All You Ever Wanted to Know About Anger Management
John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
Anger comes from the Latin word, angere, which means “to strangle.” Anger strangles us on a number of different levels. Anger is the emotion which is probably the most familiar to the majority of us. Too much anger is toxic. Anger and hostility result in dis-ease of all types. It is physically arousing and has damaging physiological correlates, such as increased heart rate, more cortisol (a stress hormone) dumped into your system, muscle tension, headaches, decreased mental clarity and clogged arteries.
What is Anger Management?
Anger management is the process by which people learn tools to turn down the volume on their anger, irritability and frustration. Anger management can be done in person, one-on-one, via online classes, in small groups and/or using the latest in scientifically proven exercises. One of the most effective combinations, in my experience, is the combination of online anger management videos along with the latest proven anger management exercises.
Anger is a normal healthy human emotion – most of the time. Anger signals the fact that something or someone has come between you and a desired goal of yours. Anger is a call to action. The goal may be as simple as trying to get home during rush hour. Yet, when another driver rudely cuts you off on the freeway, your anger rears its head before you have a chance to manage your anger.
The emotion anger is frequently confused with the actions you take while angry. This doesn’t happen with fear. You don’t confuse the emotion fear with the act of running away. However, anger is nearly always thought to be negative and destructive, despite the fact that anger itself is merely a feeling. Anger, in and of itself, if not acted upon, is instructive, not destructive. Anger can be a good thing. However, for anger to be positive, you must first learn to manage your emotions. Then you have a choice as to how to respond to anger’s signal.
The Four Types of Anger
To alleviate some of this confusion around anger, allow me to better acquaint you with the various types of anger. There are at least four types of anger of which we know: anger directed at self, anger directed at others, disappointment, and constructive anger.
1. Anger at Self
The first type is anger directed inwardly at oneself. The anger sits inside and burns and festers. After enough anger has been turned inward, it eventually leads to inappropriate angry outbursts at undeserving and unsuspecting people. Studies show that most people turn 90% of their anger inwards at themselves. Most of this anger is an attempt to control and contain the frightening emotion of anger. Anger can lead us to rage-filled, uncontrollable behaviors. Rather than feel the anger, honoring the feeling, and releasing it, most of us bottle it up. This stuffed anger is toxic and leads to all sorts of negative health outcomes. It also leads to displaced anger where you get angry with the wrong person, at the wrong time, and to the wrong degree.
2. Anger at Other People
A second type of anger is directed outward. This type of anger builds upon itself and can frequently lead to rage. This form of outward-directed anger is typically displaced onto the wrong person, at the wrong time and in the wrong manner.
Both of the first two types of anger are destructive. Destructive anger includes anger that is directed inward and never released and anger that is inappropriately directed outward at others. Anger directed at others may be inappropriate in terms of its target (Are you directing your anger at the right person?), its intensity (Is the degree of anger in keeping with the offense?), its timing (Is this the best time to make your anger known?), and the manner in which it is communicated (Is this the best way to communicate my anger?).
The third type of anger exists in tandem with sadness and most closely resembles disappointment. Disappointment usually involves a judgment that has not been met. Judgments cause trouble for everyone. Judgments usually involve an element of moral superiority, as if you know what is best for someone else. Stay away from judgments.
4. Constructive Anger
The final type of anger is the type used as a positive motivator to act to remove an obstacle that is preventing you from reaching a goal. This type of anger can be a constructive anger, that is, an anger that is quickly released and prompts you to act in a positive manner to remove the obstacle from your path.
Constructive anger actually provides you with a persistent attitude which enables you to push forward to solve a given problem. These four types of anger have been demonstrated via several methods – reports from subjects in scientific studies, physiological evidence, and behavioral data.
When increasing your anger management skills, part of the task is to learn the variety of subtle emotional differences within one family of emotion. The better equipped we are to make subtle differentiations within an emotion, such as anger, the better able you are to share with others the degree of feeling you are currently experiencing. With that in mind, let us turn to the bodily cues that anger provides us.
