How to keep anger under control

How to keep anger under control

As our lives grow more stressful, the angrier we get. We prickle at the tiniest dent to our self-esteem, we bristle at the slightest rudeness, inconvenience or delay. But, aside from losing us friends, our anger may be seriously bad for our health.

This week, a study in Australia found that outbursts of anger can dramatically increase the risk of having a sudden cardiac episode. Intense fury was found to raise the chance of a heart attack by more than eight times in the two hours afterwards.

The study was led by Dr Thomas Buckley, senior researcher and specialist in cardiovascular health at the University of Sydney. As part of his study, published this week in European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, scientists asked patients admitted to hospital with a heart attack about their feelings of rage before the event. Those who rated the ferocity of their anger above five on an ascending scale of one to seven — describing themselves as “ready to burst”, with a tense body and clenched fists — were found to have an 8.5-fold increased risk of heart attack. Alarmingly, these near-fatal furies often involved an argument with family members or colleagues.

Dr Buckley says: “We’re aware that acute emotional stress does result in a physiological response as well as the emotional expression. High emotional states such as anger result in increased heart rates, increasing blood pressure, changes in the release of chemicals in our blood — some of which are related to our clotting system, which explains the increased risk period.” (The danger remained elevated for two hours after people felt they had calmed down, especially if they returned to the confrontation.) Dr Buckley compares it to “ducking under a wave at the beach and being hit by another one when you come up”.

“Anger is one of the most dangerous emotional experiences that we go through,” he adds. “The absolute risk of having a heart attack during one given episode of anger is quite low, nevertheless the risk is there and it’s a real risk.” It is spitting, pulsing rage, rather than mild anger that poses a threat — meaning, Dr Buckley says, that “mindfulness” could be a life-saver: “We can’t always predict when we’re going to be angry. We can’t always control the onset of the anger. But we certainly have an ability to recognise what triggers it, modify our response, and stop our anger from escalating to such levels that we put ourselves at an increased risk of a heart attack.”

And yet, managing our anger is not as simple as “trying to relax”. So how can we help ourselves find calm? Jean-Claude Chalmet, a family therapist, explains how to identify anger and channel it in a more productive way.

Passive aggression can kill a relationship

Anger can motivate us to making positive change and it can push us to set new boundaries. But it becomes harmful when we work it out on another person. Passive aggression is the bane of relationships. If we don’t feel able to express something that’s important to us, we can end up expressing it through passive aggression: indirectly obstructive, even spiteful behaviour. You internalise your negative emotions, perhaps because you feel the need to please or you fear saying what you honestly think. You disconnect. You become self-absorbed. You engage in silent sabotage.

So, for instance, rather than say, “Can we visit your mother for an hour — I don’t want to stay the whole afternoon?”, you find reasons to delay the visit, and once there, you might pick sullenly at your food and barely engage in chat.

This is hostility: anger is not just about shouting.

Everyone else, particularly your partner, can feel the aggression but as it’s not discussed, it festers. The passive aggressor gains power simply by making the other person feel bad. The problem worsens because no attempt is made to remedy it. And because it’s covert, people learn to adapt. They also stop engaging or communicating, and without either of those factors, a relationship is dead.

The ‘sore point’ type of anger

Very often, we have sensitivities from our childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. If a person touches a sore point, we respond disproportionately. We are not only reacting to the present situation, we’re reacting to the past. If you were always told as a child that you were incompetent — if your partner is slightly cutting, you might explode with rage. Perhaps as a child you didn’t dare say a word, but now you vent. The other person doesn’t understand and becomes defensive. It’s a vicious circle.

One married couple I counselled had the most fantastic row because the mother accused the father of getting the children “common” haircuts at the barber. He came from a respectable working-class background — he felt shamed by her accusation. He had experienced snobbery before, and her comment, made tactlessly, played on his fear. The fact was that neither of them wanted to be judged. She had recently lost her job and felt guilt at being unable to take them to a salon. Shame and blame came together: their combined fear exploded into anger.

The truth is that if your underlying wish is for your relationship to succeed, taking the sting out of a situation is simple. Be honest about your feelings: “Listen, at the time, I felt shocked, I didn’t mean to upset you — can we talk?” Arguments arise when we fear exposing our vulnerabilities.

The volcano

Explosive anger is intimidating, bullying, controlling. You might achieve what you want, as your employee or partner falls into line out of shock or fright, but it’s a hollow victory. Spitting rage is always about a person being unable to handle their emotions — they’re overwhelmed into incoherence: they externalise their feelings in order to get rid of them.

