We all get angry, but we don’t have to let our anger control us
By Wendy Haaf
In a social media group this past July, a colleague posted, “Is anyone else feeling ‘ragey’ lately?” Almost as if in answer, an August blog post on the Psychology Today website began with the words, “Everything and everyone is getting on my nerves.”
While we all feel angry from time to time, with the ongoing uncertainty and upheaval COVID-19 has brought into our lives, even the most even-tempered among us may be finding emotions reaching the boiling point more often, without us necessarily understanding why. Our changed circumstances may also mean that we have less access to some types of restorative self-care that would normally help us keep our cool, such as going to the gym, getting a massage, or going out for dinner with friends. It would seem, then, that now is a good time to explore what can cause anger, and how to manage this emotion in a healthy way.
Anger as a Response
“On a physiological level, anger is an adaptive response,” explains Laura Devlin, a therapist with Beaches Therapy Group (beachestherapy.ca) in Toronto. “Your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure goes up,” and your muscles tense. This happens when our fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system is activated, not only alerting us to a threat, but also preparing our body to respond to it.
In modern life, however, that threat isn’t often physical. “A healthy amount of anger allows you to notice that a boundary has been crossed, or that you’re being blocked in moving towards a goal,” Devlin says.
“If somebody tells me he or she never gets angry, I think, That’s too bad, because people are probably walking all over you,” says Alistair Moes, a counsellor specializing in anger management and the owner of Moose Anger Management in Vancouver. “Anger can be very motivating—it helps people speak up in a relationship or in the workplace.” Every big change in history has been fuelled at least in part by anger, he says.
Yet, sometimes, anger comes from somewhere else entirely.
“Often, it’s secondary in response to another feeling,” explains Dr. Mamta Gautam, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Ottawa and a psychiatrist with the psychological oncology program at The Ottawa Hospital. Some of the suspects are embarrassment, grief, anxiety, fear, and a feeling of powerlessness. For example, Gautam says, “When we lose our child in the shopping mall and then we get angry when we see them, it’s not that we’re angry; we were afraid.”
Arguably, this type of secondary anger response may happen more often to men than to women, since in our society, “as boys, we grow up learning that we’re not really supposed to show the range of emotions—except for anger,” Moes says, while girls have historically been socialized to see expressing anger as unacceptable.
Especially relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, anger can also stem from feelings of loss. “This time last year, we could plan, we could go to bed and wake up and expect things to be the same,” Gautam says. “We’ve lost that sort of certainty; we’ve lost the ability to be in control of some things. Some people have lost a job; some have lost the way they used to work; some have lost income.” Other casualties have included a sense of security and of connection.
“As we start to recognize and process some of that grief, then we can accept and integrate it into our lives,” Gautam says. But right now, since each day seems to bring yet another new change and since every time we don a mask or physically distance from other customers at the grocery store, “it’s another reminder of this loss,” Gautam says.
Part of managing anger is being able to step back for a moment and recognize what we’re feeling before just lashing out.
“The idea is to become responsive and not reactive,” Devlin says. That starts with tuning in to your body to detect the physical clues specific to you that indicate your emotional temperature is beginning to rise. That clue might be a sudden sensation of heat, a tightness in your stomach, or a change in your breathing. Just realizing what’s happening can give you a chance to pause before you speak or act, and to engage the reasoning part of your brain. A method that one of Moes’s former clients found helpful for short-circuiting his anger reaction at this point was to stop and ask himself how much this specific scenario was going to matter to him in a day, week, or decade, based on a one-to-10 scale. “By so doing, he said, ‘I simply wiped out 85 per cent of my freak-outs,’” Moes recalls.
Of course, that won’t necessarily make your frustration, annoyance, or indignation magically evaporate. What it can do is let you name it and understand where it’s coming from, and then allow yourself to feel it while expressing it in a safe way. Gautam suggests doing so by writing, drawing, colouring, and perhaps asking yourself if your anger has a shape or colour. Gautam dubs this “allowing” your feelings, the first in what she calls her “ABC” approach to managing anger. (Note that Gautam’s approach is separate from the standard ABC model of coping with negative emotions, coined in the 1950s by famed US psychologist Albert Ellis and used for decades in cognitive behavioural therapy.)
“As we go through that, there are some good studies in psychiatry that show that about 20 minutes of solidly focusing on anger allows us to express it enough so that we can start getting a bit calmer and gain a sense of perspective, and then process our anger in a healthy way,” Gautam explains.
If your wrath is focused on a particular person, Gautam recommends a related approach: writing him or her a letter that you will never send. “Just pour your feelings out—don’t worry about spelling or punctuation,” she says. She encourages people to visualize the angry thoughts flowing from their heads down to their fingertips and then pouring out onto the paper or onto the computer screen via their writing. When you’re done, delete the message or rip up the paper, and imagine you’re throwing those feelings away. If necessary, repeat this process two or three more times. Afterwards, “we’re often a lot calmer, and if the points are still relevant, we’re much more likely to address them in a productive way,” Gautam says.
