Dos and Don’ts for Dealing with Anger

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Irritability and depression

Anger happens, it’s just part of life. But if you have depression you can add anger to the list (along with sadness, fearfulness, trouble sleeping, and changes in appetite) of common depression symptoms.

“If you find you’re very short-tempered, irritable, grouchy, your fuse is short, it could be related to depression,” says Carol A. Bernstein, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City.

Depression treatment may lessen anger. But there are things you can do to blunt the effects of this intense and sometimes dangerous feeling.


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Do count to 10 (or 100)

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “When angry, count 10, before you speak; if very angry, 100.”

“Angry people are highly aroused and when people get aroused, they do and say things they later regret,” says Brad Bushman, PhD, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Counting (slowly) to whatever number seems appropriate gives your blood pressure and heart rate a chance to return to normal. “As time passes, arousal diminishes,” says Bushman.



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Do forgive

Even if you don’t ultimately forget the incident, forgiving a person who has provoked you is an excellent way to subdue anger, says Bushman. Forgiveness can help you stop ruminating, which is when negative thoughts play over and over in your head like some horrible movie scene.

“Angry people can’t stop thinking about what made them angry. It’s that rumination that seems to be destructive,” he adds. “This doesn’t mean that you conclude that what another person did to you is okay. It just means that you’re not going to hold that against them and you’re not going to let it consume your life.”


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Do distract yourself

Another way to dial it down is with distraction. Katherine Kueny, PhD, director of behavioral medicine in the department of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, tells people to place themselves on an emotional scale of 1-to-10 with 10 being the most angry.

“When the scale is at 5-to-10, I tell people to do something that will bring the emotions down before you interact or try to problem solve,” she says.

This could be drawing, cooking, taking a walk or finishing a Sudoku puzzle or crossword puzzle.


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Do take a deep breath

Taking deep breaths is one good way to calm yourself when you’re in the throes of anger. “Slow breaths will slow the heart rate down,” says Kueny.

The American Psychological Association recommends taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, not shallow ones from the chest. But listening to calming music and muscle relaxation exercises may also help, says Bushman.

Some people have found help in yoga, which also emphasizes breathing.


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Don’t deny that you’re angry

People who are able to see their anger as anger are less likely to resort to aggression or violence, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Emotion. “People who are better at categorizing their emotions into specific categories are more in tune with their emotions,” says Ricky Pond, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the University of Kentucky.

“They think more deeply about their emotional experiences and are more sensitive to the causes and potential consequences of their emotions. Thus, when angry, they are quicker to cope effectively with negative emotions and distract themselves less with inefficient coping strategies, such as venting, binge drinking, substance abuse.”



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Do write about it

“Writing or journaling allows you to slow down and think through how you want to respond so you’re responding rather than reacting,” says Kueny.

What’s the difference? “Reacting is based on emotions. It’s almost automatic. Our emotions feel very real but they’re not always rationale,” she says. “When we respond we’re choosing how to respond. We’re cognitively thinking through what we want to have happen and what is the best way to make that happen.”


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Don’t stomp or storm

Instead of storming into a room and screaming that your partner isn’t paying enough attention to you, write about it or employ some other anger-dissipating trick. After you’re feeling calmer, walk into the room and say you’ve missed him or her and suggest an activity you can do together.

“A rationale response is more likely to get the desired outcome,” says Kueny.



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Do exercise

Aerobic exercise, including brisk walking or jogging, can be a great way to handle anger.

“You experience the same physiological sensations as when you’re angry—adrenaline pumping, sweating, breathing heavily—but at least you have an outlet for it and it’s a way of labeling those bodily sensations in a way that’s not tied to anger,” says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania and author of How To Tame Your Inner Brat.

“You have en explanation: I’m all pumped up because I’m running.” Exercise also releases endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that help us soothe ourselves and manage our emotions, adds Kueny.


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Do practice compassion

Doing something compassionate for someone else is incompatible with anger and aggression.

“It’s hard to feel angry and compassionate at the same time,” Bushman says. So it’s OK to do something nice for someone who’s making you mad. Research indicates that compassion may also dissipate the other person’s anger.

A recent study found that responding supportively to a colleague’s anger by talking to him or her rather than writing them up or putting them on probation was more likely to resolve a tense situation.



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Don’t send email when you’re angry

Never, ever send an email when you are really upset, says Dr. Bernstein.

If you’re really burning to say something, write it out and put it in your draft box for 24 hours before deciding to send it.

This gives you time to devise a sane and rational response to the situation. And don’t be afraid to tell the person who has aggrieved you that you need a day or two to think about the issue.


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Do try to be grateful

A body of research is emerging to show that the simple act of being grateful can make us happy and happy, of course, is about as far as you can get from angry.

You don’t necessarily have to be grateful to the person who wronged you, but you could be grateful for other things in your life, big and small.

An ongoing practice of gratitude, say researchers at the University of California, Davis, can even improve your health.



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Do talk, but not right away

Gauge how intense your anger is on a scale of 1-to-10 before making a decision to open your mouth about it. If you talk when you’re still red hot, you’re more likely to get into an argument.

“You really should not communicate when you are very angry,” says Kueny. “You should wait to cool off.”

When you think your anger is manageable and you can effectively express it without being destructive and causing other problems, this is the time to open up the discussion, she says.


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Do consider prayer

It’s not for everyone, but a set of three experiments found that people who prayed for another person, be it a stranger, someone who had angered them, or a friend in need, had less anger.

This was true regardless of the person’s religion or how observant they were. To some degree, prayer seems to distract from angry thoughts. “We have some evidence that when people pray they tend to give others the benefit of the doubt,” says Bushman, which may dispel negative feelings.

If prayer is not your thing, spend a few minutes thinking about the target of your anger and see if you can give them the benefit of the doubt.

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