How to cope with anger – in yourself and those close to you

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Angry feelings are natural, but learning to manage them can help you avoid outbursts. Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi, offers her advice around dealing with anger, with both short and longer-term tips

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Quick facts

  • Research suggests it takes around 90 seconds for angry feelings to subside
  • Anger activates the fear centre in the brain, making it hard to think clearly
  • It may also mask feelings of disappointment or sadness
  • Being silent when you’re angry can become passive-aggression — being assertive instead is helpful

You don’t have to look far to see that anger is one of the prevailing emotions right now. With nearly a year of restrictions, lockdowns and negative news stories, the inevitable worry, anxiety, stress and frustration is causing more people to feel angry.

A recent UK study found that the coronavirus crisis has led to an increase in anger, arguments and confrontations. More than half of the population said they’ve felt angry with other people as a result of their behaviour in relation to the crisis.

Why do we get angry?

Feelings of anger can arise if you’re stressed, overwhelmed, fearful, under pressure, threatened, frustrated and powerless or when your expectations are not being met.

But anger also often masks other emotions like sadness or disappointment, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a ‘gateway’ emotion. ‘Anger can mask feelings you either don’t want to feel, don’t know how to deal with, or you’re not fully aware of,’ explains Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi.

There may be biological causes too, for example some people get angry when they’re hungry, have been drinking alcohol or haven’t had enough sleep.

What happens in the brain and body when we get angry?

Anger activates the amygdala (the part of the brain where you process emotions like anxiety, stress and fear) and this stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response. ‘When you’re in this state of “survival” mode your amygdala takes control or hijacks your brain,’ Gauffin explains. ‘There’s no time for calm, measured thought which makes it much harder to think clearly and easier to react impulsively.’

Is there such a thing as good and bad anger?

‘Anger isn’t always bad,’ says Gauffin. ‘It can be healthy, for example, if you feel your boundaries are being crossed, or someone is being abusive. Your anger alerts you that something isn’t right and can motivate you to take action or move on.’

Being silent when you’re angry isn’t always helpful though. ‘Passive aggression is where you sulk, stonewall, patronise, undermine, use sarcasm and evasion, instead of saying how you really feel, so it is still a form of anger.

‘Being assertive is the healthiest, most effective way of communicating your thoughts, feelings and needs,’ says Gauffin. That means feeling your anger, calming it down and responding when you feel ready.

What are the signs that my anger is a problem?

‘If anger is not addressed, it can have a negative impact on relationships, family, friends and work colleagues,’ says Gauffin.

Here are some of the signs that anger may be a problem, for you or someone close to you:

  • Not being able to express emotions in a calm and healthy way
  • Struggling to compromise without getting angry
  • Becoming angry or violent after drinking alcohol
  • Ignoring people or refusing to speak to them
  • Outward aggression — for example by shouting, swearing, being physically violent or threatening. Read more about the signs of emotional abuse
  • Turning aggression inwards – this can lead to depression, isolation and self-harm

Here are the red flag symptoms that show you, or your partner, needs to seek help for anger issues:

  • Blowing up over little things
  • Frequent outbursts of anger and rage that seem to spring from nowhere
  • Resorting to physical violence, intimidation and threats — this is never acceptable
  • Always blaming the other person
  • Not taking responsibility for your reactions
  • Breaking things
  • Anger has led to being arrested
  • Constant arguments with family and friends

7 ways to manage anger

If you have repeated anger problems, or someone close to you has, you might want to consider seeing a psychologist who can help you to manage your feelings in a healthier way, says Gauffin.

‘How we learn to cope with anger is often influenced by upbringing. If you grew up in a violent, aggressive environment, you’re more likely to react with anger in an inappropriate way,’ she says.

‘Or, alternatively, you may find anger so destructive that you avoid conflict and are afraid to acknowledge your own anger, because you associate anger with being out of control.

‘Likewise, if you were never allowed to show your feelings, you may have a tendency to suppress anger or turn it inwards. But this can turn into depression.’

Here are some suggestions for positive ways to deal with anger.

Long-term fixes:

1. Get to know your emotional patterns

‘A psychologist can help you recognise the signals of anger in your body and the behaviour patterns that you fall into whenever you feel angry,’ says Gauffin. ‘They can also help you to explore underlying emotions like sadness, low self-esteem, disappointment or frustration that may be fuelling your anger. This will help you to get to the root of your anger and learn more effective ways to express how you feel.’

2. Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

‘CBT techniques can help you change how you react to certain situations that trigger your anger,’ Gauffin asserts. ‘A psychologist can also help you develop a greater awareness of what your anger flash points are and what you can do to manage them in a calmer, more measured way.’

3. Learn to manage stress and anxiety better

‘Stress and anxiety can cause you to feel overwhelmed and this can exacerbate anger issues,’ says Gauffin. ‘Learning stress management techniques like focused breathing exercises, visualisation, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi, can give you tools to help you manage stress before it can overwhelm you.’ Read more about breathing exercises to help you manage stress.

Short-term fixes:

4. The 90-second anger fix

Next time you feel angry, count to 90 before you react. Neuroscience suggests that it takes 90 seconds for feelings of anger to subside. If you can remain calm during this time, the brain circuitry that anger stimulates settles down and this de-escalates your reaction. From that point, you’re better placed to respond calmly, rather than reacting without thinking it through.

5. Get to know your anger warning signs

Learn to recognise how anger feels in your body. So, you can take steps to manage anger and calm down before it gets out of control. This may include:

  • Knots in your stomach
  • Breathing faster
  • Clenching your hands or jaw
  • Pounding heart
  • Tensing your shoulders
  • Feeling restless

When you start to feel like this, the best thing you can do is to take time out — walk away, do a breathing exercise, listen to some calming music, talk to a friend who will listen. Or tune into a meditation app where you can access calming techniques and meditations to specifically manage your anger.

6. Breathe away tension

The quickest way to reduce tension and stress and lower adrenaline levels when you’re feeling angry is to focus on your breathing, ideally trying to lengthen your exhalation, which has a calming effect on the brain.

Try this exercise: Slowly breathe in through your nose, counting to 4 as you do so. Pause a moment or two and breathe out through your mouth, slowly counting to 8. Repeat until you feel calmer

7. Help for when someone else gets angry

  • Stay calm. This may be difficult but it’s important you stay calm to stop anger escalating.
  • Listen and let someone have their say. Often when people feel they are being listened to, they feel better understood and this helps to calm their anger.
  • Take time out. ‘If things get too heated, suggest time out, where you go away until the person has calmed down,’ says Gauffin. ‘Say something like “I’m going for a walk, and we can talk again when I come back.”
  • Set boundaries by stating clearly and calmly the actions, words and behaviours you will and will not accept.
  • And always walk away or call for help if someone’s behaviour makes you feel unsafe.

This article has been approved by Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi.

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