In our era of fractious debate, divisive politics and online arguments, it can feel as if anger is always close to the surface. As part of our “fight or flight” response – helping us to address threats and draw boundaries – anger has been an evolutionarily beneficial part of our emotional make-up. But with stress levels rocketing and our anger increasing alongside it, in our frenetic modern world anger is more often a negative influence than a constructive one.
We tend to only think of anger as a problem if we frequently boil over – and it is certainly true that letting ourselves lose control feeds our discontent and alienates those around us. However, many of us respond to anger by trying to push our feelings away and avoid a confrontation. In both cases, the source of our anger is never truly addressed, and our negative feelings can begin to spiral.
Perhaps the most important aspect of expressing our anger in a healthy way is to learn to differentiate between reactive, stress-based irritability and a justified response to poor behaviour or injustice. Anger is there to protect us when something threatens our own (or a loved one’s) physical or emotional wellbeing, and in this capacity it an extremely helpful tool – we just need to know when it’s misfiring and when we need to listen.
Take up regular meditation
The first step in successfully managing and expressing anger is regulating our stress response. We all know that feeling stressed out can make us unnecessarily irritable, and that nine times out of ten this simply makes the situation worse. For example, if you’re trying to shepherd your kids home on a rush-hour tube journey, nothing is improved by snapping at your partner and rolling your eyes at the person who’s struggling at the ticket gate – it just ups the levels of bad feeling in the atmosphere. But at the same time, it can be really difficult to keep a lid on this kind of behaviour.
Regular meditation helps us to recognise justified and constructive anger by allowing stress to fall away, on both a psychological and physical level. Stress isn’t simply a psychological experience, it’s a physiological response that’s defined by increased heart rate and spike in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Meditation activates another bodily response (known as “rest and repair”) which is the direct opposite of this stressed-out state, helping us to view the world with far more calm and clarity.
This helps us deal with hostility because when we are in “fight or flight” mode, we are primed for anger but in a very poor frame of mind to cope with it. For some, this can be flying into a rage over something that turns out to be pretty inconsequential (the “fight” response), while for others it leads to an unhealthy need to avoid confrontation (which is “flight” in action).
Give yourself a chance to think
Anger is often reactive, and we can find not-particularly-helpful words escaping our mouths before we can help it. This is why pausing for a moment, and if necessary, removing ourselves from the situation can be an important part of expressing our anger in a healthy way. Whether it’s doing a few simple breathing exercises, going for a walk or processing our feelings in a journal, giving ourselves the chance to think before we respond helps us to formulate the most productive way forward.
Consider if you are misplacing blame, or are feeling angry because you know, deep down, that it is actually you that is in the wrong. Try to understand the motives of whoever has angered you, and put yourself in their shoes. Stress and anger can make us myopic, so taking ourselves out of the immediate situation helps to broaden our view.
If you often experience irritability, try to keep a journal so you can understand your triggers. You may find that an underlying issue – such as feeling unsupported by your partner, or insecure in your position at work – may be behind this tension, and once identified, you take the necessary steps to resolve it.
Address the issue before it escalates
If we have a genuine grievance and have been treated unfairly, we need to address the issue clearly and confidently before it escalates into something that is less easy to solve. If your usual style of confrontation is indirect – for example, through passive-aggression or trying to drop hints to a (often oblivious) party – this can feel quite difficult, but it is a skill we can learn.
If you are absolutely fuming, wait until you are feeling calmer before attempting to assert your point of view – while there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, it can make communicating in an effective way nearly impossible. From there, you can successfully manage confrontation by:
- Pick a good time – When you want to address a problem, choose a time where you are feeling in a good frame of mind and the atmosphere is relaxed. For example, it makes more sense to talk to your partner about a difficult subject when you’ve woken up on a sunny Saturday together and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, than if they’ve been ticking you off all day and you’ve both just fallen through the door after a long day at work.
- Plan what you want to say in advance – Make sure you have the key points that you want to communicate clear in your mind, perhaps by writing them down beforehand. It’s easy to become sidetracked in a difficult conversation (especially if the person you are talking to is trying to deflect the subject), so stick to the topic at hand and don’t abandon the discussion until you have got your points across.
- Being aware of your body language – Whether you are prone to aggression or lack of assertiveness, you can go some way in correcting these issues simply by being aware of your body language. For instance, if you find it hard to keep your anger under control, you can consciously relax your shoulders and jaw to make your pose less combative and people more receptive to what you have to say. Alternatively, if you struggle with confrontation, standing tall and looking someone clearly in the eye can communicate a sense of confidence that you may not always feel.
- Avoid using blaming language – No one likes feeling attacked, so try to avoid making character judgements about a person, and address their behaviour or the outcome instead. It is usually far more effective to point out how a person has acted has made you feel, or why you perceive something to be unfair, using “I” rather than “you” language. For example, the statement “you were wrong to overlook me for a promotion” implies either ill will or misjudgement on the part of the person you are addressing, and may not be well received. On the other hand, the statement “I feel my work and skills are not being fully utilised in this organisation” opens up a dialog, and will lead to a less fraught conversation.
However, it isn’t only in our personal and professional relationships that we can find anger building. Many of us feel a sense of impotent anger over the ineptitude of politicians, excesses of big business and injustice that still stymies the lives of millions across the globe. If you often find yourself shouting at the TV and complaining to friends about the latest news, channeling this anger into positive actions such as activism and voluntary work will not only make you feel far better, it will help to change the world for the better.