Many of us are afraid of our anger, so we shove it down. We may worry that if we express it, we’ll do damage to ourselves or others, said Selena C. Snow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anger management in Rockville, Md.
We may say or do things at home or at work that we regret or will trigger negative consequences, she said.
Society also plays a role in shaping our fear or mistrust of anger. “There are a lot of societal messages that anger is not an acceptable emotion and that it must be repressed.” Girls and women, in particular, are taught that anger isn’t lady-like or attractive, she said.
But anger is actually a valuable emotion. “Anger is an excellent messenger to let us know that there is a problem and we are not pleased with a situation. It can bring our attention to something that we might otherwise gloss over and not address.”
Anger, like all emotions, lies on a continuum. When the pendulum swings too far, Snow said, it becomes problematic — just like other emotions, such as fear.
Repressing anger negatively affects our health. It’s been linked to everything from peptic ulcers to migraines to hypertension to chronic pain, Snow said.
The good news is that you can unlearn unhealthy habits around anger and learn healthy coping strategies. Therapy can help.
Below, Snow shared her tips for expressing anger healthfully without letting it consume you or hurt anyone else.
1. Explore your beliefs about anger.
What thoughts do you have about expressing your feelings to others? Examine these thoughts by looking to past data, Snow said. Your thoughts might not be accurate.
For instance, let’s say you’re afraid that expressing your anger will lead to a big fight with your spouse. Snow suggested considering these questions:
“Is it true that whenever you express your feelings that this leads to a fight? How do you know with certainty that it will lead to a fight? What alternative outcomes might be possible? Has there ever been an instance where you did express your feelings and nothing bad happened?”
2. Keep an anger log.
One of the most important areas Snow works on with her clients is recognizing their emotional state so they can catch themselves while their anger is still relatively small and manageable. “It is easier to put out a small kitchen fire than to put out a five-alarm blaze,” she explained.
Many people tell Snow that their anger instantly accelerates from zero to 60. But what really happens is that these individuals simply miss the early signs of their anger when it’s milder, she said.
So the key is to figure out these early signs, which will be different for each individual. “Keeping an anger log helps you learn to self-monitor and better recognize what you may be thinking, doing or feeling in your body when you are angry.”
According to Snow, your anger log includes these different columns:
- The date and time of the event.
- A brief description of the event (“this person was criticizing me”).
- Your thoughts (“they must think I’m stupid or incompetent”).
- Your feelings (“anger, shame, embarrassment”).
- The intensity of your feelings (from 1 to 10).
- Your anger cues: the behavioral cues (“made fist, stomped out of the room”); physiological cues (“heart pounded, palms sweating”); and cognitive cues (“thoughts of punching someone”).
“As you write down what you notice during each anger event, you can start to watch out for those sensations or thoughts or behaviors and learn to recognize them when they are just starting.”
And once you know your patterns, you can manage your anger in its earlier stages, Snow said.
3. Learn to be assertive.
Assertiveness training contributes to healthy communication, which opens the door to a resolution, Snow said. When she’s teaching clients assertiveness training, she focuses on helping them understand the vital differences among being assertive, aggressive and passive.
“Being aggressive means attempting to meet your needs at the expense of others. [Being] passive means attempting to meet the needs of others at the expense of your own needs. However, being assertive means attempting to meet your needs while being respectful of the needs of others.”
Another key strategy, she said, is to be mindful of the way you approach someone when you’re angry. When we approach others harshly, they’re less likely to “take in what we are actually trying to communicate to them.”
“In contrast, when people are taught to approach others in a more gentle way, the listener can more readily hear and accept what the speaker is saying and then they can attempt to solve the problem together.”
For instance, try to speak calmly. It not only helps the other person to be receptive, it also helps you be less angry and “to experience less negative physiological correlates of anger than when they speak in a loud and rapid, angry voice.”