Our anger always has a purpose: to force someone to understand the wrong they’ve done to us. But it doesn’t help us to connect. The other person will either react with equal ferocity or curl up in fear. Fear is not the best motivator; it won’t solve the problem. We dominate to convince ourselves we are strong when we feel powerless, and we hit out at the weakest. No one wins.

The anger transfer

When we transfer our anger on to another person, our underlying motivation is always fear — fear of being alone, of losing something, of not being in control. I’ve never seen this anger come from a positive place, I’ve never seen it come from love. It’s an emotion that arises when people can’t get what they want, can’t say what they want, or lose what they want. It’s a sign of feeling overwhelmed. Some of us externalise anger; some of us internalise it. But whatever its form, it tends to be unproductive.

Anger often is rooted in fear of honest expression: we fear the consequence of telling the boss what we really think. Instead, we go home and pick a fight with our beloved. Perhaps we fear that if we confess to being picked on by the boss, our partner will say, “Why, what did you do wrong?”

To manage anger, we need to be able to trust. If we confided our worries in our boss or partner, and they reacted kindly, it is likely our anger would dissipate. Being heard and validated is soothing. But anger achieves the opposite. If we’re angry, we don’t express what’s really going on, and we’ll never be heard or validated. In that respect, anger is useless.

Escape the anger cycle

When there is dissatisfaction in a relationship, rather than say, “This is how I feel”, we often start a fight about insignificant things: “You didn’t fold the towel properly in the bathroom!” The other person is confused — and irritated. What does it matter how I fold the towel? The fact is that you’re secretly angry about something else — perhaps, lack of respect — but you feel you can’t mention it. Anger becomes negative when we misplace it.

People don’t often challenge their partner about passive aggression, because they’re afraid of the truth, and of unleashing full-on rage. The way to manage it is to gently ask, “I feel there’s a bad atmosphere between us. What’s going on?” It’s a scary and difficult question, because often people don’t know what they want, or precisely why they’re angry. But they have a choice. Rather than deny it, this provides them with the opportunity to reflect honestly, to try to explain. Very often, people genuinely aren’t aware of what they’ve done to upset you.

Few couples ever talk about how they might discuss anything tricky. So, in a moment of calm, sit together and set some rules: “If I ever had something to say which might possibly upset you, how would you like me to go about it?” Perhaps over a glass of wine, in a relaxed atmosphere. You might hold hands. It’s less of a slap if it’s expected and you both believe the other is considering your feelings. Soothe yourself by thinking, “I’m not going to get upset; this is for the better, this is the agreement we have struck.” Both of you can safely express what you need to say.

Anger in children

A lot of parents are intolerant of their children’s anger: “Why are you behaving in such a ridiculous manner? I’ve had enough of your shouting! Go to your room until you’ve calmed down!” Let them feel anger. If children don’t learn at home to express how they feel, or feel unsafe about expressing negative emotion in front of their parents, then they fall into a habit of concealing resentment and anger. Passive aggression in children often reveals itself in a lack of motivation.

Instead, take the time to help your child to manage their anger. A friend and his daughter, who was five, were going for a swim. She’d forgotten her goggles. She demanded that her father drive 30 minutes home to get them. He said, “I understand you’re upset, but I don’t think that’s fair for Daddy. I can understand why you’re angry — it is annoying — but today we’ll swim without goggles, and we’ll have a great time.” He patiently sat with her for half an hour.

To teach a child how to healthily express anger, you validate what they’re feeling, and help them to find a way through. A child should not learn that anger is something bad. Anger is something that we all feel at times. We need to learn to deal with it positively. Talking of which, be aware of how you deal with frustration: very often, a child’s anger type is a learnt behaviour, gleaned from their parents.

Anger in teens

Please, please, listen to your teen. Do not rant at them. Teens in an angry mood are not in a state where they are capable of listening. They won’t hear your lecture. They need to be listened to. Do not try to dictate a solution. Respect their anger, which is often borne from frustration at not knowing what to do. They’re caught in a transition where they do not know what’s expected of them; they barely know what they expect of themselves.

Allow the anger to happen. If you try to fight anger with a teen, you will always lose. Very often, it helps to have a third person present — a sympathetic aunt or friend — to help them to identify the source of their frustration. Teens are intimidated by their parents, for whom they will always be children. It can be useful, if you are both prone to aggressive outbursts, to set up a mutually agreed buzzword, where, if it is called, you both respectfully walk away from the argument and return to it at a later stage, when everyone feels more rational. No “let me just say this!” allowed. It stops there.

