We all experience momentary bursts of anger every now and then. For the most part, these relatively minor annoyances are easy to deal with; you feed yourself, or sign off Twitter for the day, and the anger subsides. But what if you don’t find it quite so simple…
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Huffington Post
Walking back your anger when you’re having a heated conversation with someone ― a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, some very unfortunate person at a call centre ― can be difficult. There are things you can do in the moment to calm yourself, though. Here, therapists offer their best advice for getting control of your temper before it gets control of you.
Acknowledge that you’re angry
When you’re angry you notice it in your body. You experience it physically far more than you do cognitively, says Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California; you are literally hot and bothered. “Anger will often also cause changes in our body, such as muscle tension like a stiff, sore neck, rapid heartbeat or breathing that becomes rapid and shallow,” says Kurt. “Feeling fatigued, or heated-up for no obvious reason, can be a sign of unrecognised anger.”
If you’re not physically feeling it, you might hear it in the sound of your voice. “One way to realise that you’re getting angry is to listen to the volume of your voice. Is it increasing?” Kurt asks. “That’s a sign your emotions are building and can indicate you’re getting angry.”
Once you notice this, try to modulate your voice. “Just as increasing anger can correspond to an increasingly loud voice, the opposite is also true. Try responding to your loud voice by gradually lowering it. This is an effective strategy to emotionally talk yourself down.”
Follow your body’s cues, safely and slowly
The standard advice here is to take deep breaths, in and out. When you’re really in anger though, and the breathing, counting or similar techniques aren’t working, it pays to take cues from your physiological sensations. Ask yourself what your anger wants to do, suggests Brittany Bouffard, a Denver psychotherapist who’s trained in a form of alternative therapy called somatic experiencing.
What your anger wants you to do? What does that mean?
“Notice if, for example, your hands, forearms, and biceps want to clench, or if your abdomen grips and you want to yell,” Brittany explains. “For any of these, you can try — safely and slowly — letting the muscles do as they like but as if in slow motion or underwater.”
This slowness is crucial here because you’re, “allowing the motion to integrate into the system, allowing it to feel [that] it completed what it needed,” says Brittany – in other words, your body wants to react. Let it, but in a gentle, modified way. Let your hands slowly but firmly grip something that is safe (to both the object and yourself), or let your abdomen clench, Brittany advises.
Give yourself a time out
How do you follow Brittany’s advice when you’re in the middle of a face-to-face conversation? Call a personal timeout, says Saniyyah Mayo, a psychotherapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California. “Walking away gives you time to calm down and collect your thoughts before responding,” she told HuffPost. “This also aids in decreasing anger and/or de-escalating the situation. A timeout allows time for you to reflect on the actual trigger that manifested the anger, which helps with identifying the trigger to prevent it from reoccurring.”
Of course, don’t just storm out of an argument. Let whoever you’re talking to know that you just need a little physical space, Saniyyah says – otherwise, your actions might be misconstrued as passive-aggressive.
Ask yourself what emotion is behind the anger
Now that you’ve calmed down, think about what’s motivating your anger. More often than not, anger is a ‘secondary emotion’ which we use as a mask, or a defence, for an entirely different feeling – for example, shame or embarrassment.
“If you can bring conscious awareness to the real emotion, then you can actually take an outsider-view and discover why it’s happening,” explains Patrick Davey Tully, a therapist in Los Angeles.
Once you’ve pinpointed what’s really motivating your anger, you’ll gain an insight into your needs that haven’t been met. Maybe you snapped at a co-worker for asking a simple question, not because you think they’re incompetent, but because you’re generally feeling overwhelmed with your own work.
Once you’re aware of the real emotions at play, you can communicate this to the person you snapped at, says Patrick. In the scenario above, you’d apologise to your co-worker — explaining that you snapped because you’re overwhelmed, acknowledging that this doesn’t justify your behaviour — and, perhaps, consider asking your manager to lighten your workload.
Change the tone of the conversation
After your body is calm ― and you’ve given some thought to what was behind your burst of anger ― use ‘I’ statements when you share your thoughts or feelings with the other person, advises Megan Negendank, a psychotherapist and sex therapist in Sacramento, California.
“Say you’re arguing with your significant other about how you deal with your parents,” Megan says. “You might say something like, ‘I feel frustrated when you criticise how I am handling things with my parents because it seems like you don’t trust me to make the right decisions for myself. I would like you to be supportive of me, and only give me your input when I ask for it. I know you care about what is best for me, but when it comes out as criticism it just hurts me.’”
The alternative, more hostile approach ― ‘You are so judgmental about how I deal with my parents. You have no idea what you are talking about’― isn’t likely to get you anywhere.
“When we use ‘I’ statements, our partners are less likely to get defensive, and more likely to understand what is going on with us.”
Change the subject of the conversation
Let’s say you’ve taken all the advice above, but you’re still feeling heated. That’s okay. Nothing needs to be resolved right now. If you or your partner/co-worker/friend still feel hotheaded, changing the topic of conversation can also be a good way to cope with anger in the moment, Saniyyah advises.
“Sometimes, ruminating over the person, or thing, that made you angry only causes you to stay angry.” she says. “Focusing on something else helps change your mood and how you respond. If things are heated, changing the subject will alter the trajectory of the conversation as a whole.”
The easiest way to do this? “Make a joke and re-route the conversation to a safe, calm, enjoyable dialogue,” she suggests.
If you were discussing something serious ― or something that needs to be resolved eventually ― table the discussion for later, or the next day, when cooler heads may, hopefully, prevail.
Use these tips and take what you’ve learned here – and cool it, hothead!