How to Control Anger
Sometimes you just need to stop and think…but sometimes that’s the worst thing you can do.
Years ago I consulted with a friend who was producing an Anger Management Manual. My own temper had given me a fair amount of trouble in the past, so this was a subject I had struggled to master. Anger management as a therapeutic issue also came up frequently in sessions when I was in private practice as a counselor. I helped my clients to look at their family histories of anger, their patterns of explosiveness, and the consequences of their outbursts. I focused on anger in my practice for quite a while, with mixed results.
Now that I no longer work as a therapist, I’ve started to think about anger management from a different perspective—one that’s perhaps not as deep or nuanced, but maybe more user-friendly. Admittedly, it’s a simple view, but sometimes that helps when a subject is as complex, unwieldy, and broadly defined as this one.
I now see destructive anger as the result of one of two things:
In other words, angry behavior results from either not thinking enough about a subject or conversely, thinking too much about it—or doing both at different points in time. Bear with me while we consider two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Imagine that someone jumps in front of you in line at the coffee shop. Without stopping to think, you react by punching that person in the back of the head.
You just behaved impulsively.
You didn’t think. Or you didn’t think much, or long enough.
Now imagine that the line-jumper turns around, and it’s your first love, who has shown up unexpectedly and was cutting in line in order to buy you a cup of coffee and chat about old times. But even if the line-jumper is just an inconsiderate stranger, it’s not okay to respond without slowing down and thinking about the situation, and it’s certainly not okay to react violently or with force.
Scenario 2: Imagine that your best friend mails everyone an invitation to her baby shower—except you. You feel hurt and rejected. You go over and over the hurt in your mind. You fret and boil and grow angrier and angrier. She calls and leaves a cheery message on your voicemail, but you punish her by never calling her back. You delete her contact information. The friendship ends.
You just experienced what rumination can do to a person.
You overthought the situation. You thought too long and too hard without enough information.
Perhaps your friend did intend to exclude you, but you’ll never hear her reasons. Or perhaps your invitation got lost in the mail, or she intended to hand-deliver it, or she was calling to invite you in a more direct and personal way. You’ll never know now, because you let your thoughts take you somewhere dark and ugly. You created an accusation in your own mind, acted on it unfairly, and lost a friend.
My conclusion is that dealing with anger requires balance. You need to think about what you’re feeling—but you don’t want to overthink it.
In the past, one of the homework assignments I gave clients was to apply the “45-Minute Rule” during times of conflict. This rule—otherwise known as a time-out—requires that the moment you feel your hackles go up and you’re about to react, you stop, excuse yourself politely from the interaction, and take a full 45 minutes to allow your body to recover from the physical sensations that hit your system when you become angry. You let your heart rate slow, give your muscles time to relax, and take some time to calm down.
What I discovered was that for impulsively angry clients, this method worked like a dream. However, for ruminators, it created havoc. The ruminating clients used the full 45 minutes to stew in their anger, bolster their own feelings of indignation, review similar past hurts, and plot revenge. The time-out only heated their anger, rather than cooling it.
So now I recommend a modified approach to controlling anger—one that makes use of both thinking more and thinking less.
If I’ve become angry in a flash, I try to slow myself down, see the other person’s side of things, consider the negative consequences of taking rash action, and breathe deeply. I think more.
If I find myself stewing over a slight, I make a conscious effort to reset my brain by choosing to think about something that makes me feel grateful, awestruck, or amused. I take a walk, participate in a sport, watch TV, or read a book—anything to get away from those negative thoughts that spiral around in a loop in my mind. They can wait. I think less.
When you’re angry, you want to communicate your view of the situation, to be heard and understood. However, it’s best to do that from a position of wanting to connect with someone, wanting to find common ground. Sometimes you get there by considering both sides of the situation… sometimes you get there by stepping back.