How to Release Anger Before It Takes Hold of You
He made me angry.
He pushed my buttons, poked at my scars, and laughed at me from high above to get at me.
I couldn’t help it. He made me angry.
That was exactly what I told the therapist when I first sat down in her office.
Why was I there? Here’s the story:
The week before our meeting I had—in a moment of Godzilla-like rage, grabbed the bowl from the kitchen sink, and with as much force I could muster from my 5 foot 7 and 130-pound body— smashed it on the floor.
A bizarre sensation passed through my body like electricity—I felt like a total badass. But the feeling didn’t last long. I caught a glimpse of my boyfriend’s face—it had the same kind of half horrified, half hurt look Mom had in her eyes when Dad broke our things. His face made me turn away. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
If I keep going like this, instead of smashing the bowl on the floor, would I throw it at him the next time we got into a fight? Would I hit him? Or would I go even further? That was how it was with Dad.
I started to cry. Part of it was me feeling sorry for what I had done, but mostly because I was afraid. For most of my life, I hated when people told me I resembled my father, and yet there I was—becoming just like him.
I knew it was time for a change.
So I made a bold decision: I booked an appointment with a therapist.
But when I got there and found myself looking into the eyes of a mature, respectable and intellectual woman, my defensive instinct kicked in.
“People can be so nasty sometimes, they push you until you snap,” I said.
The therapist was patient enough to listen to me ramble on about how I was caught in a bad situation, and how if only my boyfriend did this and didn’t do that I wouldn’t react the way I did. I admit, a part of me wanted validation that there was nothing wrong with me. I wanted to hear it was the circumstance, the other person, or even on my bad childhood that drove me to act the way I did.
But over the course of the next few sessions, with the therapist’s well-timed and insightful questions and prompts, my initial defensiveness began to fade. As hard as it was, I began to realize the uncomfortable truth: nobody was making me angry.
In fact, nothing in this world had or has any real ability to make anybody feel angry. Not my boyfriend. Not the situation. And not even the scars of my childhood.
You, me, everyone—any time we feel the frown between our eyebrows, that heat crawling up our face, and the pressure in our chest like we’re about to burst—we’re the ones making ourselves angry.
I know what you must be thinking:
But what about the people who had lied right to our face, disrespected and bullied us? Surely they would have to take some blame in making us feel this way? After all, if they didn’t behave the way they did, we wouldn’t have gotten angry in the first place!
I agree it seems like there’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship between their actions and our reactions. A leads to B, right? But if you think about it, did these people actually force us to frown, curse, and feel that burning heat in our head? No, they could very well be deceitful, difficult, or downright evil, but they never coerced us into reacting the way we did.
We make the choice to respond with anger entirely on our own.
Who broke the bowl? I did. Did anyone take my hand and force me to smash that thing to pieces? No. I made the choice to be angry and I carried through with that choice all the way to the end. I had the option, at every step leading to that final dish-breaking scene, to let go of my anger and pick a different response, but I told myself I was not responsible for this feeling. And so I did nothing.
But once I realized I was solely responsible for my reaction, I started to accept there were things I could do to help me respond in a healthier, more productive way.
The first thing I learned was how to recognize the physical signs of anger.
You ever find yourself, after you’ve calmed down from a sudden bout of anger, scratch your head and wonder how you got so mad? That’s because when we’re angry, our brain is on fire with stress hormones that suppress our logic and judgment. We lose awareness of ourselves, our thoughts, our words, and actions.
The key to diminishing that “what just happened” confusion is to recognize the physical signs of anger early on and stay aware of how you feel the whole time.
Common physical signs of anger include:
- chest tightness
- shortness of breath
- hot sensation in the head
- clenched jaws
- increased heart rate
- upset stomach
Now whenever I notice any of these signs I would make a mental note that I was starting to feel angry. This simple act of acknowledging the presence of anger helps me stay conscious of my words and actions.
Recognize these physical signs of anger can help us stay calm in a stressful situation.
Next, I practiced different ways of releasing anger before it builds up.
Before I say or do anything else, I make sure I take some deep breaths and count to 10 (sometimes 60 depending on how intense the physical symptoms are). This practice helps me think more clearly. It also buys some time for anger-inducing chemicals in my brain to cool down.
If this strategy doesn’t work, I would try to remove myself from the situation before I say or do something I might regret. Often I’d go somewhere quiet and practice one of these instant relaxation techniques.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with walking away from a highly stressful environment until you’re more prepared to handle it calmly.
And finally, I learned how to recognize my “anger triggers” and planned my responses in advance.
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert believes the ability to imagine future events before they happen is the greatest thing that separates humans from other animals. And we can use that ability to our advantage when it comes to managing anger response.
When I became more aware of the physical symptoms of anger, I also learned to identify when I’m more likely to experience these symptoms. I developed a better understanding of my “anger triggers” and started planning my responses ahead of time. This simple exercise proved to be super effective. Now I rehearse my reactions ahead of time, especially when I know I’m going to have a difficult conversation with someone or about to experience a stressful period at work.
Why is this exercise effective?
It helps you think about possible trigger scenarios and plan out responses at a time when you’re thinking calmly and clearly. It reduces the number of decisions you have to make when the anger trigger occurs. You know what it’s like to make decisions when emotions get in the way, so the fewer decisions you have to make at that time, the better!
Don’t expect it to be a foolproof method. You can never anticipate every situation with 100% accuracy, but it helps to have a plan. This way, you’re not flying completely by the seat of your pants and praying you won’t lose your cool.
I’m happy to report I haven’t broken another bowl or anything else since I started applying these strategies. But I couldn’t have done any this without first admitting that I was responsible for making me angry.
So ask yourself this the next time you feel the heat of anger:
Who’s really making you angry?