Anger Management Strategies For Adults
If you have an anger problem it can obviously have a negative impact on all your social relationships. Your partner, friends, kids, co-workers, and bosses may all come to think you're a temperamental jerk. Your outbursts may lead you into trouble with your loved ones, your social circle, your job, or even the law.
Anger management issues are common. Along with sadness and anxiety, anger is one of the core human emotions that can lead to problems if it gets out of hand. Fortunately, over the years mental health professionals have developed a variety of strategies for dealing with it. If you're naturally hot headed you may never become extremely laid back, but you can get to a point where you can keep the worst of your anger from damaging your life. This article will summarize many of the approaches that can help you do that.
Origins of anger issues
By the time someone's an adult their anger has usually become a habit. They know it doesn't always work, but it's their effortless, go-to response. But where does it start? The following have been shown to be linked to anger:
- Inborn temperament - Just like some people are wired to be more anxious and cautious, others are intrinsically more quick tempered and irritable, and have a lower tolerance for frustration.
- Having angry parents - Many people with a bad temper say one or both of their parents got angry easily, and they couldn't help but pick up their style.
- Family environment - Growing up in a chaotic, stressful family situation, where the members don't know how to resolve conflict very well, can predispose some individuals to developing a temper.
- Trauma - Some people who have lived through trauma, either as kids or adults, have bouts of extreme anger. Being traumatized can put you in an agitated, guarded state, which can translate into volatile moods.
- Culture - Some cultures have a reputation for being "passionate". Masculine culture often teaches that anger is the only acceptable emotion for a man to feel when he's upset. Certain work environments also encourage a macho, confrontational approach to dealing with disputes.
- Finding that it works - Although it's usually harmful in the long run, anger has its short-term benefits. Someone may have learned from experience that having an angry style helps them get that they want.
- Circumstances where you can get away with being temperamental - This one isn't so much about where anger comes from, but how it can survive to the present day. Some people show signs of anger problems earlier in their life, but their environment doesn't tolerate it and nips the issue in the bud. For example, a child may be sent to an anger management group, or a teenager may be forced to start seeing a counselor after she gets into too many fights. Other people go through life never having to address their temper. They may have friends and family who put up with it, or their outbursts aren't frequent or severe enough that they're forced to do something about them.
Immediate strategies for calming yourself once you're already angry
The advice on how to deal with anger falls into two main categories: Ways you can calm yourself if you've already become mad, and a variety of longer-term approaches where you can try to prevent yourself from getting as angry in the first place. This section will quickly deal with the first category. If you're already riled up, here are some ways to try to contain the damage:
If possible, leave the situation
Go somewhere else where you can begin to calm down. Just being away from the source of your frustration may be enough to help you cool off. It also gives you space to apply some other techniques to calm yourself.
Unfortunately you won't always be able to escape. If you're fighting with your partner they may block the door or follow you. You may be stuck in traffic. You may be at work. Sometimes there are ways out of even these situations. Maybe you could tell your partner that you need a few minutes alone to collect yourself. At work you could pretend you need to use the washroom. In traffic you could pull into a parking lot, or switch to another route.
Count to ten
If you're still in the anger-inducing setting this well known trick can buy you some time, so you don't succumb to your first impulse to lash out. Those ten seconds can allow the worst of your anger to dissipate. The act of counting also slightly distracts you.
Use calming breathing techniques
Taking slow, deep breaths physically calms your body and mind. When you inhale, breathe using your abdomen. Your belly should expand, rather than your chest and shoulders. Take in a good deal of air, hold it for a few seconds, then slowly exhale. The timing doesn't matter down to the exact second, but one way to ensure you're breathing deeply is to use the 4-7-8 exercise. Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, then exhale over the last eight. Repeat a few times until you start to feel more in control.
Repeat calming phrases to yourself
This idea works in the same way as counting to ten. If you use this approach you'll eventually hit on a phrase that works best for you. Some examples are, "Take it easy", "Chill out", "Be calm", "It's not a big deal", or "Will I really care about this tomorrow?"
Picture calming images
For example you could imagine yourself sitting on a tropical island beach as waves gently lap the shore, or lying in a field on a warm summer day as the grass and wildflowers sway in the breeze.
