Lesley Thompson, Marriage & Family Therapist New York City, NY

Marriage & Family Therapist

8  mins

Updated: 18 Feb, 2020

Anger Management - A Guide on How to Handle Your Anger

Anger gets a bad wrap. It is often a very misunderstood emotion. Most of the time, when we think about anger or have experienced anger in ourselves or from another, it’s in a negative, destructive context.

When we feel angry, it can feel like we are losing control. We can feel blinded by it, unable to think, and unable to make sense of the situation. It can seem as though something else has taken over our body, our mind, and our behavior.

Then we either respond with a full attack or by shutting down and withdrawing. Our anger can end up being turned towards ourselves with negative thinking, toxic self-talk, and destructive behavior.

Or, it can also be turned towards another with biting words, yelling, and even abuse. But does that mean it is a bad emotion and one we should disown or get rid of completely?

Anger is a “secondary emotion,” which means that a “primary emotion” happened first, usually, hurt or fear.

Those emotions can be even more uncomfortable because they feel so vulnerable, or we experience them as weak, so we can move quickly into an angry stance.

We often feel safer, more protected, and stronger behind a wall of anger.

Anger is a signal. It alerts you that there is a problem. It tells you you have been hurt, you are afraid, or there has been an injustice.

Anger is also meant to be a destructive emotion so that if directed properly, it can help destroy the problem. It can give the energy, motivation, focus, and drive that is necessary for change.

It can be used to destroy and tear things down, so we can start anew. It can be a problem solver and can lead to creativity and being able to think outside the box.

But in order to tap into the positive and constructive aspects of anger, we first have to subdue our rage, bitterness, and destructive anger.

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Here are a few anger management techniques to help you in dealing with anger and switch your anger from destructive to constructive:

Getting out of the triggering interaction

Hit the pause button

When your anger gets triggered, and you see red, the first step in anger management for controlling anger is to learn to hit the pause button.

You are in no place to respond constructively and will often find yourself doing or saying something you will regret later or that will have painful consequences.

Visualize a pause button, perhaps it will be one of those big, red emergency stop buttons, and hit it. Just say sternly to yourself, “Stop!”

Take time out

In the next step on ‘how to control anger, ‘you need to extract yourself from the situation or interaction. You are angry and need time and a place to “reset” yourself so you can respond in a constructive way.

If you are in an interaction with a person, tell them you are angry and need time out, but that you will continue the conversation when you have cooled off.

Or if you are in a triggering situation, say the same thing to yourself, “I need a timeout because I am angry. I am going to step away but will come back when I have calmed down.”

Sometimes when we get angry, it is like taking something out of the oven, it is too hot to handle and needs some time just to cool down before we can touch it.

Processing through your anger to respond constructively

Processing through your anger to respond constructively

Soothing techniques

If you are really heated and feel out of control, soothing techniques can help bring you back down to a calm state.

These anger management skills are good to practice on a daily basis so your body recognizes them when you are angry and can better utilize them.

Try some of these ways to control anger:

1. Deep breathing

Deep breathing can calm your brain and allow you to control your anger. 

Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

Take a breath through your nose, making your hand on your stomach go out, rather than the one on your chest.

Then exhale slowly through your mouth. Try counting to 3 when you inhale and counting to 5 while you exhale. Repeat 10 times.

2. Counting to 10 slowly.

When using this anger management skill, take deep breaths and visualize the number in your mind until that is all you can see in your mind. Then move to the next number.

3. Muscle Relaxation techniques.

Sit in a comfortable place. You will tense (flex or clench) each muscle group as you inhale. Then relax that muscle group when you exhale.

You can follow this muscle grouping guide: hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, face, chest, back, stomach, hips/buttocks, thighs, calves, feet.

Identify the triggers

What is the event, interaction, or situation that is triggering this?

Remember that your anger is telling you that you have been hurt, something made you feel afraid, or there has been an injustice.

What was the moment you noticed a change on your inside? What was said or what was happening when you felt the shift?

How would that connect to hurt, fear, or injustice? Be as specific as possible. 

This will help you become clearer about what the problem actually is.

Then put it aside because you are probably still not in a place where you can direct your anger constructively. You might still need time to let go of the destructive part.

Create a containment field

Create a containment field

When our anger is still hot, but we still need to go about our day, go to work, be around people and be around our family, we need to put a containment field around our anger.

We need to strengthen the boundary around ourselves to keep the toxic emotions from hurting people around us.

It can be helpful to spend a few minutes visualizing your anger, really seeing what shape, color, and texture it has and then visualizing a boundary around it.

What does the boundary look like, how wide, tall, thick, what color, what material is it, does it have a lock, is it reinforced?

And tell yourself that your anger is safe, and nothing can let your anger out unless you let it.

And with those closest to you, you might notify them that you are in an angry place and need a little extra space.

Outlet strategies

Depending on the level of anger you experienced, it can take time for it to cool. Utilizing some outlet anger management strategies can help you cope constructively during the cooling time.

1. Distraction

It can be helpful to just get our minds off of what caused us to be angry. And trying to just not think about the anger or the cause is not very helpful.

That’s when we find ourselves ruminating and going down the “rabbit hole.” It can be much more beneficial to do something to get your mind off of it.

This can be anything from engaging in a hobby, spending time with friends, watching a positive movie or TV show, listening to music, going outside, or even going to work.

And distraction is different from denial because you intend to go back to the situation once cooled vs. ignoring it altogether.

2. Giving to others

Brain science has shown that giving to and helping others literally brings pleasure to our brain. It actually stimulates the same part of our brain that food and sex do.

When we focus on giving to others, not only do we get our mind off of the anger, but also we engage in something positive and constructive that gives back to the community and shifts our mood in the process.

As an anger management exercise try serving at a soup kitchen, help an elderly, disabled, or sick neighbor, bring baked goods to a local fire station or police station, etc.

3. Physical Activity

There is nothing like a good sweat to help release strong emotions, like anger.

Plus, you get the added benefit of endorphins, which reduce pain, alleviate stress, and create a euphoric mood, all of which can be tremendously beneficial in shifting you out of a destructive angry state.

After giving your anger time to cool through using these outlet anger management strategies, you can more easily let go of the destructive part of your anger and can begin to tap into the more constructive part.

Now you can utilize anger for the energy, motivation, focus, and drive to go back to the triggers you identified and figure out what is the hurt, fear, or injustice that you want to speak about (in a non-judgmental, attacking way).

What changes might need to happen, what are some different solutions to your problem?

And how do you want to handle these different things in a constructive, building, beneficial way so that you can build up your relationship with others, with your community, and with yourself?

Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?

If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.

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Lesley Thompson, Marriage & Family Therapist New York City, NY
I work with couples, families and individuals. I believe that everyone that comes to therapy is unique and brings in different strengths, goals, and perspectives. I do not believe in a “one size fits all” approach, but rather tailor my approach to each client. I meet each person with empathy, acceptance and directness. I believe in being an active participant in the therapy process and will strive to understand you but also find it important to be honest and challenge you when appropriate.
I am especially drawn to working with couples who have lost their connection and need to rekindle their romance, parenting issues, and high conflict couples. I also work with individuals with sports/academic performance, issues around self-esteem and shame, and identity.
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and also have a certificate in psychodynamic/psychoanalytic therapy. I also have an extensive background as a dancer and a competitive athlete that gives me a distinct perspective in my work.

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