Physiological Cues of Anger to Inform Anger Management
In order to stop the cycle of anger, you have to tune in to the early warning signs. So pay attention! When you begin to feel angry, blood flows to your hands and feet, making it easier to strike at your perceived enemy, your heart rate increases, a rush of adrenaline kicks in and your body prepares for forceful action. Anger causes a surge of chemicals (catecholamines) which creates a quick, one-time rush of energy to allow for one brief shot at physical action. Meanwhile, in the background, another batch of chemicals, including cortisol, is released through the adrenocortical branch into the nervous system that creates a backdrop of physical readiness. This angry undertone lasts much longer than the initial one-time surge and can last for days. This undertone keeps the brain in a special state of overarousal building a foundation on which reactions can occur with great speed.
Compassion as the Key to Anger Management
If you want to reduce your anger, think of the universe as compassionate and nurturing. As such it is designed to reward compassionate, nurturing behaviors in individuals. Compassion transcends both natural human sympathy and normal Christian concern, enabling one to sense in others a wide range of emotions and then provide a supportive foundation of caring. Compassion occurs when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it. Compassion is empathy, not sympathy. It is the identification with and the understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. This ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes serves as the perfect antidote to anger in which one perceives an obstruction to one’s goals.
The goal is to understand the situation from the perspective of the other person. Often this involves interpreting the situation with a large degree of grace. For example, I am driving 75 miles per hour in the fast lane. A car comes up behind me doing 100 mph. The driver comes inches from my rear bumper in a desperate attempt to get me to move aside. At this point, my old interpretation was “That idiot! What does he think he’s doing? I’m going 75! I’ll show him.” And then I let off the gas to slow down ever so slightly. My interpretation now is “He’s probably trying to get to the emergency room. Perhaps there has been an accident.” And I change lanes and let him by. No anger.
Steps to Managing Anger
The first step to anger management is to become aware when you are feeling angry. The sooner you can identify the anger, the quicker you can take steps to honor it and release it. The trick is to interrupt the process of anger before it gets explosively out of hand. As soon as you feel yourself getting irritated, take a quick three-minute break and breathe deeply. When you get angry, your heart rate goes up. Breathing returns your heart rate and your emotional state to normal. This way, you are less likely to erupt in rage.
Ideally, anger is dealt with in the moment. You begin to get angry. You recognize your anger, label it and honor it. Tell yourself,
“Okay, I’m feeling angry right now. That’s okay. Breathe deeply. There is no reason to hold on to my anger. I am letting my anger pass through me.”
You breathe the anger out. If you can address your grievance with the other party, do so. Listen calmly to the other individual’s side of the story. Work the misunderstanding through while letting go of your defensiveness. With practice, you can learn to stay calm, cool and collected in the midst of progressively difficult situations. Unfortunately, we can’t always catch anger in the moment. To help you catch anger quickly and reduce the damage, here is an exercise.
Anger Management Exercise
Anger Management Step 1
First, identify the cause of your anger as quickly as possible. The most destructive type of anger is uncontrolled, impulsive, and unconscious. It can hurt you and others. When anger takes over, slow down.
Remove yourself from the situation if possible. Identify the cause, but don’t react. When you are angry, it is smart to stop speaking. Silence is the number one behavior to practice when you’re mad. It shows you’re in control of your anger. You also buy time to cool yourself down, breathe, and think of possible strategies to deal with the situation at hand.
Anger Management Step 1.5
If your anger is too great, get up and leave the room. Go somewhere else to give you time to cool off. Think about your anger on a ten point scale, where 1 is calm and 10 is full of rage. If your anger goes over 5 on the scale below, remove yourself from the situation until you and the other person are back in control emotionally.
Anger Management Step 2
Second, allow yourself one to two days time to complain and vent your anger to others (who are not involved in the situation). Do not bury, suppress or stuff your anger. This will negatively impact your physical health. It also lends itself to the displacement of your anger onto other people who are not deserving of your wrath. Rather than repress your anger, honor it, label it, write it down in your journal, breathe it out, exercise, ponder on it, or discuss it with a coach or friend. This is helpful as it helps to dismantle the anger.