Put a humorous spin on the situation
It's hard to feel angry at the same time that you're amused at something. If someone's annoyed you, try picturing them in a funny or absurd way. For example, if your boss has been sending you nitpicky emails all day, imagine them as a giant squawking parrot sitting behind a computer.
Do something physical to burn off your angry energy
This is another option you may not always have access to, but if you can it may help to run around the block, or bang out a bunch of push ups in your room. Be careful about more aggressive actions like punching a pillow. Studies have shown that rather than venting your anger, they can rile you up even more.
Longer-term strategies to prevent flare ups before they happen
If you've already gotten really angry it's often too late. The best way to control your temper is to employ a mix of approaches to prevent as many blow ups as possible in the first place. I'll cover a lot of ideas below, and this section will make up the bulk of this article.
Take responsibility for your anger and for dealing with it
Many angry people know they have a short fuse, and accept that most of the blames falls on them when they lose their cool. After all, not everyone gets so wound up by the things that set them off. It's that saying, "Nothing forces you to be angry. On some level you're allowing yourself to feel that way." Some angry people don't take full responsibility for their outbursts though, and place the blame in a variety of other places. These factors may contribute to someone's anger, but they don't fully let them off the hook. Do you use any of these phrases to excuse your outbursts?
- Temperament - "I've always been a hothead. I can't help it. People should know that by now."
- Culture - "I'm Portuguese/Italian/Irish/etc. We're a fiery people."
- Childhood - "It's not my fault I'm like this. My family situation was nuts growing up."
- Expecting people to tiptoe around them - "He should have known I'm grumpy after work. He should have brought it up with me later if he didn't want me to get mad."
- Other people's actions - "He shouldn't have cut me off", "If the new guy wasn't such an idiot I wouldn't lose my cool at work all the time", "She wouldn't stop trying to pick a fight, even after I told her I'd talk about it later."
- Outside circumstances - "I get cranky when I haven't eaten", "Things are tough at work. I'm stressed out. It's not my fault. "
Understand how your anger ticks on a practical level
To get a handle on your anger you first need to know what it looks like for you.
Learn the signs that you're getting angry
Angry people often aren't tuned in to how irritated they feel a lot of the time. They sometimes catch themselves off guard by losing their temper "out of nowhere", because they weren't focused on how their annoyance had been building up inside them. Figure out the personal signs that you're starting to become angry. Some common ones are:
- Thinking annoyed thoughts, like about how incompetent your boss is, or how dismissive your boyfriend can act. Sometimes you'll be in one annoying situation, and your warning sign will be that you'll start thinking about something else that irritates you , e.g., you'll start fuming about your landlord as your manager starts getting on your case at work
- General feelings of grumpiness
- Tense or clenched muscles, like in your face, jaw, shoulders, and hands
- Increased heart rate
- A change in breathing, for example, taking slower, deeper breaths, and tensely exhaling through your nose
- A rush of adrenaline
- Feeling your face go red
- Not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to be left alone
- Getting frustrated more easily (e.g., you start getting peeved that your phone's reception is spotty, when that normally wouldn't bug you)
- Starting to feel more demanding, perfectionistic, and impatient toward people
- Feeling sarcastic and defiant, e.g., getting an urge to roll your eyes at your boss or make a smart ass comment about their directions
In addition to that, map out what your anger looks like at different intensity levels.
- What are the signs that you're minorly irritated?
- What's the collection of symptoms that lets you know you're becoming moderately annoyed?
- What are the indicators that an outburst is seconds away, and you need do something about it as soon as possible?
Get an idea of the situations that tend to trigger your anger
Most anger prone people have a few key scenarios that set them off. Some general ones are:
- Being at work
- Being around your kids
- Being around your partner
- Being around your parents
- Being in a hurry
- Being in a crowded bar
- Taking part in a hobby that frustrates you, e.g., learning to ski
- Playing a competitive game
Aside from general situations, like being on the job, where any number of things may annoy you, you may find there are more specific circumstances that get you going:
- Being nagged by your partner
- When you want to talk about something important with your partner and they blow you off
- When your partner persists in trying to discuss an issue with you, even though you've repeatedly told them now isn't a good time
- When your kids aren't listening
- Having a certain co-worker criticize you
- Having to wait for help at a busy, understaffed store
- Waiting in line
- Being stuck behind a slow moving car while driving
Be aware of the dangerous situations that can cause your anger to sneakily build up to critical mass
As I mentioned a little earlier, angry people are sometimes caught off guard by their own temper. A statement you'll often hear along those lines is, "I don't know what happened. I just got so mad all of the sudden and before I knew it I had put my hand through the wall and scared my girlfriend half to death" If you've been through this what likely happened is that you were in a tense situation where your anger was building, but you were too caught up in the conflict at hand, and didn't notice what was happening with your mood until you were enraged and past the point of no return.
