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Tips for Controlling Anger

  • Paige Bierma, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

If you have an explosive temper or simply snap at people more often than you'd like, you would probably benefit from being able to control your anger more. Remember, anger is only a feeling; how you deal with that feeling is your choice. With a little practice, you can learn how to avoid blow-ups that only harm you and the people you care about.

1. Recognize the warning signs

Can you recognize when you're close to the melting point? Look for warning signs like shallow breathing, shaking, sudden sweating, making a fist, feeling hot and dizzy, or raising your voice. These all signal that you need to calm down. Try to relax: Breathe deeply and let your arms hang loosely by your side. Acting less tense can actually make you feel more relaxed.

2. Take a time-out

If you feel you can't contain your anger, simply walk away from the situation. This is the most important and effective method for preventing an outburst. Simply tell the person or people you're angry with that you need to leave because you're very upset, and reassure them that you will continue the discussion once you have calmed down -- perhaps in an hour or so.

(Time-outs are not the same as running away. Keep your promise to come back and pick up the conversation again later.) Go somewhere safe where you can be alone and do something to calm down, such as taking a walk. Try to avoid driving.

3. Use reverse psychology

If you're starting to feel enraged, but still have hope for controlling yourself, psychologists Matthew McKay and Peter Rogers suggest you "act the opposite" of what your instincts are: Speak more softly rather than raising your voice; take a deep, relaxing breath instead of holding your breath; and try to say something supportive like "I understand that this is hard for you," instead of lashing out at the other person. In The Anger Control Workbook, McKay and Rogers point out that these are highly effective techniques for defusing a tense situation. Try using them to stay calm for an entire 24-hour period.

4. Consider why you're getting angry

Once you're past the danger zone of explosive anger, try to look more deeply at what's causing your rage. Maybe you're using anger to mask other feelings that would be more difficult or embarrassing to express, such as guilt, shame, fear, or depression. Take a few minutes to think about the immediate payoffs of losing your cool. Then think about the long-term effects of your anger. In the long run, out-of-control anger merely harms the people you love, and leaves you feeling alone and depressed.

5. Identify your trigger thoughts

Psychologists who work in anger management frequently speak of avoiding thoughts that trigger anger. These inner musings, while they probably feel indisputable to you at the time, are often based on faulty logic. The most common trigger thoughts occur when: 1) you assume your interpretation of things is right and everyone else is wrong; and 2) that other people are deliberately trying to hurt you. Another common trigger is to exaggerate. When you catch yourself using the words "always," "never," and "should" about someone else's behavior, there's a good chance you're making assumptions.

6. Find new ways of handling a tense encounter

McKay and Rogers suggest beginning a discussion with a line like: "What's bothering me is ________________. And what I would like in this situation is ________________."

They recommend opening up a negotiation by saying something like: "How would you like to solve this problem?" or "If you do ________________ for me, I'll do ________________ for you."

After that, try to get more information. ("What do you need in this situation?" or "What's bothering you in this situation?") Clarify things by acknowledging the other person's concerns. ("So you want ________________." Or "So what's bothering you is ________________.")

If things get heated, ask for some time off. ("I'd like to stop and cool off for a while.") Remember to breathe deeply and relax when you feel tense.

7. Say 'I' rather than 'you'

Use the word "I" when expressing your feelings, as in "I feel this when you do X." This is less likely to make the other person defensive than blaming and criticizing ("You never do what you say you will," "You make me sick.") Avoid "pseudo-I's," though, as in "I think you are selfish and self-centered." Avoid name-calling, sarcasm, ridicule, and labels as well ("You're so stingy") and try not to diagnose the other person and tell him what he or she should do or feel.

8. Get professional help

You've been getting angry for most of your life, and it's a very difficult habit to break. We recommend you seek out a professional therapist or counselor for additional help in changing your behavior. Aside from damaging personal and professional relationships, uncontrolled anger has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease, digestive problems, and high blood pressure. There is no shame in asking for help. Look for someone who specializes in anger management, and get some therapy.

References

McKay, Matthew, Ph.D, Rogers, Peter, Ph.D, and McKay, Judith, R.N. When Anger Hurts: How to Change Painful Feelings Into Positive Action. New Harbinger Publications, 1989.

McCay, Matthew, Ph.D., and Rogers, Peter, Ph.D. The Anger Control Workbook. New Harbinger Productions, 2000.

Potter-Efron, Ron, MSW. Angry All The Time: An Emergency Guide to Anger Control. New Harbinger Productions, 1994.

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