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 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 to different situations. I’ve used the acronym BEAR to identify components of major strategies for effectively managing anger:
Breathe deeply and slowly, inhaling with a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 6. Do this several times. This particular rate of breathing has been found to slow down the heart 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 further escalates.
A- Arouse compassion.
Our own thoughts may contribute to our anger—or to creating calmness. Engaging in a 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,” “I’m human and that means I will experience anger from time to time,” or, “Feelings come and go—this will pass.”
Reflect on thoughts that may be contributing to my anger. For example, be aware of thinking, “There shouldn’t be traffic congestion,” although the road is frequently congested. Or, “I don’t deserve this!” when it has nothing to do with you personally and being human at times includes suffering.
Additionally, here are several practices to help better prepare you for more constructively managing moments of anger arousal:
- A 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.
- Informal mindfulness: The challenge in anger management is to be mindful of 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.
The good news is regardless of how you currently manage your anger, you can develop new habits that help you, rather than hinder you in your personal relationships, at work, and in daily life.
Bernard Golden is the founder of Anger Management Education in Chicago, who has been a practicing psychologist for almost 40 years. He has clinical experience in a variety of settings including community mental health centers, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, private practice groups, and individual practice.