Anger is an important instrument for anyone’s emotional toolbox. It protects, helps discharge stress and can bring words and feelings to the surface that may need to be expressed to help relationships grow.
But the manner in which one handles feelings of anger can lead to vastly different outcomes. “There’s nothing wrong with anger, it’s what you do with it that matters,” said Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Outsmarting Anger: 7 Steps for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion.”
Indeed, the author of “The 5 Love Languages,” Gary Chapman, has counseled countless families and couples over his career and has seen numerous instances in which mismanaged anger destroys marriages, fractures friendships and sometimes even separates parents from children. “Much of my counseling has been in helping individuals understand and process anger,” he said.
Why we get angry
It’s helpful to understand why we get angry in the first place. “In human relationships, anger is the emotion that arises when we feel that we have been wronged or in some way mistreated,” Chapman said. “It’s a call for action to right the wrong. However, when we yield to our first impulse, we usually make things worse.”
Shrand had a similar take: “We feel anger because we want something to be different. We wish someone would stop doing something or start doing something,” he said. He explained that when we’re angry, the part of the brain in charge of managing emotional responses known as the limbic system, gets ready for a fight. In such a state, “we can get impulsive, irrational and lash out without thinking,” he warned.
“Anger is part of the brain’s fight-or-flight response, so it has to do with our survival instinct,” said Stephen Dansiger, an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing clinician and author of “Mindfulness for Anger Management.” He described some of the body’s physiological responses when angry: a rising heart rate, muscle tension, sweating and heightened hearing and vision. “The body is literally preparing to deal with the perceived threat,” he said.
What to do with our anger
Problem is, such base instincts may perceive threats where no real danger exists. “When we’re angry, we see ourselves as a hammer and everyone around us as a nail,” said Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” That may include reacting to an insensitive comment from a spouse or to a child who just threw their plate of food on the floor. In such instances, Markham warns, “there is no real threat, but our bodies react as if there is.”
The best way to deal with anger, the experts said, is to diffuse it. That means doing whatever it takes to remind your brain there isn’t really a threat or emergency and that it’s time to calm down.
“There’s an entire body of research on how to calm down and retrain the nervous system,” Markham said. She suggested techniques like running your hands under cold water, taking deep breaths, getting some fresh air, humming, shaking your wrists, counting backwards from 100 until you start to feel calm again, or even forcing a laugh or a smile to trick your brain into switching gears. “These are all research-supported ways to calm down in the moment,” she said.