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Anger is a natural human emotion. Any number of things can trigger it: A word or action that feels hostile to you, an exasperating event or situation, a hurtful memory that resurfaces at just the wrong moment. Or, these days, you might feel anger welling up over what seems like a never-ending COVID-19 pandemic and the physical, emotional, and social toll it’s taken on your life. Whatever the cause, anger is something you can learn to recognize and cope with to help reduce its impact on your mental and physical health.
What is anger?
Anger is when you feel hostile or antagonistic toward someone or something you feel has intentionally harmed you or treated you unjustly. It can drive you to behaviors that express your heightened emotion — for example, shouting or cursing. It can also spur you to behave aggressively, in ways that could cause harm to someone or something.
Physically, anger causes your heart rate and blood pressure to go up. It can also prompt your body to release hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) that create a burst of energy. Over time, uncontrolled anger can contribute to heart problems, digestive problems, insomnia, and headaches.
Frequent angry outbursts can also damage your relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. But keeping anger bottled up inside can be harmful too. It can lead to physical health problems — like high blood pressure — as well as depression. And it can cause you to express your anger in unhelpful ways — for example, making critical comments or taking revenge on someone you feel has hurt you — rather than addressing problems or disagreements constructively.
How to know if your anger is a problem
Anger isn’t always bad. If it helps you identify and express negative feelings or look for solutions to conflicts, it can be beneficial. That said, better coping skills may be in order if your anger has caused you to:
- Get into frequent arguments that escalate in intensity
- Behave in ways that feel frightening or out of control
- Act violently toward or threaten others
- Break things
- Get arrested or break the law
Anger management techniques can help you reduce both your level of emotion and your physical response, so you’re less likely to progress to these harmful behaviors.
Ways to manage anger
The ways we express ourselves and behave when we’re angry aren’t fixed; they’re learned. That means we can learn more appropriate ways to respond. Here are some anger management approaches to try:
- Identify your triggers. Are there people or situations that repeatedly spur your anger? Knowing that before you face them can help you strategize ahead of time, identifying ways to head off the conflict or resolve the problem.
- Recognize your anger warning signs. They could be:
- Physical — such as feeling hot or flushed or a tightness in your chest
- Behavioral — like raising your voice or clenching your teeth
- Emotional — for example, feeling hurt or jealous
- Mental — such as having hostile thoughts or images
As soon as you notice these signs, take action to keep the situation — and yourself — from getting more heated.
- Take a break. When you start to feel angry, put things on pause to keep the situation from escalating. Try to focus on thinking about the issue rather than reacting to it. If you need to, separate yourself physically from the person or situation that’s provoking your anger until you can address the matter more calmly and productively. It can help to let loved ones know in advance that this will be your strategy, rather than in the heat of the moment.
- Practice relaxation. Learning to calm yourself physically and mentally can help you prevent rage from taking over. There are many techniques you can try, including:
- Breathing deeply
- Repeating a calming word or phrase to yourself
- Envisioning peaceful images
- Doing tai chi moves or yoga poses
Learn and practice these techniques so you can perform them anywhere or anytime you start to feel angry. Even just three deep breaths in and out can be effective at helping you relax and stay calm.
- Redirect your thoughts. If you hear yourself thinking “always” or “never” statements – for example, “this always happens when I want to do something” or “you never think about how I feel” — that’s a sign you’ve shut down the possibility of a resolution. That can lead to hopelessness and more anger. It can also make the other person less inclined to work with you to come up with a solution. Instead, try to remember that anger won’t solve the problem, and focus instead on thinking logically about ways to resolve it.
Getting help for anger
If you find yourself getting angry often (more than a few times a week) or intensely, or if your anger is causing problems with your relationships, health, or job, it may be time to seek help from a trained therapist. In addition to using the approaches listed here, your therapist can help you learn and practice ways to change your thinking and reacting, and they can help you develop communication and other skills for defusing, resolving, or coping with situations that lead to anger.
You can start a telehealth visit right from home or any other quiet place – like a parked car – where you have privacy and feel comfortable.