Some examples of these tense, risky situations are:
- A drawn-out argument with a partner
- A long, stressful day at work
- An outing with friends where there's a lot of simmering, unresolved drama
- An awkward evening with the family, where everyone's on edge and picking at each other
When someone explodes under these circumstances their anger may have started ramping up before they were even in the situation, and they were anticipating how poorly it could go. They may have worked themselves up on the drive to their job, or before meeting their buddies, or while they waited for their partner to get home before they confronted them. Once the actual situation started, little things began to happen that caused their frustration to build (e.g., their partner disagreed with them and started making personal attacks, or their manager called them out for a mistake they had nothing to do with). After twenty minutes of petty bickering, or half a shift of getting picked on, it's then that they snapped "out of nowhere".
Get in the habit of frequently checking in on your anger levels
Monitoring your anger helps you get out of trouble situations before it's too late (when no amount of calming breathing or relaxing imagery will help you). Checking in on yourself is something you can do throughout the day. It's especially important to start checking in on your mood when you're in a triggering situation, or you've already noticed yourself starting to get annoyed. Whatever your level of anger, take steps to reduce it.
Ways to curtail minor irritation
- Employ one of the calming techniques mentioned above. They're actually more effective when your anger levels are lower and they have less "work" to do.
- If possible, go somewhere else, at least for a while. Take an early lunch break and get away from your demanding clients. Tell your partner you can feel yourself getting a bit annoyed, and that you'd like five minutes to collect your thoughts. Go home early if you're hanging out with your friends and they're all squabbling.
- Try to change the dynamics of the situation. For example, you may notice you're arguing with your partner in a petty, counterproductive way, and decide to "fight fair" instead. If your boss is giving you a hard time, rather than silently absorbing her attacks, you could start a discussion with her about whether there's a more efficient way you could be working, or if it would be better if you switched to another task that day.
- Develop a habit of asking yourself, "Is this that big a deal? Do I really want to go with my first reaction of getting riled up?" Taking those few seconds to stop and think can take most of the momentum away from your anger.
- Question the assumptions and logic behind your angry thoughts. You may find you're starting to get yourself into a tizzy over nothing. More on that in a second.
Come up with a plan in advance about what you'll do if you get extremely angry
If you've gotten really mad you won't be able to think straight in the moment. In these cases it helps to have a pre-set plan. For example, if a father frequently snaps at his kids when they squabble at home, his plan could be that when he's about to lash out that he'll go his bedroom for five minutes, during which time he'll sit on his bed and breathe deeply. If possible he'll get his wife to step in and hold down the fort while he's away. At the end of the five minutes he'll come back downstairs and deal with the kids' behavior.
Learn to identify and dispute the thoughts and worldview that can feed your anger
Depressed people tend to think in a self-effacing, pessimistic, hopeless way that sustains their depression. Anxious people see the world as more threatening than it is, which reinforces their worries. Angry people have their own thought patterns which make it more likely they'll lose their temper and act out.
- The thoughts of angry people can be distorted in the usual ways our thinking can go awry. In their case their distorted thoughts cause them to get madder. For example, they might see the world in overly Black or White terms, or assume they know what other people are thinking.
- Anger-prone individuals are way more likely to see other people as personally out to get them. If someone spills something on them, they think they did it on purpose. If someone gives them some constructive criticism, they'll see it as a personal attack and go on the defensive.
- Some angry types tend to think the world is full of jerks and idiots, and that everything would run a lot more smoothly if everyone was more like them. They're the people who are always stewing about how no one else seems to know how to drive, or how their man child boyfriend would be helpless without them.
- At the moment that something's annoyed them, angry people often have knee jerk thoughts that make them more irritated. For example, if their partner asks them to take out the garbage, they may think something like, "Ugh, they're always trying to control me. What's their problem?!"