When to suck it up

If you’re upset but don’t dare to express yourself, it leads to frustration — and the possibility that you take it out on someone else, or behave inappropriately. A friend confesses that she was frosty to her superior because she didn’t dare to protest at not being invited to an important meeting. He didn’t understand why she was frosty, but didn’t appreciate it. Her passive aggression did nothing for her career. But perhaps the middle ground would have been to say evenly: “I feel I should have been there, but I realise you make the final decision.”

While we have to be adult enough to deal with a bit of frustration, when something deeply matters to us, we have to stand up for ourselves in a kind way. When people say, “I think, I believe, I understand”, we get into an intellectual scrapping contest from which it is hard to extract ourselves. People can say very little when you say “I feel” — because then we’re talking about emotions. We need to be able to express our feelings without fear, but without being offensive, or dictatorial. “It’s just how I feel.” Keep it simple.

That said, if you feel that speaking up might put your job at risk, rationalise with yourself: “Is this going to feature on my radar in 20 years?” — if not, then let it go. Use distraction techniques to dissipate your anger healthily: run down a hill screaming, or hit a pillow with a tennis racket. Importantly, be kind to yourself — reconciling yourself to a situation that’s disturbing you could be as simple as sitting down with a cup of tea and analysing what is going on. Discuss what’s bothering us with a good friend. If we keep it to ourselves, it has a tendency to get worse.

The frenemy

Critical people spend a lot of time observing others rather than looking at themselves. They specialise in noticing in the other person faults they dislike in themselves. A friend complains that her mother is always pestering her to lose weight (“and she’s practically a sphere!”).

A so-called friend once said something vicious to me. But often, a cruel remark merely shows that person’s limitations. I remained calm, even though it hurt. I had two choices — react with anger and defend myself, or let the insult drop off a cliff. I took some A4 paper, wrote at the top what was being said. Then I drew a line, dividing the page into two columns. On the left, I wrote everything that sustained what was being said. And on the right, I wrote everything that contradicted it.

Being rational takes away some of the emotional heat. There were ten points in the right-hand column, one in the left. That made it clear I should eliminate that person from my life. If a friend touches a nerve, you can explode with rage, but afterwards there is a 99 per cent chance you’ll regret the outburst. Most conflicts are resolved by people walking away. However, if you feel the issue absolutely needs to be discussed, resolve to broach it when you feel more rational.

Healthy anger

Never feeling angry wouldn’t be natural or healthy. If you are angry with the right person, at the right time, in the right measure, for the right reason, then you can be as angry as you want. Though by the time you’ve achieved all that, you’ll probably find you’re no longer angry. A healthy, emotionally mature way to express anger is just to say: “I want to tell you that I am very angry with you because . . . ”, and not shout about it. “This is how I feel.” You don’t have to be forceful.

We also have to draw the distinction between anger and annoyance. There will always be people and situations that annoy us. It is our task, through emotional maturity, not to let that grow into anger. Reason with yourself. Easier said than done, but the crucial point is to know that most outbursts of anger resolve nothing. If you truly want to resolve a problem, you will never approach it through anger. When we just shout out our feelings, we either cow or enrage the other person, and neither reaction leads to a good dialogue and resolution. Make a choice between whether you want your feelings to be known, or whether you want to express your feelings and resolve the problem.

How to know if you have a problem with rage

I have a simple rule: if your anger interferes with you living a fulfilling existence, you have a problem. If you get furiously angry five times a week, you have a problem — if you can’t manage your anger alone, you need to seek professional help. The signs of unhealthy anger are physiological: starting with tension in the shoulders, then the neck, shortness of breath, raising of the pulse, and then the flooding of the mind — we become overwhelmed, can’t contain the emotion, and anger is the result. If we continually flip out, there’s something very wrong inside — either with our expectations or our perceptions.

To help regain control, rather than count to ten, I advise a walk round the block. And breathe. That lowers the pulse and blood pressure and will allow the mind to reorganise itself . The walk is a way of removing yourself from a tense situation and distracting the mind. Anger is a thought, coupled with an emotion. And a thought can always be changed. We can manage and reduce our anger by being emotionally mature enough to understand where it belongs, and why we feel so fiercely.

As told to Anna Maxted