Anger management: What works and what doesn't
Discusses research on effective and ineffective approaches for managing anger.
Posted Sep 25, 2013
When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred. — Thomas Jefferson
When angry count four; when very angry, swear. — Mark Twain
Anger is an emotional response to a real or imagined threat or provocation. Anger can range in intensity from mild irritation to extreme rage. Anger is not necessarily a “bad” emotion. Anger makes people feel strong and powerful, which can motivate them to stand up for what they believe is right. The American Revolution, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and many other causes probably benefited from anger and the resultant willingness to act. Anger can also motivate people to excel in sports and other domains in which it is beneficial to take a competitive stance. However, anger can also motivate people to stand up and fight for things that may be trivial or ill advised. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of murders committed in the United States are due to unchecked anger.
Angry people seem to act first, and think later. No doubt Thomas Jefferson’s advice (quoted above) to count to ten or even a hundred before speaking while angry is aimed at giving people time to reflect on the consequences of their actions and possibly avoid impulsive, destructive acts that will be regretted later. For example, angry people often spout off hurtful comments to loved ones that they cannot later retract.
We all become angry, and most of us don’t like it. The question is how to get rid of anger, or at least reduce it. That is the topic of this article.
Possible Ways of Dealing With Anger
There are three possible approaches to deal with anger: (1) stuff it, (2) express it, and (3) get rid of it. Each approach is discussed briefly below.
Stuff it. One standard approach to deal with anger is to hide it. This approach is endorsed by most societies. This approach can prompt people to stuff their anger deep inside and repress it. But there is some evidence that this is a costly strategy. Several studies have shown that stuffing anger inside can have negative health consequences, such as increasing the risk of illnesses such as heart disease. On the other hand, if people try to hide their anger, some anger might be diminished. According to the facial feedback hypothesis, feedback from the face muscles evokes or magnifies emotions.[5, 6] People who show their anger might therefore feel angrier inside than people who hide their anger.
Express it. A second approach to deal with anger is to express it. This view treats anger as a kind of inner pressure or corrosive substance that builds up over time inside the person and does harm unless it is released. Catharsis theory fits in this second approach because it holds that expressing anger produces a healthy release of emotion and is therefore good for the psyche. Catharsis theory, which can be traced back through Sigmund Freud to Aristotle, is elegant and appealing. Unfortunately, scientific evidence shows that venting one’s anger only makes things worse. Venting harms the self and others. Expressing anger is also linked to higher risk of heart disease, just like stiffing it inside. However, expressing anger has another drawback—it increases aggression against others. Even among people who believe in the value of venting and catharsis, and even when people enjoy their venting and feel some satisfaction from it, aggression becomes more likely after venting, even against innocent bystanders.
One variation of venting is intense physical exercise. When angry, some people go running or try some other form of physical exercise such as kickboxing. Research shows that although physical exercise is good for your heart, it is not good for reducing anger. The reason physical exercise doesn’t work is that it increases rather than decreases physiological arousal, such as heart rate and blood pressure. When people become angry, their physiological arousal increases. (It is possible, however, that prolonged exercise will eventually reduce anger, if it continues until the person is extremely tired—because then the arousal is finally dispersed and people feel too exhausted to aggress.)
To use another analogy, venting anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire: It just feeds the flame. Venting keeps arousal levels high and keeps aggressive thoughts and angry feelings alive. Maybe you have heard of the joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is: “Practice! Practice! Practice!” My question to you is: “How do you become an angry, aggressive person?” The answer is the same: “Practice! Practice! Practice!” Venting is just practicing how to behave more aggressively, such as by hitting, kicking, screaming, and shouting.
Get rid of it. The third approach to deal with anger is to try to get rid of it. This solution is important because the problems of both the other approaches (i.e., stuffing and expressing) are due to the person staying angry. The key thing is to stop feeling angry. All emotions, including anger, consist of bodily states (such as physiological arousal) and mental meanings. To get rid of anger, you can work on either of those. Anger can be reduced by getting rid of the arousal state, such as by relaxing (e.g., breathing deeply, listening to calming music) or by counting to ten (or one hundred) before acting. Mental tactics can also reduce anger, such as by reframing the problem or conflict. For example, rather than being angered by a friend’s rude comment, one might reinterpret the comment as a sign of the friend’s exhaustion rather than as a personal attack. Distracting oneself and turning one’s attention to other, more pleasant topics, also works because angry people tend to ruminate about what made them angry. Recent research has shown that taking a more distant and detached perceptive—like a fly on a wall—can also reduce anger and aggression. In addition, certain behaviors can help get rid of anger. For example, petting a puppy, watching a comedy, making love, or performing a good deed can help, because those acts are incompatible with anger and therefore they make the angry state impossible to sustain.
A pressure cooker is often used as a metaphor for anger, where anger builds up inside a person like steam inside a pressure cooker. Using this analogy, there are three ways to deal with the buildup of steam. One way is to keep the pressure inside the cooker until it explodes. A second way is reduce the pressure by periodically siphoning off some of the steam, as described using common terms such as “venting” and “blowing off steam.” The third (and best) way is to lower the flame and reduce the heat! Rather than stuff anger inside or expressing it outwardly, get rid of it. Stuffing anger harms the self. Expressing anger harms the self and others.
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