Feeling angry is normal. It’s hardwired into us. It’s a natural reaction to a perceived threat.
The threat could be to ourselves, someone we love, our property, or our sense of identity.
You definitely know anger when you feel it. It sometimes shows up in more subtle feelings like irritation, indignation, or frustration.
On the high end of the anger intensity scale, you feel rage and furor — the times when you find yourself screaming like a banshee, slamming doors, or even throwing a punch. This is explosive anger generally leads to regret.
There are triggering events that lead to our anger, but it’s our perceptions of a situation often provoke angry feelings. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Our spouse says something we find offensive. Our boss gives the promotion to your less-than-capable co-worker.
In our anger (and sometimes even when we’re calm), we believe the triggering event “makes” us feel angry. But if that were true, everyone would feel angry over the exact same situations. What makes one person livid with rage doesn’t necessarily bother another person. There are mitigating factors.
These factors can include your personality — competitive, narcissistic, Type A personalities for example are more prone to anger. Also your state of mind prior to the triggering event can tip the scales from irritation to red-faced rage.
If you’re tired, already irritated about something, or anxious, you’ll respond more readily with anger to the triggering event. Of course your appraisal of the anger-provoking situation has a profound impact on how you react.
Feeling angry isn’t bad. Quite often anger is justified and necessary. You can use it to stand up for yourself, right a wrong, and take action for positive change.
However, mismanaged anger — whether you shove it down or let it rip — can be detrimental to your health, your relationships, and your ability to be successful in your career. You need to know skills for managing anger so you don’t push away friends, lose your job, or wind up in divorce court.
Here are 10 ways to calm down when you feel angry.
1. Acknowledge the feelings.
Anger is an emotion that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. When we are absorbed in anger, we often have knee-jerk reactions because the emotions feel so real and powerful.
Emotions come and go but behavior has long-lasting consequences. When you’re angry, try to remind yourself that it’s just a feeling, and it will pass soon enough.
Sit with the feeling for a few minutes without saying or doing anything. If you feel like crying or punching a pillow (but not a wall or a person), then do so if it helps relieve the tension.
Anger causes many physical reactions — a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, tightening of muscles, and rapid breathing. When you manage these physicals symptoms, you can begin to calm your mind as well.
If possible, close your eyes and take five minutes to practice abdominal breathing. Count each breath up to ten, saying the number on the out breath. Do this several times until you feel your heart rate slow down and your body relax.
3. Excuse yourself.
If another person triggers your anger, excuse yourself from them before you respond. Say something like, “I need to step away for a moment,” and leave the room so you can manage your feelings and practice breathing privately.
It might feel good in the moment to scream and yell or respond with a snarky comment, but you know this isn’t the best way to react, even if the other person is behaving badly.
Give yourself time to respond appropriately without the distorting cloud of anger. Taking a walk outside, going for a run, or exercising in some way can help diffuse the angry feelings.
4. Identify the root.
When you’re more calm, ask yourself what really made you so angry. How did you feel threatened? This requires some deeper self-inquiry. You might say initially you were angry with your spouse because, “He acts like a jerk.” But what is really behind that feeling?
Use this question template to help you: “When my husband (wife, boss, etc.) says (does) _______, it makes me feel ________.”
Don’t use the word “angry” or any related word to describe your feelings. Dig out the threat behind the anger. Maybe it makes you feel diminished, unloved, disrespected, stupid, etc.
This self-inquiry requires honesty and vulnerability, but it will help you better understand yourself so you can make positive change.
5. Examine the feelings.
When you come up with the word or words that describe the threat you feel, examine those feelings more closely.
Sometimes the feelings are legitimate, healthy responses to unjustified or undeserved treatment. If someone continues to put you down or lies about you, for example, then your threatened feelings are valid.
Other times it’s not so clear. Perhaps someone makes an offhand remark, but you interpret it negatively because you have low self-esteem, or you’re simply feeling tired. Try to step outside of yourself to view the situation with dispassionate eyes.
6. Use the balloon or the box.
There are some situations that trigger anger, but they really aren’t worth expending much time or mental energy. Let’s say someone cuts you off while driving, or an acquaintance makes a passive-aggressive remark about you in front of others.
These situations are fleeting and likely won’t happen again with the same person. You feel the anger bubble up, but taking action would cause more harm than good.
I like to use the balloon visualization in these scenarios. You simply visualize your anger as an orb of energy, and you mentally place it in a balloon. Then release the balloon and imagine it floating away and out of sight.
If it’s a situation you want to deal with later, but you can’t at the moment it happens — for instance a co-worker undermines you in a meeting — then mentally put the situation and your anger in a box and put it on a shelf. You can proceed calmly until it’s time to take the box down and deal with it.
7. Write about it.
Writing is a great way to release your anger and explore your feelings. When an anger-triggering situation happens, first just let it flow on the page and discharge all of your angry thoughts.
Then go back and write the scenario as if you’re a bystander observing it. Simply chronicle the events and words as you remember them.
Go through the exercise of examining the emotional threat behind the anger, and write about that as well.
Finally, write a plan for dealing with the situation in a healthy way. What kind of change do you desire? How can you calmly communicate that? How can you maturely share the way the situation made you feel?
8. Flip it.
Take a moment to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What triggered them to say or do the thing that set off your anger?
Perhaps they were completely blind to your feelings. Maybe they were tired, distracted, or in emotional pain. Maybe they have a personality type that is entirely different from yours. Maybe you said or did something that triggered their behavior.
Understanding and empathizing with the other person will help mitigate your angry feelings. Most people are unconscious in the way they react and respond, and they are simply doing the best they know how.
9. Seek honest advice.
When we feel angry, we want other people to corroborate and affirm our feelings. We want someone to say, “You are right, and they are wrong. You are good, and they are bad.”
However, looking to others to categorically support our position doesn’t serve us. It only provides temporary relief.
Once you have calmed down from your initial outrage, find a trusted friend or counselor, and review the situation and your feelings about it. Seek honest, unbiased feedback so that you can respond in a healthy, productive way when the time comes.
It may be uncomfortable to look at your own contribution to the angry situation, but this is part of personal growth and self-honesty.
10. Avoid passive-aggressiveness.
Some people don’t have angry outbursts, even when they feel extremely angry. They use passive aggressive behaviors to reveal their anger, perhaps thinking it’s a more acceptable, calm response.
Making comments under your breath, giving the silent treatment, disguising criticism with compliments, or making intentional mistakes are examples of passively demonstrating your anger.
Passive-aggressive behavior never really addresses the issue directly, and it can lead to more anger and frustration when the other person doesn’t respond or is confused by your behavior.
It’s better to say or do nothing until you have the ability to communicate your feelings forthrightly and calmly.
By taking the time to calm down when you feel angry, you’re not just saving yourself from future regret and difficulties. You’re also training yourself to be the emotionally mature and balanced person you want to be.
You allow yourself the time and space to understand your feelings and to rationally decide the best course of action going forward.
Anger is a normal emotion, but how you respond to it can make a huge difference in your relationships and quality of life.