Have you ever gotten so angry you couldn’t think straight, and ended up doing something you regretted? I know I have.
Anger is a very useful emotion. It lets others know when we’re unhappy about something, and can motivate us to take action. For example, anger at seeing someone being treated unfairly can spur us to step in and right the wrong.
But obviously anger has a darker side. Sometimes we feel irritated all the time, for no clear reason. Other times we get mad at someone unfairly, based on faulty assumptions we made. And the news is filled with “crimes of passion” resulting from unchecked anger.
In my book Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, I devote a chapter to understanding and managing excessive anger. Here are some of the big ideas from the chapter.
What Leads to Excessive Anger?
The first step in defusing anger is to understand what drives it. Let’s consider some of the major factors that lead to anger.
Believing We’ve Been Mistreated
Think of a time recently when something made you mad. Chances are it arose when your expectations for how things would go were violated.
For example, you might believe someone honked at you unfairly while you tried to merge, or that a loved one failed to do something you were counting on them to do. When we feel like we’ve been wronged in one way or another, we’re likely to feel angry.
The more we look for things that bother us, the more we’ll find them. Some of us notice every potential criticism from our partner, or are extremely attuned to acts of aggressive driving. The more attentive we are for instances of perceived injustice, the more likely we are to experience high levels of anger.
Since thoughts drive our anger, it’s no surprise that biased thoughts increase our anger. People with more extreme experiences of anger are more likely to interpret others’ actions as deliberate, inconsiderate, hostile, etc.
Ever find yourself chewing over some situation that really made you mad? We might even imagine potential arguments with someone we’re upset with, and get angry about their hypothetical responses! Ruminating like this can cause a single event to multiply in our minds, increasing our anger and indignation.
Strategies for Dealing with Excessive Anger
Anger is often described as a “hot” emotion, and it leads us to act quickly and impulsively. Effective ways of managing anger involve slowing things down and choosing our actions more deliberately, so we feel better about our choices in the long run.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, I break down the techniques using the Think Act Be framework for cognitive, behavioral, and mindfulness approaches, respectively.
Examine Your Thoughts
When you feel angry, pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. Are there any errors in your thinking? (See this list for common examples of thinking errors.) Are there alternative ways of looking at the situation that might be more accurate, and less irritating? For more on identifying negative thoughts, check out this post: What Are You Thinking?
Know Your Triggers
Many of the strategies for dealing with anger require knowing in advance what’s likely to make us mad. For most of us there are situations or individuals who consistently try our patience—things like driving in heavy traffic, being short on time, or discussing certain topics with a partner. When we recognize a challenging situation, we’re better prepared to deal with it constructively.
Question Your “Shoulds”
Thoughts that include “should” frequently lead to anger, like “They should be nicer to me,” or, “They should know better.” But although we might really want a certain outcome, nothing says it should be that way (refer to the list of thinking errors). By questioning our shoulds, we can decrease unnecessary anger.
Get Enough Sleep
It’s much harder to tolerate even minor irritations when we’re sleep deprived. We’re also more at risk to act impulsively when we’re short on sleep, which can lead to lashing out angrily in regrettable ways. I include a section on good sleep in chapter 10 of the book; check out these Resources if you’re battling insomnia.
Give Yourself Adequate Time
When we’re running late we tend to feel stressed out and impatient, which sets us up for having an angry outburst if things don’t go our way. By giving ourselves enough time to take care of things, we prevent unnecessary stress and anger.
Assert Your Needs
Swallowing our anger leads to pressure that often gets released all at once. For example, we might say nothing the first 8 times someone kicks the back of our seat on an airplane, and finally explode when we can’t take it anymore. It’s more adaptive to deal with perceived violations as they come up, which prevents an accumulation of frustration and resentment.
Recognize Your Anger
Paying attention in a deeper way as we do in mindfulness practices can make us more aware of our anger-related thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This enhanced awareness gives us opportunities to deal with anger more constructively. For example, we might recognize sooner when we’re feeling frustrated with someone and address it with them before it gets out of hand.
Much of our anger comes from the belief that things should be different from how they are. Mindful awareness helps us let go of these judgments. Instead of railing against things we don’t like, we can open to the reality of what is happening.
Breathe with Your Anger
One way to practice acceptance is to breathe with our anger, opening to the experience as we allow it to run its course, like a wave that rises, crests, and falls. Mindful breathing also quiets the fight-or-flight response, helping us tolerate our anger instead of reacting to it. I include in the book a meditation exercise specific to dealing with anger.
The Think Act Be approach to managing excessive anger can help keep it in check. Remember that anger is a completely valid and useful emotion, and there’s no need to banish it from our lives. Instead, we want to practice ways to control our anger so it serves us well, instead of making us its slave.
What have you found helpful in dealing with anger?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple is available for purchase through Amazon (click here) and other booksellers.