If you've ever struggled with anger, you are probably familiar with the feeling of regret that follows an outburst. You promise yourself: "I'll never let that happen again." But then, it happens again. And again. Anger takes away our ability to think rationally. After your anger fades, you regain the ability to think clearly, and you regret what your angry self said or did.
But here's the thing: Anger isn't always a bad thing. When controlled, anger helps us. Anger drives us to make changes to situations that are bad, it pushes us to stand up for our rights, and it protects us if our lives are threatened. The problem isn't having anger, it's having too much anger, and expressing it in an ineffective way.
Anger management teaches us to deal with our anger in a healthy way. Like the name implies, it teaches us to manage our anger, not extinguish it. Anger management begins with practicing self-awareness--learning to take a step back and see your anger before it takes over your mind. Next, once you've learned to catch your anger early, you'll learn techniques to control it.
Catching Anger Quickly
Imagine your brain is like a dam, holding back a large reservoir of water (in this metaphor, the water is your anger). Sometimes, you notice cracks and small leaks in the dam, which you can easily patch. But if you don't pay attention, the dam will burst, and there's no stopping the torrential flow of water that will follow.
If you catch your anger before it explodes, you will be able to control it. If you wait too long, there's little you can do to stop it. Because of this, learning to catch your anger early will be the most important skill you learn in anger management.
If you're someone who feels that their anger comes out of nowhere and just snaps, this stage will take some work. The truth is, your anger doesn't come from nowhere. It grows. Try this exercise to see what I mean:
Wherever you are, stop and listen to the sounds around you. Can you hear anything that you didn't notice before? Maybe a refrigerator, air conditioning, or birds chirping? Your brain is constantly filtering out sounds that are in the background so you can focus on the task at hand.
Similarly, when feelings of stress and anger are common, your brain may filter them out of your awareness—until you explode. The good news is, you can learn to become more aware of your anger with a bit of practice.
You'll use an anger thermometer to learn what your anger is like at different stages, how it changes, and how it grows. We often start anger management with this tool because our clients are surprised to see that they do have some warning signs that their anger is growing--they don't just snap.
On the anger thermometer, a "1" represents no anger at all. You are perfectly calm. A "10" is the maximum. You couldn't be any angrier. To use the thermometer, think about what you are like at a "1" and at a "10". These two should be easy to figure out. A "10" might involve shouting, fighting, punching walls, or any other form of aggression (everyone's reaction is a bit different).
After you figure out these two extremes, start thinking about what comes in-between. What do your "3", "5", and "8" look like? Try thinking about thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for each number. Some people might start tapping their foot and looking at the ground. Someone else might become argumentative, or start to feel insulted or hurt by innocuous comments. These are the behaviors that will tip you off, and let you know that your anger is beginning to build.
Anger Warning Signs
After completing an anger thermometer, you will have learned several of your anger warning signs. These are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that will tip you off that you're starting to feel angry, before you've snapped. If you had a hard time coming up with your own anger warning signs, try asking someone you know well. You might be surprised at how many of your own anger warning signs they've noticed, but you haven't.
So, what's the point of knowing anger warning signs? Like we mentioned before, the key of anger management will be to catch your anger early. These warning signs are like an alarm system that will tell you: "STOP. Going further down this path will not help." The alarm system will tell you that you need to take a step back from the situation and use an anger management technique.
Take a look at the anger thermometer you completed, or our anger warning signs worksheet, and pick out five warning signs that you'll have an easy time noticing. Write them down, and review this list every single day. For real, you have to review it. Every time you review the list, your brain will become more aware that these things are not background noise that should be filtered out.
Anger Management Techniques
When you've managed to catch your anger early, you'll have the opportunity to start using anger management techniques. First, know that there are no magical skills that will bring your anger from an "8" to a "1" with the snap of your fingers. They do take work. However, the anger management techniques we are going to share are strongly supported by research, and they will help if you practice them.