Anger Management Step 3
Third, after two days, make a conscious effort to release your anger. This means giving up on who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Releasing your anger is a process, not a singular event. Anger gradually recedes over time. Anger is toxic. You do not want to hold onto it. To release your anger, breathe deeply and visualize your anger leaving your body as smoke with each exhalation. Remind yourself to breathe deeply occasionally throughout the day. It is also helpful to write down all of your anger in your journal. While writing, focus on each of the five senses as well as your thoughts, feelings and actions. Another useful tool to get rid of anger is prayer. Consciously giving up your anger to the universe via prayer is an effective way to relieve yourself of burdensome negative emotional energy.
Anger Management Step 4
Fourth, share your anger with the offending party if you believe that by sharing your anger your differences can be resolved. If your sense is that, by sharing your feelings you can improve the situation, then calmly express your point of view while attempting to stick to objective facts and “I” statements. “I” statements are statements that focus on how it makes you feel when someone else behaves a certain way. For example, “It makes me angry when you show up late for dinner.” Your goal is to resolve the conflict. Your goal is not to make them pay for your suffering. Keep an open mind. Your statement may result in an apology from the offending party, a compromise, a negotiation, an agreement to disagree or nothing at all. Don’t get pulled into a power struggle. Remain centered. Breathe deeply. And stand firm in the knowledge that you have shared the truth as you see it.
If the offending party is unreceptive, vindictive or apathetic, it may not be useful or constructive to share your feelings and the reasons behind them. In this case, repeat the first three steps to diffuse your anger. Take steps to distance yourself from the offending party, particularly if he or she is constantly negative. To the extent possible, reduce contact with the individual.
Anger Management Step 5
Another key to controlling anger is to interrupt the thought process that fuels the anger in the first place. As mentioned previously, you can reframe the situation in a more positive, gracious light. This works well to defuse the anger cycle.
A powerful means to defuse anger is to distract yourself with something you find pleasant and enjoyable. It’s hard to be angry when you’re having a good time. Don’t continue to dwell on thoughts that make you sad or angry. That only prolongs the negative emotions, possibly stretching the negative emotion into a negative mood.
Breathe Deeply for Anger Management
Among its other meanings, inspiration also indicates to breathe in. Deep breathing is central to managing your emotional state because it both determines and is determined by your emotions. Learning how to breathe fully hands you the reins to tame your alligator. The art of breathing gives you the ability to infuse your self with inspiration.
The breath is the bridge which unites the mind, the body and the spirit. All three of these areas are closely related to your emotional state through your constant awareness of your breath. When all is said and done, you calm down your ‘gator (i.e., your emotions) by learning to control your body and your mind. Part of it is physical and part of it is mental.
The best place to begin is by learning to focus your attention on your breathing – throughout the day. The emphasis on proper breathing is found throughout our history in the ways of most spiritual traditions – Hinduism, Zen, Buddhism, and Christianity.
When you “watch” your breathing over several weeks time, you will begin to notice a critical pattern. Each negative emotion adversely affects how you breathe.
Anger, for instance, is marked by shallow inhalation and forced, inflated exhalation.
Extreme sadness, on the other hand, is reflected by sporadic and shallow inhalation and minimal and fragile exhalation.
Fear is characterized by minimal breathing all the way around. Fear is marked by holding your breath so the inhalation and exhalation is nearly non-existent.
As you become more aware of these patterns, you recognize them more quickly, and remind yourself to breathe deeply. The mere act of breathing like a baby, into your belly, ratchets down the intensity of the negative emotion.
Deep breathing is one of the more powerful ways to reconnect your body, mind and spirit especially when situations get emotional. Anytime a strong negative emotion arises, it is wise to remove yourself from the situation (if possible). Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. And then try the following breathing exercise.
Deep Breathing Exercise for Anger Management
Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. This might be a bedroom, a bathroom or a quiet office. Sit comfortably in a chair or lying down on a bed or the floor. If you are sitting, your spine should be straight up and down but not quite rigid.
