In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to let our emotions get the better of us. But by tuning-in to yourself, you can take back control and channel your anger in productive and healthy ways
As the emotion often underlying societal issues such as violence, crime, internet trolling, and even terrorism, anger – justifiably – gets plenty of bad press. On a personal level, if you react from it too often, it’s likely to disconnect you from other people and lead to loneliness and isolation.
To anger’s hammer, every issue is a nail and – left unchecked – it can make you act at the expense of your happiness and contentment. It’s also worth bearing in mind that internalising it is consistent with ongoing mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions.
But, of course, anger is also the driver behind social movements that reshape societies for the better. In terms of relationships, it can signal when your boundaries have been crossed and is therefore key to making sure your needs are met in them. To get the best of it though, you need to make sure your anger is a helpful tool rather than being controlled by it and, for this to happen, you must first get to know it well.
Know when you’re angry
This may sound obvious, but anger most often focuses your attention outwards, towards the wrongdoings of others. You might not therefore even be aware you’re feeling it, and without knowing you’re feeling it you can’t have a relationship with it.
Try to notice when you’re feeling anger this week. It’s often a very physical emotion, so check-in with yourself when your anger is rising, and get to know what the physical sensations feel like, mapping them out in your mind as you scan your body.
"Anger is also the driver behind social movements that reshape societies for the better"
Know how you express your anger
Be aware that anger isn’t only about shouting and lashing out at people. Cynicism, sarcasm, silence, criticism, rehearsing arguments in your head, passive aggression, microaggression, banter, doing the opposite of what you know another person might want, can all be more covert ways of showing it. Irritation, frustration, and annoyance are also all somewhere on the anger scale.
So, again this week, try to notice how often you’re experiencing any of these – maybe make a list of them on your phone. You might be surprised at how frequently they’re happening.
Know why you’re angry
Anger is a ‘secondary’ feeling that comes in on top of initial feelings of fear, grief, hurt or a sense of injustice. It’s often about defence and protection, and when it pushes forward, anger automatically makes you the victim, and someone else the wrongdoer.
Because of this victim/perpetrator dynamic, whether it’s your partner or someone on social media, it’ll dehumanise them and prevent you taking any responsibility for your part in what’s happening. If both people are in this place in an angry exchange, it’s easy to see that it will reach a stalemate.
When you get angry, think about what your anger’s story is. Try to test it – is what it’s telling you really true, or is your perception being distorted?
Know how to manage it
Once you notice you’re angry, this simple six-step ‘SOBER’ mindfulness technique can be the difference between seeing red, losing your composure, and arguing in a way that you’ll regret, or keeping your cool and getting your needs met in the situation:
Stop. Your first reaction will be impulsive and based on the distorted beliefs mentioned above, so resist the urge to indulge it. Even just doing this will make you feel more in control.
Observe. Turn your attention inwards, and ask how acting from anger will help resolve the situation (spoiler alert: most often it won’t).
Breathe. You need to know the difference between defending yourself and attacking someone, and can only do this once you’ve calmed down. Focusing on your breathing is the most effective way to keep calm. Maybe go for a walk and slow your breath for a few minutes; the calming effect can be almost instantaneous.
Expand. Now you feel calmer, you can test whether your anger’s story is actually true. Who knows, you might even be able to empathise with the other person’s perspective.
Respond. If the situation can’t immediately be resolved with a quick apology, or there’s a pattern of behaviour that’s crossing your boundaries, it can be important to address it later to avoid ongoing resentment. If you decide to raise an issue with someone, try to choose your moment, plan what you’ll say, and focus on your secondary feelings when you speak. In this way you can speak ‘for’ your anger rather than ‘from’ it, and are much more likely to get your need met in the situation.