Anger Management

If you're having trouble managing your anger, you may be jeopardizing more than just your health

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion, like joy or fear.

But if your red-hot anger sometimes has you turning Hulk green, you could be putting yourself at risk for serious health problems.

What does anger do?

For instance, constantly suppressing anger — known as "anger in" — can have the following effects on the body:

  • Raise blood pressure, which can be especially dangerous for people who have high blood pressure
  • Increase stress
  • Cause digestive issues, such as ulcers, or aggravate existing gastrointestinal conditions
  • Create muscle tension that worsens chronic pain, especially low back pain

Research also suggests that heated outbursts — or "anger out" — may be linked to worsening of heart disease.

In addition to the potential health risks, there may be other unintended consequences of ineffectively managing your anger, such as losing an important relationship or getting fired from your job.

"You may end up emotionally or even physically hurting others, especially if you are prone to verbal or physical outbursts," says John Burns, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center. "If people tell you they are concerned about you or afraid of you, that's a sure sign you aren't in control of your anger."

Here, Burns offers eight strategies that can help you get a handle on your anger:

1. Know your triggers.

What makes your blood boil? Traffic jams? Your boss yelling at you in front of everyone? Your child's perpetually messy room?

Sit down and make a list of the things that are most likely to infuriate you. This can help you avoid anger-inducing situations or, when that’s not possible, know when you should take steps to soothe your angry feelings.

"It's especially important when you're feeling stressed to be aware of what might be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Burns says. "For instance, you don't want to unleash your entire bad day at work on your child because she didn't pick up her toys. Or yell at your spouse for being late when really you're upset because you aren't feeling well."

2. Focus on relaxing.

One way to cool down: Try relaxation techniques in the moment.

Find what works best for you, whether it's taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, giving yourself a "time out" and going for a walk, playing soothing music or another strategy.

"An outburst won't fix whatever is making you angry, and it may end up making the situation worse," Burns says. "Once you're calmer, you can focus on actually solving the problem, which should always be the goal."

3. Be assertive, not aggressive, to problem-solve.

Instead of lashing out, try communicating your feelings in a calm but direct way at the time the incident occurs.

"While perhaps less natural, saying to someone, 'That made me angry, and I would like to discuss it and request a behavior change' is a far more effective way to solve the problem than name-calling or throwing a plate across the room," Burns says.

Addressing the problem with a cool head takes courage and patience. But if you're able to define the problem, talk things through and reach an agreement, you can potentially eliminate the source of your anger and prevent future outbursts.

An outburst won't fix whatever is making you angry. Once you're calmer, you can focus on actually solving the problem, which should always be the goal.

4. Don't stew in your own juices.

If you tend to suppress your anger, it can build up. This can eventually lead to explosions at unexpected or inappropriate times.

"I've done marital counseling where one partner will say, 'I was just sitting there minding my own business, and you came at me with a list of 20 things that have been bothering you over the last six months,' " Burns says. "The dam breaks, and out comes this litany of complaints."

The person who's the target may feel ambushed, especially if he or she didn’t know there were any problems. This can cause anger, resentment and defensiveness — and, potentially, unnecessary fights.

Address issues as they arise rather than letting them pile up. But remember: Be assertive, not aggressive. It's better to say something like, "Please remember to put your shoes away," than "You are such a slob! Stop leaving your shoes in the middle of the floor!"

5. Look at the situation differently.

"When you think about who and what makes you angry, what do all those things have in common? You," Burns says. "You interpret situations in ways that make you angry. You take them personally."

For example, a driver cuts you off on the expressway. Instead of being enraged at what this "idiot" did to you, think about what might have caused his behavior. Maybe he's having a bad day and is distracted. Maybe he has an emergency. Or maybe he doesn't realize he did anything wrong because he didn't see your car.

The situation hasn't changed, but in the above scenarios the driver's actions are no longer personal attacks on you.

"Changing your interpretation of the event will allow you to cut the person slack and not take his actions personally," Burns explains. "You can't control what other people do. You can, however, control how you react."

6. Let it go.

When you can't solve a problem, it can be frustrating and make you mad. Like when that driver cuts you off and speeds away. Or when your boss makes you stay late and you have to miss an important family event.

"Sometimes, there's nothing you can do," Burns says. "You simply aren't going to be able to solve the problem — either in the moment or in the future."

In those cases, you need to figure out how to move past it. "Otherwise, you will just stew and stew," he adds. "And you might hurt yourself or take your anger out on someone who doesn't deserve it."

Some of the above strategies can help you let go, like doing a relaxation technique or changing your interpretation of the event. 

7. Own your anger.

"It can be hard to accept the idea that you make yourself angry, but the first step is taking responsibility for your anger. Just own it," Burns says. "Until you do, you won't be able to get a handle on it."

That means being willing to listen — without getting angry or defensive — when others tell you that you have a problem. Use feedback from family, friends and co-workers to reflect on your behavior and find situations where your anger got the better of you. 

8. Get help if you need it.

Most people will never need personal counseling or anger management classes for their anger. But both are available — ask your primary care doctor or look online for resources in your area — and both can help.

It's OK to start by trying to make positive behavior changes on your own. Get professional help, however, if self-management isn't working and your anger is causing health issues or hurting others.

"There's nothing wrong with admitting you need help," Burns says. "But whether you use self-management techniques or see a professional, the important thing is to take control of your anger so it no longer controls you."

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