Maybe you heard an unkind comment whispered behind your back in the school hallway. Or maybe you saw a cruel post on social media or a text from a friend. Maybe you felt that a teacher graded you unfairly. Or maybe your parents treated you like a child.
In all of these cases, it’s normal to feel angry. But anger has a dark side. When we express our anger in unhealthy ways, the physical and mental side effects can be harmful to us and to those we love. Chronic anger is bad for our physical and mental health. Side effects of poorly managed anger can include heart disease, high blood pressure, stomach and digestive issues, depression, addiction, and relationship problems.
That’s why learning to manage anger is so important for your lifelong physical and mental health.
What Is Anger?
According to the American Psychological Association, “Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.”
Anger is a primary emotion that developed to protect us from threats of attack. It’s linked to aggression because anger can trigger aggressive behavior.
You can feel the physical changes of anger. Your heart will race, and your face and neck may turn red. You will breathe faster and feel your muscles tense and tighten. This is your body going into “fight-or-flight” mode, as your amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped organ in the inner brain, prepares to respond to the threat.
Because of anger’s connections with aggressive behavior, many of us have been taught that anger is a “bad” emotion. But anger can be good for us!
On a personal level, we will all definitely experience something unjust or unfair, and these experiences often provoke feelings of anger. Acknowledging those feelings, then putting our brain’s frontal lobes in charge of managing them, helps us to respond to these unpleasant emotions in safe ways.
What Is Anger Regulation?
Anger regulation is how we deal with our anger. There are three basic ways:
- Anger Suppression. When we fail to acknowledge our anger, we may withdraw from others and “sit” in our feelings. We may simmer or sulk. Anger suppression is linked to physical problems, like cardiovascular disease, and to mental health problems, like excessive stress, anxiety and depression.
- Anger Expression. We show our anger to others through physical acts, like slamming a door, yelling, or posting something unkind on social media. But appropriate anger expression can have positive effects on our mental and physical health, including expressing your anger using respectful words, such as, “I feel angry when…”
- Anger Control. We work to reduce the internal experience of anger. This method of regulation is different from anger suppression because the person experiencing anger acknowledges and works to eliminate the anger. However, it may still lead to physical and mental health problems.
You may have a hard time controlling your feelings of anger for a variety of reasons. If you’ve been taught that anger is “bad,” for example, you may find that you suppress your anger until it explodes. If you are growing up in a place where anger and violence are “normal,” you may not know how to express anger in healthy ways.
How Can We Manage Our Anger?
The good news is that we do not have to let our amygdala stay in charge of our brains. These five steps will help you manage your anger.
- Learn to recognize anger when you feel it. Keep a journal or notes on your phone about situations where you feel angry (these are sometimes called “triggers”). Can you see a pattern? What can you do to manage or avoid situations where you feel angry?
- When you feel angry, count to 10. Then take a deep belly breath in through your nose, filling up your chest cavity. Push the air out through the nose by forcing out your stomach. This type of deep, mindful breath will help you to take charge of your overactive amygdala and put your brain’s reasonable frontal lobes back in charge.
- Think about the consequences. This can be hard to do in the moment, but if you can step outside of your anger, you can think about how the harmful expressions of your anger might hurt you and those around you.
- Be accountable for your anger. When you are angry, acknowledge it. When you act aggressively, apologize for your hurtful words or behavior, and come up with a plan to manage the situation better next time. You could think about things that work to calm you down. Maybe taking a quick walk, listening to music, or playing a video game can help. Come back to the situation when you’re in control of your emotions.
- Practice daily mindfulness. Whether you meditate for a few minutes or choose some other way to connect with your inner self, mindfulness can help you to achieve peace of mind.
Anger can be frightening —to you and to others. But as you learn to recognize and control your anger, you’ll see better physical, mental, and emotional health.