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The Anger Thermostat: What's the Temperature of Your Upset?

In identifying degrees of anger, “hotter” is definitely higher.

Source: Honeywell/Wikipedia

Sometimes just thinking about your anger can help regulate it and keep it from escalating further. Additionally, assessing the particular intensity of your negative emotional arousal can assist you in determining how best to lower it. Unless, that is, you’re unable to resist the self-validating sense of righteousness, or the immediately empowering adrenaline rush, that typically accompanies this most fiery of emotions.

The effort to measure the precise level of your anger can also help you, at least indirectly, to monitor it. If you’re easily provoked, it only makes sense to “check in” on your thoughts and feelings regularly (and maybe frequently, at that). This way you can detect early warning signs of whether you’re getting impatient, irked, irritated—or even inflamed. The sooner you become aware that someone or something has begun to get on your nerves, the better your chances of calming yourself down before you’ve lost control of such increasingly “hot” feelings. For the more your emotional temperature rises, the more time it will take to cool off. And it’s only when you’re able to retrieve your physical, mental, and emotional equilibrium that you can trust yourself to behave in ways you won’t later regret.

Yet another reason to do what’s necessary to prevent your anger from getting too tight a grip on you is that such a stranglehold substantially reduces your “emotional intelligence.” Still, if you can quickly loosen its grasp and begin to explore what prompted you to get mad in the first place, you’ll soon recognize that your anger wasn’t actually the initial reaction to whatever disturbed you. Rather, it was secondary to it.. As discussed in other posts I’ve written on anger (see Note 1), anger is most accurately understood as a potent psychological defense against a variety of more distressing emotions that underlie it. So concealed beneath your anger might be feelings of disappointment; anxiety, worry, or fear; sadness; jealousy; guilt or shame, embarrassment or humiliation, or an exasperating sense of powerlessness. Fellow blogger Steven Stosny emphasizes that virtually all anger stems from our “core hurts,” which he identifies as feeling “disregarded,” “ unimportant,” “accused” [as in made to feel “guilty” or “untrustworthy”], “devalued,” “rejected,” “powerless,” “unlovable,” or—at its extreme—“unfit for human contact.”

Anger is, unquestionably, the most moralistic of emotions. That is, angry people almost always experience their anger as fully justified—that they’re clearly “in the right” about whatever has upset them, as though God Himself must surely be aligned with them. So once this emotion breaks out of its cage, it can be extremely difficult to get it back inside without refocusing your attention on what distressful feeling(s) it may be camouflaging. Then, of course, you’ll be required to deal with—and resolve—this concealed emotion. For example, you’ll need to find realistic ways to reassure yourself that you’re not without value—or that your anxiety doesn’t signal some imminent danger. If you’re able to effectively confront the emotion cloaked by your anger, you’ll find that such anger will dissipate—if not disappear altogether.

Once you’re deeply incensed, it can be quite problematic to reason yourself out of it. So it’s crucial to vigilantly watch out for your anger before it reaches an explosive level. That is, as soon as you notice yourself getting riled up you need to take corrective action. Which is why I’ve constructed an “anger thermostat” (or, technically, "ruler") meant to guide you in estimating just how mad you might be getting. Below imagine each half-inch as delineating a particular stage of anger—from extremely mild to so severe that, well, “homicidal rage” might be one way of characterizing it. Not that you’d really commit such a barbarically vengeful act but that the impulse (and livid energy) to do is now fully aroused.

The exact numbers and verbal descriptors I’ve assigned to each level of anger may seem rather subjective, maybe even arbitrary. For your particular associations for the immense variety of anger-related word in our lexicon may well differ from mine. Moreover, many of the terms provided below contain within themselves degrees of intensity. Take the word “annoyed.” This characterization might range from slightly annoyed (a “1” or “2” on the anger ruler) to extremely annoyed (say, a “7” or “8”), which would make it roughly synonymous with the descriptors “perturbed” or “indignant."

Nonetheless, the very effort involved in assessing the precise nature or degree of your upset may assist you in detaching from a destabilizing emotion that—without such scrupulous self-examination—could easily spiral upwards. Self-diagnosis here may be the first step in regaining a self-control that you’re in grave danger of losing.

