People who struggle with anger management problems often feel like they are not in control when their anger gets the best of them. Have you ever felt like you go “from 0 to 100 in a second”? Or have others described you this way? Having a short fuse can certainly cause all manner of problems with family, friends, and coworkers (or, unfortunately, bosses). If you’ve been there, you probably are all too aware of this.
There’s good news, though. Although it may feel like you’re out of control, the truth is that there are in fact ways you can manage your anger more successfully, to the benefit of all kinds of relationships you have in your life. This doesn’t mean you need to turn into a doormat and let others walk all over you; allowing people to take advantage of you is not a great way to reduce your anger! Certainly there are valid reasons to feel angry out there, whether it’s the rude receptionist you had to deal with today or the political situation that can sometimes seem outrageous.
The point is, feeling angry does not automatically mean you will or must lash out at others. Feelings and behavior are not the same thing. While you cannot always control how you feel, you can control how you behave – in fact, you must control how you behave, if you are to be successful in a society of other people.
Anger Management: Start by Noticing
The first step in getting a handle on your anger is noticing that it’s there. It is rare for a person to actually go from totally calm to furiously irate in a matter of seconds. (This kind of instability is actually probably due to mental illness and should definitely be checked out by a professional.) What is actually happening for most people who feel like instantly they go from 0 to 100 is that the anger has been building up before they explode but they simply aren’t recognizing it.
Being angry is generally not a comfortable feeling, and so it’s only natural to suppress or ignore it in order to not experience it. Noticing the presence of your irritation, which turns into frustration, which turns into upset, which turns into anger (and keeps growing) is the first thing you need to do in order to be able to manage it. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s there!
Think about the last time(s) you got really angry. What was happening before you lost your cool? What were you feeling in your body at the time? Some common experiences are:
- Tension in the chest, shoulders, or neck
- Hot feeling in the ears, face, or torso
- Clenched jaw or fists
- Heart beating faster, stronger
If you’re not sure what it’s like for you, pay attention to your physical sensations next time something isn’t going your way and see if you can recognize any of these or other symptoms. Getting in tune with your physical experience is an important way of catching the warning signs of an impending angry outburst.
Take a Time Out
Noticing is an important prerequisite to being able to do something about it. As you get more acquainted with the feelings of rising anger, use that awareness to make an active decision about what you’re going to do, instead of letting yourself get overwhelmed by those feelings.
When you notice your pulse racing or your face getting hot or whatever it might be for you, say to yourself, “I’m getting angry!” Then make a decision to back out of the situation you’re in before it’s too late. Once the fuse burns down to the end, it is unlikely you’ll be in a position to make a better decision about how to handle your anger. It’s when things are beginning to boil that you have the opportunity to do it differently.
Take a time out – let the other person or people know that you need to take a break for yourself. (Let’s assume for the moment that they are okay with this – dealing with people who try to draw you back in is another level of difficulty which we’ll address in a future post.) Don’t storm out of the room, don’t slam the door – just let them know you’ll be back in a few minutes and walk away calmly. Get a drink of water. Walk around the block. Take some deep breaths. And, most importantly, don’t think about the conflict.
Don’t figure out what you’re going to say next. Don’t stew over what a jerk your boyfriend/mother/manager is. Think about something else. Replay your favorite moments from the movie you saw last night. Think about the funny thing your kid did yesterday. Work on your plans for an enjoyable event you’ve got coming up. Anything that will help you get your mind off the current problem and calm down is good. Anything that keeps you focused on the conflict you’re walking away from is going to be unhelpful. The goal is to come back with your physiological state back in balance so you can work on the problem at hand without losing your cool.
The first principle of anger management is dealing with it before it bowls you over. In this post we’ve talked about what that looks like. Stay tuned for more helpful tips and tools you can use. And check out our group and individual anger management classes for more help!