the break to figure out how you’d like to calmly respond, instead of blindly reacting while riled up.
3. Try the 30-30-30 intervention
When you’re particularly fired up, it can be difficult to take a step back and consider how you want to proceed, says Laura Beth Moss, a supervisor with the National Anger Management Association. She suggests employing “the 30-30-30 intervention,” an exercise she co-created years ago. First, she says, take 30 seconds to extract yourself from the situation, perhaps by leaving the room or stepping outside. Then, spend 30 seconds doing something else, like a set of breathing exercises or even planning what you’ll have for dinner; the activity will help take your mind off whatever upset you.
After that, use the final 30 seconds to create a coping statement that will help de-escalate your emotions. Say you’re fuming about how much of a jerk your boss is. “That’s a very escalatory, confrontational thought,” Moss says. “A reframe would be something like, ‘I don’t prefer it when my boss talks to me in a condescending tone. But deep down I know I’m not a product of that relationship.’” You might not like the situation, but with the right perspective, you’ll be able to tolerate it.
4. Keep an anger log
It’s a simple but effective way for those interested in better controlling their emotions to analyze how, when, and why they get ticked off.
Typically, Moss instructs clients to track one anger situation a week—which means writing down what happened and when, how it made them feel, and how they responded. It could be something simple, she notes, like having to wait forever in the grocery-store checkout line, or as serious as personally experiencing some type of discrimination. “We get an opportunity to really look at how anger works in our lives,” Moss says. That presents an opportunity to strategize ways to think about and respond to triggering situations.
5. Use assertive communication
One of the healthiest ways to express anger is to use assertive communication. That means being respectful of yourself and the person you’re talking to, says Julia Baum, a licensed therapist who practices in New York and California. “You’re trying to take care of both of you in this conversation,” she says. “You’re not out for yourself, but you’re also not diminishing your feelings or thoughts and putting the other person ahead of you.”
The goal of assertive communication is to share your feelings, explain to the other person why you feel that way, and let them know what you hope to get out of talking about it together. While you’ve probably heard this advice countless times, it’s helpful to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements, Baum notes: “I felt angry when you said XYZ to me because it felt like you weren’t acknowledging my experience.”
Make it a point to check in with the person you’re talking to about how they’re feeling. Ask them if there’s anything they’re feeling upset with you about, Baum suggests—they might have been rude because they were angry about some earlier encounter that you didn’t clock.
It’s also important to carefully consider the timing of the conversation: You probably aren’t going to be at your communicating best if you’re boiling inside. Hold off until you feel like you can speak clearly and respectfully, Baum advises.
6. Seek professional help
Sometimes, it will be clear that you need help getting your anger under control, Fiore says: A close friend or family member will tell you, or your self-help efforts simply won’t pay off. If you’re deep in the throes of an anger issue, however, it might be harder to assess yourself accurately. Ask yourself these questions: Do you get angry frequently and for hours on end? Do you experience rage that’s disproportionate to the situation? Do you resort to physical responses, like punching the wall?
Anger-management programs—which typically last at least eight weeks—utilize an array of cognitive-behavioral techniques and other exercises to teach people how to deal with their emotions in a healthy way. Fiore’s classes, for example, include lessons on how to increase empathy; the difference between responding and reacting; communication tactics; conflict-resolution skills; and setting reasonable expectations.
Over the past 20 years, Fiore’s students have ranged in age from 18 to 73. “The 73-year-old was one of my best students,” he recalls. “He looked at the 18-year-olds in there and he said, ‘I applaud you for taking anger management. If I had learned it at your age, my life would be different.’”
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