Once you are comfortable, loosen your pants and belt if necessary. Then, raise your shoulders by tensing your muscles in the neck, shoulders and back. Tense and relax your shoulders 3 times to release the tension. Then just allow your shoulders to hang loosely.
Focus your attention on the weight of your shoulders.
Now close your mouth. Tuck your lightly into your chest. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly, deeply and completely into your abdomen, just short of any sense of uncomfortable pressure. As you inhale, pretend you are inflating your lungs like a balloon. Imagine a line just below your belly button. Breathe into this line so that your belly moves downward and slightly outward. If you place your hand on your stomach, you should be able to feel your stomach rise and fall (or go in and out if you are sitting) with each breath.
As you exhale, allow your belly to relax and return to its original position (back up and in). It’s important when doing deep breathing to focus on breathing out all the old, stale air in your lungs. As you exhale, tighten the muscles in your abdomen. Pull the muscles in your stomach towards your back, the spine. This will help you expel all the old toxic air from your lungs. This is critical because most of us walk around all day holding carbon dioxide (poison!) in 4/5th of our lungs. Carbon dioxide is toxic and needs to be expelled from the body so you can replace it with vital oxygen. Simply doing this one exercise for three minutes per day will lead to tremendous benefits in your life. This exercise will allow you to experience what it was like to breathe back when you were a baby. I call it belly breathing where you breathe into your belly normally, naturally and fully.
As belly breathing become second nature to you, you will begin to apply it to your daily life – work, home, parenting, and sports. Your breath will synchronize with the demands of the task you face. Eventually, you will come to understand that your breath inspires your body, filling you with graceful and easy movements. Just remember, whenever your heart rate jumps, whenever you feel tense, angry or scared, take one minute to relax and breathe deeply. You will feel the change in your mood within seconds. Awareness of your breath is one of the most powerful ways to manage the energy of your emotions, the death-rolling alligator.
Breathing Visualization for Anger Management
Here’s a powerful twist on the deep breathing exercise. Remember your brain is literal. It does not differentiate between what is “out there” and what goes on inside you (e.g., thoughts and feelings). Multiple brain scan studies have shown that the same areas in the brain activate whether you are looking at a baby or imagining a baby. This means that visualization, using your imagination, is an extremely powerful tool to help you manage your emotions and your life.
While doing your deep breathing, try this visualization exercise. Visualization is just a fancy way of saying use your imagination to envision something that helps calm you down and encourages positive emotions. For instance, while inhaling, picture a white light of serenity and calmness entering every cell of your body. As the white light enters your body, see it pushing the anger out of every pore of your skin. When exhaling, imagine your angry feelings, thoughts and tension leaving your body as a cloud of dark smoke.
The white light that you imagine inhaling can be anything you need at that moment: peace, relaxation, love, freedom from pain, healing, God’s love, energy, or whatever else you want to substitute in.
The black smoke that you “exhale” can be anything that you need to expel from your body: pain, anger, fear, sadness, doubt, intrusive thoughts, tension, fatigue, and more. Experiment with your own needs and find what works best for you. These breathing and visualization skills are universal, will benefit all aspects of your life and can be used to counter any and all negative emotions. The trick is remembering to breathe when you are smack in the middle of an emotional hijacking.
For more tips on how to manage anger, check out the website at www.GuideToSelf.com. You can also take a look at John’s award-winning positive psychology blog, Shrunken Mind at http://drjohnblog.guidetoself.com. He offers four free online anger management classes and a complete 10-week anger management course at his anger management blog, http://webangermanagement.com.
About anger management expert, John Schinnerer, Ph.D.
John Schinnerer, Ph.D. graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. He has 12 years experience in research and practice. His passion is creating new tools to help in the anger management process. He is an anger management expert creating cutting-edge, highly effective online anger management programs including anger management videos to help individuals turn down the volume on anger, irritability and depression.
John is the Founder of Guide To Self, a company dedicated to teaching critical anger management skills to people from all walks of life. He is an award-winning author, award-winning blogger (Shrunken Mind) and an nationally recognized mental health coach.