Healthy ways to express anger
In the first part of this article we talked about what happens when anger gets stuck within us, how that ends up making anger even more explosive and unpredictable, and how to decode anger to prevent more of it getting stuck. That is a great long-term approach to de-fusing the internal bomb. How do you cope with anger when it shows up in the moment though? Realistically, you probably won’t have time or the mental patience to check through the 3 messages of anger in the heat of the moment. Here are practical things you can do in the heat of the moment or shortly after.
In the short term:
- Practice saying out loud to yourself how you are feeling: “I am feeling frustrated about that.” “That did not go how I wanted it to.” “I really want to control that.” “I am feeling angry about that.”
- Pushups, jumping jacks, or go for a vigorous walk or run. Move it out of your body in some way. As noted in an episode of the Man Enough podcast by Karamo Brown, it is not helpful to work anger out of your body by hitting things, punching a pillow, or moving in a way of aggression. In fact, this can accidentally train your brain and body to go even quicker in the direction of violence next time you’re overwhelmed.
- Yell into a pillow
- Let yourself cry audibly; don’t try to hold it inside because it can then come out as rage later.
- Scribble on a piece of paper
- Do the opposite of what your anger pattern is used to – sit down rather than stand or pace, whisper or write rather than yell, turn on relaxing music in the car when you’re used to road-raging in traffic. This is called Opposite Action and takes practice to work for people.
- Practice an anger mantra that acknowledges the anger and acknowledges that it is temporary, such as this one by Thich Nhat Hanh:
In the long term:
These are the things you can do after the fact to prevent that anger you just had from becoming stuck anger.
- Journal about the 3 purposes of anger, explained in part 1 of this article, and identify which of those messages fit the anger you experienced.
- Talk out loud to yourself about what your anger may be trying to tell you.
- Ask yourself – is part of this old anger from the past that’s coming up now? Or is any part of this anger actually some anger that I started to carry for someone else? If so, a therapist can be instrumental in helping you unload this anger safely.
- Practice thanking the anger (yes, actually say this to your anger as if you’re talking to a friend) for how it’s trying to protect you, even if it is backfiring, and let it know that you are practicing hearing it instead of ignoring it.
- Address whatever the buddy emotion is to the anger. It never walks alone.
- Explore your roots and family patterns. Though it may not feel like it, you are not the first in your family lineage to encounter the pattern you are likely in. Dr. Lerner writes, “If we do not know about our own family history, we are more likely to repeat past patterns or mindlessly rebel against them, without much clarity about who we really are, how we are similar to or different from other family members, and how we might best proceed in our own life,” (The Dance of Anger, Chapter 6).
Coping with Rage
If you find that you seemingly jump from 0 to 10, then this section is for you. Something to note, however, is that going from 0 to 10 is a myth. No one jumps from 0 to 10. Consider the Hulk from Marvel. When he’s Bruce Banner, who seemingly appears to be a level-headed scientist, he is not actually at a 0 on the anger scale. In fact, he even says this outright: “That’s my secret – I’m always angry.” He is so good at suppressing his anger that what looks and feels like a 0/10 for him is actually him living his life at a 8 or 9/10 at all times. After a while of waking up at 8 or 9, it starts to feel neutral. The built-up anger is like a white noise running in the background, but that means it’s that much easier to explode when something tips the scale up to a 10.
Ask yourself – Am I truly waking up at a 0/10 on the anger scale?
Making an anger scale with a therapist can be a pivotal step in changing your anger patterns.
Let’s say you do hit 10/10. What do you do? How do you cope with rage?
Ahead of time – Make a nonverbal signal ahead of time with that person you’ve been getting into arguments with (this could be a family member, friend, roommate, partner). This nonverbal signal will show when you need to step away, because no useful conversation will take place if you are approaching rage. Before ever using this signal it is important to agree on how many minutes you will be gone before resuming the conversation. If you don’t agree on this amount of time beforehand, it can leave the person receiving the signal nervous that resuming the conversation might never happen, so they are more likely to pursue you rather than respect the signal. Gottman labs, who study what helps partnerships last, recommends at least 30 minutes of separation. The reason why has to do with what happens on a physiological level when you’re angry. When someone is angry and/or anxious, blood flow shifts away from the part of the brain that communicates through words, which is why people often say things they don’t mean, stutter, yell, or find it hard to speak at all when they are overwhelmed. In fact, when we are in the Fight survival mode of anger, it is also physiologically more difficult to pay attention to the human voice. As relationship experts Drs John & Julie Gottman found, this is not the time to try to talk it out or problem-solve, as the blood flow has shifted away from the part of your brain that does this best. Have a code-word, phrase, or nonverbal signal with your support person to communicate this in the moment.
My nonverbal signal could be:
I know I need to give this signal when:
_(ex. Can’t sit, heart pounding)_____________________________________________.
- Give your signal when the warning signs arise.
- Step away from the situation. Walking away before getting to rage is important and not a bad thing to do. Many have been told things like, “don’t turn your back on me” or, “don’t walk out on a fight.” That is unhelpful advice. The best thing you can do is take a break before returning to the conversation. *If you are unable to step away beforehand, still try to step away during a rage episode.
- Go for a walk or to a different space. Change of scenery is important!
- Long exhales.
- Take 30 minutes so your brain has time to bring the problem-solving center back online.
DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE ARGUMENT OR SITUATION DURING THIS TIME.
I know I’m ready to problem solve when:
- I can’t control _____, but I can control ______.
- What boundaries do I need to reinforce?
This will take time, practice, and big doses of self-compassion if you actually want to change old, possibly inherited, anger patterns that are holding you back. Talking with a therapist about this can aid the process greatly. Instead of controlling and battling our anger, it can become your ally.
Baldoni, J., Plank, L., Heath, J., & Brown, K. (n.d.). Karamo Brown: Reframing the Masculine Mentality, Man Enough Podcast. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://manenough.com/podcast/.
Brown, C.B., Gottman, J., Gottman, J. (2021). What Makes Love Last, Unlocking Us Podcast. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-drs-john-and-julie-gottman-on-what-makes-love-last
Lerner, H. G. (1989). The Dance of Anger. Harper & Row Publishers Inc.
Walt Disney Studios home entertainment. (2012). The Avengers [Film].