- If someone trespasses against them, angry people have a worldview that they have to retaliate to even the score. The idea of someone getting away with something rankles them to the core. They feel they're justified in giving someone a piece of their mind, or getting in their face, or purposely cutting them off in traffic. They may get revenge in a more subtle way, like giving their boss a dirty look, or pretending not to hear their wife ask them to take the dog for a walk.
- Similarly, they may think that if someone upsets them, and they don't show their anger in response, then they're basically declaring what the other person did was okay.
- Angry people tend to have the unrealistic unconscious expectation that life should never annoy them and they should never have to feel frustrated or not get what they want. They become angry when those standards inevitably aren't met. For example, they'll believe they should be able to get through their work day with no unexpected annoyances, or be able to do a commute where every other driver behaves perfectly.
- Angry people are good at working themselves up and priming themselves to have more angry interactions in the future. For example, they may spend hours thinking of all the ways their girlfriend is selfish.
- Along the same lines, angry people have a tendency to ruminate. If someone's annoyed them in the past, they won't let it go. Instead they'll stew about it for days, and when they next hang out they'll be that much more prepped to lose their temper around them.
- During confrontations, angry people may have fleeting fantasies of becoming violent, e.g., clocking their dad during an argument, or picking up a bowl and throwing it through the window, just to see the look on their husband's face. Even if they don't act on them, the thoughts still ratchet up their irritation.
You can reduce your anger if you learn to identify and dispute these thoughts as they occur. Over a longer period of time you may also be able to replace your anger-inducing worldview with one more conducive to being relaxed and laid back:
- If you haven't already, read this article on the ways to challenge maladaptive or unrealistic thoughts. When you catch yourself thinking in a counterproductive way, try to look at the circumstances logically and substitute a more realistic way of looking at it.
- Realize most people don't mean it when they do something that upsets you. Try to see their actions the same way you would if a pigeon crapped on your car. It's still a bit irksome, but you can't really hold it against the bird. It's just random bad luck.
- Accept that even the most competent people make mistakes sometimes, and again, that it's nothing personal.
- Don't feel you have to even the score every time someone bothers you.
- Revise your expectations about how often life will bug you. Accept that no matter what you do, irritating things will happen.
- If you catch yourself ruminating, try to think of something else. Or at least be aware you're doing it. Also be aware of any fantasies of retaliation you have, and respond in the same way.
This is a more indirect approach. Your anger will be more volatile when you're tense and stressed out. Implementing practices to calm yourself and reduce that stress will cut down on your baseline level of grouchiness.
Add calming practices to your day
Some things you could try:
- Change your routine so you have more time to unwind - e.g., go for a walk after getting home from work, or set aside half an hour before bedtime where you can relax and read a book.
- Exercise - Physical activity is a great stress reducer. It doesn't have to be a super-intense workout either.
- Make time for yourself - When we're stressed we often forget to set aside time to recharge our batteries.
- Learn relaxation techniques - e.g., Meditation, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Do very fun things - By this I mean doing things that are fun enough that you look forward to them, and they noticeably boost your mood. I'm referring to outings like going on a hike with your friends, rather than activities that are more about vegging out, like absentmindedly watching TV in the evening.
- Do straight-up relaxing activities - e.g., getting a massage, lying out in the sun, or sitting in a sauna.
That's a quick list. This article goes into several of the points above in more detail:
Cut down on the stressors in your life
The points above about relaxation can help, but if you've got big stresses in your life, calming activities can seem like Band-Aids. If your life is stressful enough, you're only going to have so much power to reduce your anger through other methods. Approaches like reframing your thinking can help, but they won't save you every time. It's anything but a simple, overnight fix, but the true long-term solution is to take steps to remove the stress at its source. It's beyond the scope of this article to list every stressful life event that may be affecting you, or how to deal with it, but some examples are:
- It's not always possible, but in the end it may be better to get out of a bad job, or an unhealthy, conflict-filled relationship.
- If getting out isn't an option, then try to mend your relationship, or make some changes at work.
- Improve your parenting skills if your kids are a constant source of frustration.
- Take steps to treat any mental health conditions that contribute to your temper.
Improve your anger-related communication skills
Anger issues are often tied to problems with communication.
