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How to Handle Your Anger

I have a current event discussion group I meet with on Thursday nights. Over the years, I have become great friends with many people in the group. Like family, we love each other even though our ways of looking at life, politics and religion are vastly different.

One night my friend, Jessie, started ranting to me that body language was not a true science.  He was very upset about my nonverbal reads of one of the presidential candidates and repeated over and over again that the study of nonverbal behavior is not a true science.  I said, "Jessie, you know this is my career.  It is a science and I have degrees in body language, I taught body language at the University level for many years, and there are textbooks and journals dedicated to the research and science on nonverbal communication.  He continued repeating that it was not a science and his voice was getting louder and more heated.  I calmly said, "Jessie you know I have been teaching it, researching it, and writing and speaking on nonverbal communication for over 25 years."  "It is absolutely a science."  He said, "But you can be wrong about what you say."  He said passionately, "You can't measure it."  I said, "Actually you can."  He repeated, "It is not a true science."  He was smiling, giddy and happy as he continued to raise his voice to a shout.

I realized that he was actually enjoying himself!  He liked getting fed by the energy of his anger.  It takes quite a lot for me to get angry, but I felt angry!  As I felt the anger rise in my body I realized that it would continue to escalate if I didn't choose to stop it; that we would be locked into an anger cycle.  He was not in a place to hear anyone or any other option.  I was moving from calm and rational to emotional and defensive.  When you allow yourself to get highly emotionally charged you will no longer see or hear what is going on around you.  It may even give you a rush and energetic high.  Adrenaline pumping in your body makes you feel strong and powerful.

Many of us get angry. When we are in a situation that is not going the way we want it to or we perceive a danger or an injustice, we often go to a strong emotion. Anger can give a person, strength to confront a real or perceived danger. It is normal and natural to feel anger and it can be helpful, but we need to use it in a healthy way that doesn’t hurt us or the people we interact with.

We often need appropriate anger to signal us that something is going wrong and needs to be changed. Again feeling anger is not a problem. It is how you handle the anger that determines whether or not it is a problem.

Sometimes it is difficult to control such a strong emotion. Your anger can quickly reach damaging levels that create agitation and a desire to act impulsively while decreasing your ability to think clearly; this can lead to destructive, antagonistic acts.

There is a time and place for anger but it is crucial to manage one's anger response in order to think clearly and logically — and therefore choose actions and reactions that work to one's advantage.

Handling your anger is the ability to control angry emotions in order to act (or react) in one's own best interest.

Five Steps to anger management:

Step 1. Tune in to your body
Step 2. Calm Down
Step 3. Use Self-talk to See Things Differently
Step 4. Consider and choose the best behavior options
Step 5. Congratulate yourself

Step 1. Tune in to your Body
When you’re angry you are in your right emotional brain, where body language and feeling come from. So the first step is to be inside your body. Be aware of the physical signs of tension so you can stop the anger before it develops any further. Some body signals that indicate increasing anger are:

  • tensing of muscles
  • faster breathing
  • a change in voice tone or volume
  • sweating
  • heart/head pounding

Step 2. Notice your anger and make a choice to control it
You may think that getting the anger out is better, that you need to release that tension. Sometimes anger is destructive. Think about destructive anger as a bullet in a gun. Is it better to shoot the gun and get the bullet out or think before you shoot? Explosive outbursts of rage (loud arguing and fighting) do not release anger, they increase the anger. Anger at that level charges you up making it more likely to become combative, hostile and aggressive.

Being able to stay in control when we notice ourselves getting angry is a powerful skill. Just saying to yourself, "I am feeling anger right now. I choose not to let it get bigger. What can I do to bring it down, and control it so I can choose consciously how I want to act?" You can breathe in slowly and deeply, you can count backwards, you can imagine you are at the beach or in a meadow or looking at a stream or mountain, you can think of the person in front of you and send them kindness instead of anger.

Step 3. Use Self-talk to See Things Differently
People and things do NOT actually push your anger buttons. You push your OWN buttons by upsetting yourself with your thoughts, interpretations, and emotional overreactions. Some examples of anger-escalating self-talk are:

  • I can't stand it when...
  • It drives me crazy when...
  • I have to punch him when...
  • Now everything is completely ruined!
  • That guy's looking over here. He must be looking for trouble. Fine, I'll give him some.
  • She insulted me. I can't let her get away with that.

Learn to use a different kind of self-talk, the kind that will change your perspective. The exact same situation will produce different emotions if you change your interpretation and decide not to overreact. Some examples of anger-reducing self-talk are:

  • Hold on now, I may not LIKE this, but I CAN stand it.
  • Stop it! This won't drive me crazy --unless I LET it.
  • Yeah, I'd LOVE to punch him...but I won't. Why should I cause myself trouble because of that creep?
  • True, things aren't going how I planned, but getting enraged won't help. How can I still get something good/fun out of this?
  • Don't assume that aggression is intended.
  • Say, “Relax, I'm not sure what he's looking at, but it could be any number of things." Say, "Hey, I can deal with this." "Life is NOT fair, but I'll have my day."

Step 4. Consider and Choose the Best Behavior Options
After you calm down (and can think more clearly), remind yourself that you have CHOICES of actions. Think about possible consequences, weigh the risks versus the gains, and choose a behavior that will work best for YOU in the short and long term.

  • Delay Action.
    Walk away. If you think you might get verbally or physically abusive, leave the situation and take time to cool down.
  • Let it go and consider it "a lesson learned."
  • Seek help.
    Ask someone you respect to help you think things through. This gives you a different viewpoint and/or more information.
  • Be assertive.
    Express yourself in a direct way that is respectful and yet clear about how you feel ("disrespected", "angry", etc.) and what you would like the other person to do differently. NOTE: Be cautious about such directness if the person has power over you (e.g. an employer or a violent parent) and you think he or she may not be able to "handle" your comments.
  • Release anger indirectly. (Choose this if you think direct expression of your anger will be ineffective, destructive or dangerous.)
    Do some vigorous physical exercise.
    Write your angry thoughts and feelings on your computer but don't send it. (Make sure you put it in a word document not in an email or you may be tempted to send it.)
  • One of my favorites is to look in the mirror and try to yell at your anger. It makes you realize pretty quickly that anger always comes back at you!
  • Talk about how angry you are with a supportive friend.
  • Plan how YOU will change so this won't happen again.
    Once you accept that you CAN'T change others, you can gain enormous power by changing yourself. (Others may decide to change themselves as a direct result of the changes YOU made, but this will be their decision, not yours.)
    Changing yourself means making decisions and taking action to prevent the situation from happening again-- whether or NOT the other person changes. Some examples of ways you can change yourself are:
    1. I know that when I call my friend and she is in a bad mood I get in arguments with her very quickly so if I call her and she is in a bad mood I will get off the phone as soon as possible.
    2. From now on, I will walk out of the room/cubicle/house the moment he raises his voice or calls me a name I don't like. I don't have to let this happen again.
    3. He isn't reliable about being on time so I'll also invite others; that way the evening won't be ruined by his showing up late.

Step 5. Congratulate Yourself.
Focus on any improvement of your abilities. One step at a time is fine.

  • Hey, I did that pretty well. I am really proud of me! YES!