Got Big Anger? A Short Fuse? How to Rein It In

You may feel like you have good reasons to be angry. But you don’t.

Posted Sep 12, 2020

 philip pilz/Unsplash
Source: philip pilz/Unsplash

Maybe you think you’re just genetically wired for anger, that you’re just the type of person who goes 0-60 in nanoseconds, it's part of your personality and the temperament that you were born with. Or it's about your family—that you grew up in a family where everyone argued when you were a kid; it's simply part of your family culture. Or no, it's about other people—you can control your emotions, and you only get angry because certain other people push your buttons when they should know better.

All possible, all great ideas, but the bottom line is, too bad. Uncontrolled anger has consequences not only on others but on you and your life:

  • Those close to you don’t feel safe and walk on eggshells—this is particularly dangerous for children who learn to fear adults and the larger world.
  • Your message gets lost: Whatever you were angry about is never really heard because the receiver is feeling traumatized and can’t process what you are saying—they mentally blank out.
  • Others, particularly those close to you, really don’t know you: There is no understanding or intimacy; because they are afraid of you, they come to see you as one-dimensional; because you probably never express any other emotions besides anger, they don’t know what makes you tick—they see you as just this scary, angry person, but in reality, you’re more complex than that. 
  • And on a practical level, your anger can get you into trouble—fired from your job, a divorce, abuse of kids, assault charges.

In addition to genetics and overall family culture, here's what also can be driving all this anger.

You’re hypervigilant. Growing up in an abusive or chaotic family is hell for kids. You need to survive, and as a kid, you have few coping options—freeze, fight, flight—but regardless of your reaction, the underlying coping skill is to be hypervigilant. You only survive by knowing what might come next. You're always anticipating the next disaster, looking around corners, and if something breaks bad, while your sibs may withdraw or freeze, you instead go into fight mode. While it works for you as a kid, the problem is that you don’t turn it off—as an adult where you have more control and less to fear, you’re still anxious and looking around corners and hot-wired for danger ... and ready to fight.

You have trauma. What is driving this hypervigilance is trauma, and trauma itself creates these powerful brain circuits that bypass your rational brain. You become triggered, you immediately go into fight mode, your rational brain is offline.

You identified with the aggressor. Often the oldest child, who doesn't have a buffer between him and his parent, will identify with the aggressor—essentially have the behaviors of the angry, domineering parent, imprinted on them. Again, like hypervigilance, it's difficult to turn off, and as an adult you become a replica of that angry parent.

If your anger gets too high it’s hard to rein in. This is not about the past but the mechanics of strong emotions. On a 10-point scale, once your anger gets to a 6 or 7 you go on autopilot, and those old brain pathways take over. If you quickly go 0-60 you have little time to catch what is happening before it emotionally gets out of your control.

Often there is not one but several dynamics driving you. All this is good to know, but don't use them as an excuse to not be responsible and rein in your anger.

What to do 

This is a two-step process: regulating your anger and then using the information it provides to solve problems.

The details:

Check-in with yourself. You want to train your brain to catch anger earlier before they get to that 6+ level. You want to increase your emotional sensitivity. To train your brain to do that check-in with yourself every hour and ask how you’re doing. If you start to feel irritable at 4 or 5, it's time to lower the emotional temperature before it goes up.

Lower your temperature. Take action. Your thoughts are likely circling around what you're upset about—what she said, how this always happens, etc. Right now it's about emotional regulation, calming yourself down so you can think more clearly, put out the fire of the anger. Take that walk, deep breath, get out of your head by playing a video game, take a hot shower, write down what you're thinking.

Don’t blame. Your head is going to obsess about those other people, what they said and did. This is your anger ramping up. Yes, maybe there is a problem with those other people, but your problem right now isn’t them but your anger. 

Realize you are not giving in. Your brain is going to tell you that unless you push back, give them a piece of your mind, stand up for yourself, you’re wimping out, and that person wins and is going to take advantage of you. This is old kid wiring. By slowing down and calming down you aren't losing, you aren't giving in, but are instead simply managing you. Do that; solving the relationship problem is what comes next.

See if there is a real problem. Once you lower your temperature, check-in again, and see if whatever you were obsessing about is still there, whether there is a real problem that is bugging you. You may find that the irritation or problem has faded, that you were simply in a bad mood because you didn't sleep well and were tired, that you drank too much, or that you recognize that this is old junk from the past that is just junk.

Or once you've calmed down you realize that a real problem is lingering—that your partner's critical comment but not only hurtful but part of a bigger pattern of criticism. Or that your supervisor rarely follows through on what she said she would do, and this is not only frustrating for you, but it keeps you from being efficient on your job. This is great. Your anger has told you that there is a concrete problem that you need to take decisive action to fix.

Solve the problem. Once your rational brain is back in gear, once you're clear about what problem you need to resolve, move forward. Have that calm but clear conversation with your partner about her criticisms, explain to your supervisor how your work is being affected by her delayed responses. Don't mull, don't obsess; put the problem to rest.

Anger, like other emotions, is information, letting you and others know what you need. Use that information to solve those problems; don't simply spray it around and hurt others. And don't let your anger is run you, don't justify it, or allow yourself to feel like a victim by blaming others.

Is it time to take charge and rein it in?