In reviewing this chart, I’d suggest you scan it from the bottom up to get a better sense of the starting point of your anger—as well as how, left unrecognized or unattended to, it might grow—or “mutate”—into a form over which you have a decreasing ability to control . . . and so are likely to lament later:

12 infuriated; raging; rageful; boiling; explosive

11.5 fuming; smoldering; inflamed; outraged

11 incensed; enraged

10.5 seething; livid; “hot”

10 bitter; irate; inflamed; rancorous

9.5 heated; wrathful; vengeful

9 hostile; belligerant

8.5 riled; galled; agitated; pissed off

8 indignant; insulted

7.5 disgusted; fed up; exasperated

7 perturbed; piqued

6.5 upset; antagonized; cross

6 resentful

5.5 provoked; irritated

5 miffed; irked; chagrined; disgruntled

4.5 vexed; “hot under the collar”

4 irritable; irascible; grumpy: grouchy

3.5 peevish; petulant; testy

3 offended; provoked

2.5 frustrated; uptight

2 annoyed; chafing

1.5 impatient; edgy; distressed

1 bothered; troubled

0.5 displeased; disappointed

0 completely calm and cool; peaceful; tranquil; fully in control—both emotionally and cognitively

The purpose of this post isn’t to detail the large number of anger control techniques presently available to successfully “subdue” the various states of anger listed above. Nonetheless, I’ll suggest the kinds of techniques most suitable to each anger stage.

So, if the degree of your particular upset is relatively mild, methods that center on altering the thoughts fueling your anger are the most appropriate. In your head you need to identify and actively challenge the possible exaggerations or distortions in your thinking that have prompted your anger. And you may also need to deepen your understanding of, and empathy toward, the other’s differing perspective. How might they be perceiving this situation (i.e., in their own "righteous" way)?

If your anger is somewhere in the medium range, in addition to the above recommendations you may be required to learn better ways of handling the people and circumstances that provoked your anger. Such tactics or practices might include becoming more assertive; developing more effective problem-solving, or negotiation, skills; becoming less defensive, or reactive, to criticism; training yourself in what is sometimes called “anger inoculation”; refocusing on the more humorous, or ludicrous, aspects of the situation; and—because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior—learning to anticipate from certain troublesome individuals displays of ignorance, inconsiderateness, incompetence, obtuseness, mean-spiritedness, etc. that earlier yanked your chain, and so caused you to sacrifice your emotional equilibrium.

Finally, if your anger is already markedly aroused and your temper is beginning to approach the boiling point, none of the above is likely to work. Not, that is, until you can physically calm yourself down. For only when you’ve begun to cool off can your higher, neocortical functioning get back online. So here you might need to (1) take a time-out from the person whom you’ve become incensed with, (2) engage in some form of relaxation—such as deep breathing, guided meditation, visualization, meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga; or anything else that works for you, or (3) try to exercise your tension away—and release the adrenaline build-up engendered by your anger—by doing as many push-ups, chin-ups, or sit-ups as you can; running, jogging, or bicycling; or putting all your overwrought energy into some strenuous aerobic regimen.

Of course, the main objective with all these methods is not to let your anger get the better of you. And regaining self-control necessitates your being as pro-active as possible. For unless you commit yourself to “working with” your anger, it will eventually “take you over.” And—almost guaranteed—the results will not be pretty.

Note 1: Here are the links to earlier posts I’ve published in Psychology Today on anger:

“I’m Not Angry—But I Still Think You’re Being Unfair”

"Anger: When Adults Act Like Children—and Why"

"The Rarely Recognized Upside of Anger,"

“Anger Always Makes Sense,”

"What Does Donald Duck Have to Do with Anger Control?",

"Feeling Vulnerable? No Problem—Just Get Angry"

“Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear,”

“A Powerful Two-Step Process to Get Rid of Unwanted Anger,"

“What Your Anger May Be Hiding,”

“Mad =Angry + Crazy + Dumb” (Parts 1 & 2),

“The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”, and

"Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."

Note 2: If you found this post useful, please consider forwarding its link to others. Moreover, if you’d like to check out additional pieces I’ve written for PT (on a wide variety of subjects), click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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