I’ve let my temper get the best of me—and my guess is that you’ve let your temper get the best of you too. We’ve all been there, in times of extreme frustration, irritation, or outright anger, when all of the negative feelings bubble to the surface and over the rim of the too-full glass. And more often than not, we immediately regret the resulting temper tantrum and ultimately destructive response.
Fortunately, Bernard Golden—a practicing psychologist for nearly 40 years and the founder of Anger Management Education—is an expert on the subject and here to help us react constructively as opposed to destructively. He first discusses the roots of anger and then goes on to offer tips and guidelines for responding to negative emotions effectively:
Pause and Reflect: 4 Guidelines
Anger is a natural emotion that stems from a perceived threat to our physical or emotional wellbeing, our self-esteem, or self-worth; our resources such as our finances, time or belongings; or those we love. Additionally, it’s a reaction to and a distraction from other negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, shame, or feeling discounted or devalued. As such, every moment we stay angry provides a temporary reprieve from the raw sting of inner pain. In this way it’s a coping mechanism.
Anger tells us more about ourselves than it does about the person or situation that triggers it—if only we can learn to pause to reflect on its meaning. How we manage anger is a habit in our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. “Healthy anger” includes the ability to pause and reflect upon rather than react to our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Healthy anger entails any strategy that helps us to help our rational brain override our emotional brain. While we may desire an easy strategy that will work in all situations, healthy anger includes learning as many strategies as possible to flexibly respond in different situations. I’ve used the acronym BEAR to identify components of major strategies for effectively managing anger and other negative emotions:
B- Breathe deeply and slowly, inhaling with a count of four and exhaling to a count of six. Do this several times. This particular rate of breathing has been found to slow down the rate.
E- Evoke physical calm. View your anger as a signal to turn your attention inward, beginning with your body. This requires practice—rehearsing body scans and relaxation exercises—to become more aware of what your body feels like when tense and calm. Rehearsal helps you to evoke calmness to reduce your anger before it escalates further.
A- Arouse compassion. Our own thoughts may contribute to our anger or to creating calmness. Engaging in compassionate inner dialog fosters self-soothing. This may include saying: ‘This is what it feels like to feel anger,’ ‘I may feel threatened right now, but I am safe,’ or ‘I’m human and that means I will experience negative emotions from time to time.’
R- Reflect on thoughts that may be contributing to anger. For example, be aware of thinking: ‘There shouldn’t be traffic congestion’—although the road is frequently congested. ‘Everyone should behave with consideration’—when some people do and others don’t. Or, ‘I don’t deserve this!’ when it has nothing to do with you personally, and being human at times includes suffering.
At such moments ask yourself:
- What are the negative feelings behind my anger?
- Are my expectations realistic (regarding the situation or the specific person, etc.)?
- Based on my past experience (with this person or situation), how realistic are my expectations? Which of my key desires do I feel are being threatened? For example, my emotional or physical safety, trust, security, connection, respect.
React to Moments of Anger Arousal Appropriately
Here are a few practices to help better prepare you for constructively managing moments of anger arousal:
- Body scan exercise: Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Picture and feel the muscles of your forehead stretching out ever so slightly, letting go of tension and relaxing. Then continue, focusing on the muscles around your eyes, your jaw, neck, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands and fingers, upper back, lower back, chest, abdomen, lower torso, lower legs, feet and toes.
- Stop and think. Identify a word or phrase that signals you to stop. For example, the moment you experience anger arousal, you may want to say to yourself: ‘Constructive or destructive?’ regarding how to respond to it.
- Informal mindfulness: The challenge in anger management is to be mindful to our unrealistic expectations, our feelings behind our anger, our physical sensations, and the key desires that we may experience as being threatened. In order to gain greater self-awareness, I recommend a ‘daily check-in,’ several moments a day, in which you ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling right now?’ and do a brief scan of your body to observe how calm or tense you are.