If your anger is justified, learn to express it in a more productive way
Sometimes when people get angry it's obvious they're blowing up over nothing, or are actually mad at something else and taking out their frustration on an easier target. However, we sometimes get angry for totally justifiable reasons. That's why the emotion exists. It alerts us to when we've been wronged, and motivates us to do something to fix it. When people have anger problems their core reasons for getting angry may be correct, but they often go too far in expressing the emotion. Learning anger management techniques doesn't mean you have to start letting people walk all over you, or swallow all your feelings and opinions.
While it's perfectly okay to feel angry, and you might have a legitimate gripe you want to share, what's not alright is to express your anger in an aggressive, destructive, intimidating way that tramples all over other people. Instead, learn to communicate assertively. Assertiveness, in contrast to aggressiveness, is when you stand up for your rights and needs, but do so in a way that respects the rights and needs of others.
For example, if you feel your partner sometimes makes jokes at your expense in front of her friends, an aggressive response may be to yell at her on the drive home after a party. A more assertive response would be to talk to her on a weekend morning and matter of factly tell her that it bothers you when she puts you down, and that you'd like her to stop.
Don't bottle things up when something annoys you
This point is related to assertiveness skills. If someone wrongs you it's not healthy in the long run to suppress those feelings, as they'll just come out later. You might reach a breaking point and explode. You may take your temper out on an undeserving target. You could suppress so much anger that you develop a grouchy, negative personality, or become depressed.
Not bottling things up involves bringing up bothersome issues as they happen, and in a productive manner, like the point above mentions. Of course, it's not practical or realistic to tell everyone about every instance in which they make you feel slighted, but at the same time, you can probably bring things to people's attention a lot sooner than you normally would. For example, if your friend has a habit of being unreliable, you may give them a pass the first two times they do it, but say something on the third. In the past you may have let them flake on you for months without saying anything, only to suddenly erupt at them one day. If you find you have a hard time asserting yourself in this way, it's a skill you can develop.
Learn to listen more and wait before you speak
Try to get into a habit of listening to other people and trying to understand where they're coming from, as opposed to feeling you have to win every argument and defend your position at all costs. Resist the urge to speak right away. If you give it time, you'll be way less likely to say something careless in the heat of the moment.
Learn how to argue properly
Whole books have been written about this topic, so I can't begin to do it justice in one paragraph. If you usually get angry during fights with your partner or family members, read up on how to fight fairly and respectfully. Also, during arguments with our loved ones, there are common interpersonal dynamics that can come into play that can cause disagreements to quickly escalate (e.g., the Pursuer - Distancer dynamic). Knowing about them will aid you in preventing these situations from getting too hairy.
Improve your communication skills at work
This is another area where I can only bring it to your attention and then leave it to you to look for more info on your own. If you often get pissed off at your co-workers or boss it could help to bolster your work-related people skills. For example, you may need to learn skills in working as an effective part of a team, dealing with difficult co-workers or customers, managing other people, or getting along with superiors.
Understand the mentality behind your anger
Aside from the more practical suggestions above, delving into the motivations behind your anger may help. Insight alone won't cure you, but it can give you an idea of some issues you need to address.
Think about the emotions or motivations that may be underneath your anger
There's a popular notion that anger is like an iceberg. The anger is the tip we see on the surface, but below that are other emotions such as fear or depression. I won't go as far to say that every time someone gets annoyed there's a deeper reason behind it, but sometimes there is. If you can identify that emotion, and work with it directly, you may be able to take away some of your temper's fuel. Thinking about underlying causes also takes the focus off how wronged you feel and how you need to get revenge, and moves it to your own more hurt or vulnerable feelings. Some examples:
- Anxiety - When someone's worried about something bad happening, they may adopt a tough, demanding attitude to try to gain a sense of control over the situation. Anxiety can also generally make people feel tense and irritable.
- Sadness - Someone may feel angry at the world because of a recent loss or setback. Depression can also cause irritability.
- Hurt Feelings - For example, a woman may be mad at a man who turned her down, but deeper down she feels hurt and rejected.
- Insecurity, envy, defensiveness - People can become angry when their insecurities are triggered, e.g., feeling touchy around a more successful colleague.