Hand in hand with “A” for “Acceptance” goes “B” for “Burn it off.” To help some of the physical agitation or energy that accompanies infuriation to dissipate, “find something physical to do,” Gautam advises. “Go for a walk, clean your house, dance around, do some gardening, or do some exercise.”
With A and B out of the way, you’re ready for step C (for “Calm”), which is to use a grounding technique to help calm yourself. You may have to experiment to find one that feels right. Possibilities include focusing on each of your senses in turn (find five things you can see, four you can hear, etc.); engaging in guided visualization or meditation (you can find many free resources online, including via YouTube); “box breathing” (counting to four during each of four steps: inhale, hold, exhale, hold); and deep belly-breathing (slowly inhale, inflating your abdomen like a balloon, then similarly draw out your exhalation and deflate).
“Just doing a few deep, conscious belly breaths can flip the switch, so to speak, in the nervous system,” Devlin explains, diminishing the fight-or-flight response. “These various grounding techniques bring you down again.” In addition, these exercises are all ways “of bringing our thoughts into the here and now, and focusing on the present without any judgment,” Gautam says.
The key to the success of any of these techniques is regular practice. Gautam draws a musical analogy: in the months leading up to a concert, you repeatedly practise the piece on your instrument alone and with the orchestra, so that on the big night, you can perform effortlessly.
If you find yourself chronically angry, there are a few other things you can try. One is to ask yourself if you’re interpreting neutral situations in a hostile or negative way, since “our thoughts can be perpetuators of anger,” Devlin explains. She gives the example of two different possible thought patterns when faced with a new recommendation from scientists for preventing the spread of COVID-19 or when encountering someone who’s not adhering to such guidelines.
“If you think, People are incompetent!, you could be filled with rage,” Devlin says. “Whereas if you tell yourself, This is a really hard situation and nobody knows exactly how to respond, you can change the way you feel using that more neutral interpretation.”
You can also check for evidence of whether what you’re thinking is, in fact, true. For instance, if a friend hasn’t called in ages, maybe it’s not because she no longer cares about you. Chances are there’s some other reason—perhaps her partner is ill and she hasn’t had a spare moment. “Paying attention to the types of thoughts you’re having when you’re triggered, and then perhaps writing them down or going over them with a therapist, trying to balance them to become more rational or reasonable,” can be helpful, Devlin says.
Keeping a journal can be useful for getting to the root of where anger is coming from—of what’s really bothering you. “We always encourage people to journal and self-reflect,” Moes says.
If you’re feeling chronically irritated or frustrated, Devlin suggests that you ask yourself whether there’s been a recent change or transition of some kind in your life. “Are there new stressors that are adding pressure to the system and may be making your more reactive? Do you need time away? Are there some things that need to shift?” Devlin also suggests that, as you write, you try this mental rewind: Think back to what was happening before your last outburst. “For example, ask yourself, Was it what the guy said to me at the golf course? Why did that make me angry? Was it because it reminded me that I got fired?” Devlin says.
According to Moes, your more distant past often factors into the equation, too. Sure, something that’s currently happening in your life is playing a role, but frequently, “there’s also a connection with history—with being a kid growing up, or even with an event that occurred when your parents were growing up. Most of us have some sort of trauma in our history. Maybe there’s fear because, for example, ‘My dad did this or my mom did that.’ Or, ‘One scared me and one didn’t protect me.’”
Blow-ups can result, Moes says, when, thanks to some aspect of your past, you react to a situation by morphing into your inner tantrum-throwing toddler. Say a family member does something that jabs an old hurt. “All of a sudden, it feels like the end of the world, and this survival response takes over,” Moes says. “Then we lose connection with our intelligence, we lose connection with our heart, and we end up saying and doing things we later feel ashamed of, embarrassed by, awful about.” Similarly, if you continually suppress anger, it may eventually erupt in a fiery burst.
We may also need to break old patterns we learned as children. “For many of us, it didn’t feel safe to speak up about emotions as a kid,” Moes says. Many people he sees lacked good role models for expressing emotions in a healthy way, he adds, since their parents, “either put on a smile when things were far from healthy or were passive, or reacted with aggression, manipulation, passive-aggressive sarcasm, or avoidance.”
One of the things a therapist can do is to help you unlearn these long-ago lessons. Another is to help you become more compassionate with yourself and look at your anger in a new light.
“Anger isn’t bad,” Devlin stresses. “Emotion is information, and if we ignore or suppress it, we lose that information. But if we allow it to take over our lives, there can be negative consequences.”
Learning to explore that data with curiosity and without judgment, on the other hand, can lead to growth, and to better relationships. Managing anger, Moes says, isn’t about passivity, but rather is part of a lifelong process of “stepping into who we are—being more of ourselves.”