Thursday, December 18, 2008

Anger Management: The Basics

Road rage. Yelling and throwing things. Violence in the home and at work. Getting into fights. Putting other people down. Rage that is always just below the surface, ready to boil over.

These are just a few examples of anger that has gotten out of control. Maybe they are things that happen to you regularly. If they do, you may have a problem with anger, but you are not alone. It is estimated that 20 percent of Americans have a problem managing their anger.

Anger is a normal human emotion. It is a natural way to react to threats, whether real or perceived. Anger can bring to light situations where something isn't right, where your legitimate needs or those of others are not being respected. But anger becomes a problem when it feels overwhelming and causes you to lash out in destructive ways, hurting yourself and others.


Like any emotion anger is a form of energy. Energy never goes away; it just gets changed and redirected into different forms. So managing anger doesn't involve eliminating it. Suppressing anger -- trying to beat it down -- can have harmful effects, like raising your blood pressure, contributing to depression, or leading to problems with the way you relate to others. At the other extreme, it's just as destructive to let your anger loose by expressing it in violent words and actions.

Managing anger is about dealing with the angry energy you feel inside, and finding constructive ways to react to your feelings outside. Ultimately, responsigibility for anger is our own, not another's. Whatever your individual situation, you can take some practical steps to help you manage anger.

Stop and think for a moment. When you are angry, trying to stop and think may seem like the hardest thing to do. But giving some rational thought to a situation can help you step back from your anger. Many things can make you angry: a particular person or situation, memories of a traumatic event, chronic stress. Understanding what's causing your anger at a given time is a good step toward dealing with it constructively.

Part of thinking through your anger has to do with understanding how it makes you react. Anger tends to make you see things in extremes and absolutes. Someone makes a mistake, and you say, "Why can't you ever do anything righ?" Something goes wrong, and you ask yourself, "Why don't things ever work out for me?' Someone cuts you off in traffic or tailgates you, and you think, "Doesn't anybody know how to drive anymore?" In addition to painting yourself into a corner, such reactions alienate others and make them defensive and uncooperative, which only fuels your anger.

Backing away and thinking the situation through for a moment can drain your rage. The world is not out to get you. Other people make mistakes, or even do shortsighted and inconsiderate things, but there really isn't much you can do about it. In fact, the best thing you can do is not get drawn in and make the problem worse.

Anger can also make you demanding and unreasonable. Stop and ask yourself, "Am I really seeing things clearly ? Are my expectations realistic ? Can I really be the only one who's right while everyone else is wrong ?" A little reasoning with yourself goes a long way toward adjusting your emotions to the situation. Is the cause of your anger a problem you can address without getting mad?

" There are two things a person should never be angry at: what they can help, and what they cannot." ---Plato

Even if you can't solve an annoying problem, you can learn to accept it. Maybe there isn't much you can do, but at least you know you tried to deal with what is causing you to get angry, and you can try to make the best of the situation.

Stay focused and communicate with yourself and others: Disputes between people are inevitable, and can even be healthy, specially when people care very much about the same things or one another. But arguments can get out of control when unrelated things are brought in, or when an angry person projects his or her issues onto another.

If you're angry about how someone is treating you, don't use how you feel to rage at them about their family, upbringing, personal habits, physical appearance, and so on. Also try to avoid making them responsible for things only you can deal with in yourself.

When you are angry, specially if you are in an argument, try to stay focues on resolving the issue. Unless you feel you are really getting at what's going on, don't bring in other matters or cast the other person in the role of villain.

In the heat of anger it can be hard, but try to communicate with yourself.
  1. What is really bothering me ?
  2. Is it something more about me or inside me, rather than what another person is doing ?
Then, communicate with the other person: Am I saying what's making me angry, rather than flying off the handle and accusing the you of things that don't have much to do with the matter at hand ?
  • Take steps to express what's bothering you in a non threatening way, and invite the other person to do the same. Then you might be able to move ahead to a peaceful compromise or resolution.
Humor can be a great release of tension: One way to react to a frustrating situation is to get mad; another is to laugh. You have to be a little careful about using humor to defuse an angry situation.
  1. Don't try to laugh the situation away -- that ignores the problem.
  2. Don't use cruel humor -- that's the same as lashing out.
Pointing out the humorous side of a vexing situation can do a lot to make it less aggravating. Of course your own efforts to manage your anger may not be enough. Communicating with others about your anger may also mean reaching out for help. Just as the recognition of out of control anger is growing, so is the ability to treat it. It is very likely that a therapist or counselor will be able to help you with an anger problem if you seek professional help and are willing to make the effort.
  • Try to relax. When you get angry, your body chemistry changes. Your whole system becomes stimulated. One thing you can do is try to relax your body and mind. The easiest and most effective way to calm down is by focusing on your breathing. " Conscious breathing" is also something you can do right away, even in the heat of the moment.
Make a conscious effort to make your breath as deep, slow, regular and quiet as you can. Your agitation will go down, your emotions will settle, and you'll be able to think more clearly about how you want to respond.
In addition, lack of food and nutrition puts stress on your mind and your body and makes you more likely to overreact. A healthy diet and regular exercise helps keep your emotional and physical systems in balance.
  • Change your environment. Sometimes managing your anger can be as simple as getting away from what is making you upset. Such behavior isn't necessarily running away or avoiding the problem. It's finding an alternative to the situation that doesn't result in frustration and rage.
If the way people drive a certain stretch of road always makes you irritated, find a different route. If someone is talking loudly on a cell phone, move someplace else rather than sit there and stew or lash out at the person. If a coworker or family member has an annoying habit they won't change, find something else to do when they're bothering you.
  • Look to your faith for help. In the face of injustice, there is a place for "righteous anger." Look at the Bible. God gets angry when people fall short of loving and following Go's ways. Jesus takes a whip and clears the temple of moneychangers. Many figures from different religious traditions responded with anger when they saw disrespect of God and persons.
If something is happening that you strongly belieive is unfair, whether it be to people you know, in your community , or on the national or international scene, don't ignore your anger, thinking there's nothing to be done, but try not to overreact either. Find constructive things you can do to make a difference.

In addition to giving anger a place in the cause of justice, faith also offers wisdom on managing anger. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul wrote, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" [Paul 4:26].  He put his finger on an important truth about anger; In itself it is not bad; but problems arise if you let it cause harm, including letting anger go unaddressed. Offer your excessive anger to God. Pray for strength, patience, wisdom and peace to work with your anger.

TAKE HEART:  Feeling angry is a normal, even a healthy part of being human. It becomes unhealthy when you express it in ways that hurt others or yourself. But anger does not have to take over your life or destroy your wellbeing and relationships. By being aware of what is making you angry, finding other ways to react to people and situations, using relaxation techniques, and drawing on spiritual resources, you can learn to deal with and transform your anger.

About the Author: Joel Schorn is a writer and editor in Chicago. He is the author of several CareNotes and Prayer Notes. He is also the coauthor with Alice Camille of A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics (Layola Press) you can visit his website at

Sources of Additional Help:

  1. Anger Therapy by Lisa Engelhardt and Karen Katafiasz, St. Meinrad, Indiana, Abbey Press, 1994.

  2. The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from Frustrations that Sabotage your Life by Les Carter, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2004

  3. Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions by Thich Nhat Hanh, New York, Penguin, 2004

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