Nine tips to manage anger

My last column explored the issue of anger – the different ways anger is manifested, the various factors that drive it, and the negative consequences associated with anger problems. This week, let’s look at specific steps on how to better manage your anger.

  • Identify triggers: To manage anger, it's important to identify what triggers it. Create a list of situations that often set you off, such as being stuck in traffic, being late for an appointment, or someone leaving a mess. Try to figure out what makes you angry and why. Some triggers may be avoidable, but it's more important to focus on how you respond. 
  • Identify physical warning signs: Make a list of physical warning signs you experience when getting angry, such as chest tightness, sweating, tense muscles, and racing heart. Being aware of these warning signs can help you intervene earlier and implement coping strategies.
  • Time out: When you feel yourself getting angry, take a time out. Take a deep breath, count to 10 and step away from the situation for a bit to cool down. Pause and reflect on what's causing the anger. It's okay to acknowledge a valid reason for feeling angry, but it's important to identify the source so the anger doesn't escalate beyond reason or be directed towards the wrong person (for example, getting upset at family for a work-related issue).
  • Avoid venting: People sometimes think it’s good to get the anger out of their system by “letting it all out”, but that’s untrue. Research confirms venting makes people more angry, not less. 
Angry woman shouting.
Research confirms venting makes people more angry, not less.
  • Practice assertiveness: Venting may be unwise, but so is repressing your anger. People who bottle things up sometimes end up acting in a passive-aggressive way, indicating their annoyance to others without telling them why. You may need to learn to be more assertive, to express your needs and feelings in a confident but respectful way. Being assertive can help manage anger as it allows you to communicate your thoughts and feelings effectively, reducing the likelihood of anger-provoking situations. It’s important to practice assertiveness in a calm, controlled manner. 
  • Identify negative thought patterns: recognize the thought patterns that often accompany anger, such as "I'm always treated unfairly" or "Nothing ever goes my way." Be watchful of words like “always” and “never”, which are indicative of an unhelpful, black-and-white thinking style. Write your thoughts down and challenge them by considering alternative explanations for the situation. In CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), this is known as cognitive restructuring – essentially, changing the way you think. Aim to develop a balanced outlook, one that encourages you to examine the evidence for your thoughts and beliefs and to challenge negative thoughts about yourself, others and the world.
  • Don’t mistake cognitive restructuring for unrealistic positive thinking. The thoughts informing your anger may be completely accurate; maybe you have very good reasons to be angry. Similarly, if you are a parent of an angry teenager, don’t automatically view any anger outbursts as unacceptable. Talk to them about what is really bothering them. If they are willing to talk, don’t judge or correct them – listen and hear them out.
  • Coping statements: As already mentioned, the way you think impacts your emotions, so if you concentrate on negative thoughts like "this isn't fair," it will prolong your anger. To counteract this, make a list of more balanced statements you can say to yourself before, during, and after challenging situations. For example: 

Before: I am capable of handling this, I can manage my anger and take a break if needed. 

During: Keep breathing and remain calm. No need to take it personally. I've got this. 

After: I handled the situation well. Despite feeling angry, I kept my voice down and I got a better outcome.

  • Build a higher tolerance for frustration: Often, life isn’t fair. Nor is it easy – we all have to deal with daily frustrations. Anger is often seen in people with a low tolerance for frustration, so aim to develop a more accepting outlook. A simple but useful therapeutic sentiment to remember: "It is what it is. Not what it should be, not what it could be. It is what it is."

(First published in Southern Star on 16/3/2023)