Aside from the concept of other emotions lying underneath anger, there are other factors that can cause someone to feel more grouchy and temperamental:
- They're mad at someone or something else and are displacing it to a different target.
- They have too much stress in their lives.
- They haven't gotten enough sleep lately, and they're tired and cranky.
- They're in pain, e.g., headache, toothache, sore back.
- Something in their past got triggered, such as an argument with a spouse reminding them of a toxic family dynamic from their childhood.
Think on the beliefs you have about anger
One factor that can sustain temperamental behavior is when deep down you have positive, not necessarily true, beliefs about what being angry means. For example:
- It's healthy and necessary to express your anger at the moment you feel it, regardless of how ill-timed or hurtful that would be.
- Showing anger indicates you're someone who can't be pushed around.
- Being angry makes you tough and manly.
- If you're not angry, you're not in control.
- Being angry makes you an effective, authoritative boss.
- If you didn't get angry, no one would ever listen to you or take you seriously.
- If you don't get really angry while arguing with your spouse, it means you don't care about the relationship.
- Being angry is tied into other positive traits you have, like having high standards or caring about your work. You can't have one without the other, so the anger is a necessary evil.
Think about the benefits you get from being angry
It's sometimes hard to let go of a pattern of behavior because while it causes problems, it also has its upsides. If you can become aware of the things you gain from your anger, you may be able to find alternative ways to get them. Some advantages of losing your temper are:
- Being able to get your way, because your outbursts are intimidating, or they're just so tiresome that people would rather give in than have to deal with them.
- Tearing into someone often feels satisfying at time. You get to feel self-righteous and superior as you give that ignorant customer service rep a piece of your mind. You get to show that frustrating game who's really boss when you whip your controller into the floor.
- Losing your cool is a great way to shut down an argument you don't want to be in anymore. Once you've screamed at someone or put your fist through a wall, the discussion is usually concluded for the day.
- Angry and controlling behavior can be a way to manage feelings of anxiety. Someone may believe that if they're volatile and demanding they can prevent something bad from happening. For example, a manager at a busy restaurant may fret that the service will fall apart unless he's constantly barking orders at the staff.
- Getting angry can be an effective way to harm or punish someone. For example, if a couple are arguing, and the wife says something mean to her husband, he could get back at her by getting mad and dumping the salad she just made into the garbage.
- Anger can be a rush. It can become addictive to blow up at people. In a relationship it can feel more exciting to go through constant cycles of explosive fights and passionate reconciliation.
Build up a "bank account" of good will that will buffer you from the fallout of your blow ups
Even with the best emotion management techniques you may still get angry from time to time. When you do get angry the after effects are often influenced by how everyone saw you before you got mad at them. You can take some preventative measures to soften the impact of your blow ups.
Imagine two people in a workplace who occasionally lose their tempers. One is normally very friendly, helpful, and good natured. He's self-aware about his bad temper, and makes sure to let new employees know about it in a joking, self-effacing way. That way, if he ever does get pissed at them, at least they were mentally prepared for the possibility. When his co-workers sometimes joke about what a hothead he is, he's able to laugh at himself. He takes responsibility for his outbursts and doesn't try to blame them on anyone else. In the past when he's lost his cool he's made sure to apologize for it. It's clear to everyone he's actively taking steps to work on his problem.
Our second hypothetical worker is the opposite. Day to day he's grumpy, difficult, and sullen. He seemingly has no insight into how crotchety he is. He doesn't even make a token, bare minimum effort to socialize with his co-workers. He's caught new employees off guard by screaming at them out of the blue. After he gets angry he typically lectures the victim on all the ways they screwed up that caused him to get so annoyed.
Imagine each of these people loses their cool one day. Worker A's relationships will come out relatively unscathed. Even though he sometimes gets too angry, his behavior during the other 99% of the time has given him a "bank account" of good will. When he makes a withdrawal by losing his temper, he still has enough good reputation left over. As for Worker B, everyone already thinks he's a moody jerk. Every outburst he has just digs him in a little deeper, and damages his relationships that much more.
This approach has limits. Being aware of your anger issues will earn you points initially, but if over time you keep acting in the same old toxic style your self-awareness will lose its luster. People will see you're not actually changing your behavior, and they won't excuse you for acting like a jerk just because you know you can be that way.