How to Control Anger When You've Reached Your Boiling Point


By: Patti Muck

You're a mild-mannered, calm person on your way to work. In a good mood. Within minutes of merging onto the freeway, a reckless speeding driver cuts you off, blares his horn and gives you the finger.

Suddenly, you don't recognize yourself.

Your fury is fueled by righteous indignation. You honk back long and loud, veins popping out on your neck as your entire body tenses for danger. You speed up and tailgate the aggressive driver.

Stop. Just stop.

Anger has taken control. Before you become the next road rage statistic, think about how you can better adapt to these intense feelings.

Being human means experiencing anger
No matter what causes it, anger is a universal human emotion, one of our core feelings, and it is often evoked when we perceive a violation of our human dignity, says Dr. William Orme, a psychologist at Houston Methodist.

"People respond to anger in very different ways based on how they were brought up, their social learning history, their relationships, how people respond to them, Dr. Orme explains. "And to some degree, it is often based on perception."

"The key is, how do we respond?" That's something we can learn to control, says Dr. Orme.

Where are you on the anger continuum?
Anger operates on a continuum. On the lower end, that can mean mild frustration, feeling bugged, ticked off. On the extreme end, it can mean uncontrolled rage.

"You may have grown up in a family where you were taught it's bad to be angry, that you should improve your attitude," explains Dr. Orme. So you hold in your anger and let it simmer, like a bubbling stew of feelings. Or perhaps you grew up around destructive anger, where those you learned from had short fuses and reacted immediately, impulsively, sometimes with physical violence.

"We learn a lot through modeling from our parents or from seeing people around us and how they deal with anger," Dr. Orme says.

Our own bodies are no help. Anger stimulates us to physically prepare for battle, because it's now on high alert for danger. Anger makes our blood boil, our hearts pound and our blood pressure soar. The thinking brain can shut down.

"Strong emotion unseats the capacity for reasoning," says Dr. Orme.

It often takes very little to light the anger fuse:

  • A loved one says something we find insensitive, offensive or hurtful.
  • We get critical feedback.
  • A friend fails to respond to our text immediately.
  • We get interrupted in the middle of a sentence.
  • Someone invades our personal space.

There are as many reactions to and perceptions of these perceived slights as there are people. What one person successfully forgets instantly, another person chews on for hours, days.

At some point on the continuum, says Dr. Orme, we should check in with ourselves and find out what's happening. "Is this emotion signaling me to take some sort of action?" he asks. "We can be thoughtful about these experiences upstream before they build."

Adaptive strategies for controlling anger
Whether we're suppressive or reactive with our anger, just recognizing where we stand offers us a chance to pause, think about what we're feeling and pay attention to our body's signals.

"We can create a space between anger and reaction and not impulsively act out," says Dr. Orme.

But how do we stop a runaway train? The best strategy is to hit the pause button,

  • Take some deep breaths; count to 10; breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.
  • Distract yourself – drink a glass of water or make a cup of tea; write out a shopping list; water your plants; take a walk; if driving, slow down; do something that calms the initial emotional arousal.
  • Visualize your anger being secretly videotaped – how bad might that be to watch?

"If we can pause, then we can get our wits about us," explains Dr. Orme. "And then we can think."

This doesn't mean pushing the anger aside or dismissing it. Acknowledging anger is the first step to dealing with it, he explains. Reactive anger can result in the person feeling ashamed of themselves or feeling guilty for being at the mercy of their emotions.

"They may start to avoid situations that can set them off, and they can become more isolated and disconnected from meaningful life pursuits," says Dr. Orme.

On the other hand, there are those who don't have awareness of their own emotions and hold in their anger, setting themselves up for anxiety, even depression.

"That person needs to feel permission to have the emotion and avoid being walked on or taken advantage of," Dr. Orme says. They need to validate their emotion and decide how to deal with it.

When to know that you might need help with anger
Sometimes talking to a good friend or trusted family member can help us move forward from an angry episode in our life. Questions like these might help you put your anger in perspective.

  • "Hey, what would you do in this situation?"
  • "Am I overreacting here or taking this out of context?"
  • "Should I apologize, or should she?"

"Opening your mind to another person's perspective can be very helpful," Dr. Orme advises.

Sometimes, however, anger needs outside counseling. If you constantly lash out at those you love, anger can permanently damage your relationships. They become harder and harder to repair.

"If anger is costing them friends and diminishing the bonds they have with their family, that would be a good time to seek help," advises Dr. Orme.

Similarly, if unresolved or explosive anger leads a person to coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol, that's another time to seek professional help.

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