Take a Timeout
This one might seem obvious, but it can be a lifesaver when used well. Learning to take a timeout can be especially helpful for couples or families who get into fights where everyone is angry. You already know how to take a timeout (just walk away; take a break!), but we have a few tips to make this technique become a game changer.
- If you have frequent fights with your partner, come up with a plan for timeouts. Decide ahead of time how you will call a timeout, what you both will do, and how long it will last. Can either person shout "TIMEOUT!" at any time? Plan calming activities that everyone can do separately (go for a walk, watch TV, listen to music, and so on).
- Call a timeout early on. Better early than never. If your anger escalates too high, a timeout will be the last thing on your mind, and this simply won't work.
- Practice taking timeouts, even if you don't actually need one. This might feel silly at first, but its importance cannot be emphasized enough. If you don't practice, there's no way you'll remember to call a timeout in the heat of the moment.
- If you are still angry after the timeout, take another one. There's no point in rushing back into a bad situation because some arbitrary amount of time has passed.
Unfortunately, there are times in life when a timeout won't be an option. If you're at work, your boss probably will not be comfortable with you shouting "TIMEOUT!" and walking out of the room. Teenagers can have success using this technique in school if they and their parents have a conversation with their teacher first. Teachers are usually open to working out a plan to help a student learn to manage their anger, rather than disrupting class.
Breathing exercises are a core component of any anger management training. They are simple, very effective, and can be used anywhere at any time. Deep breathing works by countering the fight or flight response (our body's response to a threat, which contributes to anger), regulating our central nervous system, and distracting our thoughts. Here are the steps:
- Sit comfortably in your chair. Place your hand on your stomach so you are able to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- Take a deep breath through your nose. Breathe in slowly. Time the breath to last 5 seconds.
- Hold the breath for 5 seconds. You can do less time if it's difficult or uncomfortable.
- Release the air slowly (again, time 5 seconds). Do this by puckering your lips and pretending that you are blowing through a straw (it can be helpful to actually use a straw for practice).
- Repeat this process for about 5 minutes, preferably 3 times a day. The more you practice, the more effective deep breathing will be when you need it.
Instructions: Deep Breathing
Deep breathing should be used in the moment when you notice your anger growing, but like all of the skills we've discussed, practice is a must. Plus, the positive effects of deep breathing are long-lasting.
Stop to Think
Sometimes, if you can catch your anger early enough, just stopping to think will be enough. Changing your thoughts about the situation will also change how you feel, and in turn, what you do. Here are some questions to ask yourself, in the moment, to help take a step back.
"How am I feeling, and why? Am I feeling hurt on top of my anger?"
"What will happen that's bad if I continue down this path?"
"What will happen that's good if walk away?"
"How might the other person be seeing this situation?"
"Two hours from now, how will I be wishing I had handled this situation?"
"Will this be important a day from now? A week from now? A year from now?"
Try practicing this skill now. Think back to the last time you were angry, and ask yourself each of these questions. You can also practice by asking yourself the same question about other emotions, such as sadness or anxiety.
Anger management folk wisdom has its fair share of both good and bad advice. Let us clear up a few common misconceptions about what it takes to control your anger.
- Researchers have found that catharsis, such as punching a pillow, is a very bad idea. It's true that you will feel better in the moment, but there's one big problem. When you hit something, and feel better, your brain catches on. Next time you are angry, your brain will faintly say to you: "hit something". Every time you do this, the voice becomes louder. Someday, it won't be a pillow you're punching.
- You don't have to "get it out". This doesn't mean you should let your anger simmer until you explode. This means that yelling at the cause of your anger and acting aggressively won't help. Instead, use the skills you've learned to manage your anger.
- "People say what they really mean when they're angry." Not a chance! People say what they think will hurt another person, or what will allow them to control a situation.
- "If I don't say what I'm thinking, I'm being dishonest, and I'll be even more angry later." Again, not a chance! It can be tempting to speak your mind when you are angry. It can feel downright vital. However, when we are angry, our judgement is severely flawed. The rational portions of our brain are overruled by the impulsive portions. Save what you want to say for later.
Check out these additional books and worksheets if you would like to continue learning about anger management.