Will Smith may have landed a slap at the 2022 Oscar ceremonies that was seen (and heard) around the world, but most of us have also found ourselves in situations where our anger was simply too hot for us to handle. In fact, it was a phenomenon we were experiencing even before the pandemic. A 2019 poll found that 84 percent of Americans thought the country was angrier then than it was a generation ago — with over 40 percent confessing that they were angrier in the previous 12 months than they’d been in years. Similarly, a 2021 American Psychological Association Stress in America survey found that 84 percent of Americans reported experiencing emotions associated with prolonged stress, with almost 40 percent of them saying they felt anger.
“There’s a sense of increased frustration. While COVID-19 was part of it, it was there even before the pandemic,” says Bernard Golden, a Chicago psychotherapist and founder of Anger Management Education. But holding onto this rage isn’t good for either your mental or physical health — in fact, it’s been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain and stroke. The effects are particularly pronounced in older adults: A 2019 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that anger may be more harmful to older individuals’ physical health than sadness.
How to let it out safely
1. Try not to vent. If you’re furious, your first instinct might be to call your spouse or other loved one and let your emotions rip. But that action has the opposite effect. “The worst thing you can do is express anger. It’s like using gasoline to put out a fire,” says Brad Bushman, professor of communication at Ohio State University. Research done by Bushman has actually found that angry people instructed to punch a punching bag and think about what enraged them stayed more enraged than those who didn’t. Those who thought about something distracting, like becoming physically fit, while punching the bag reported being less angry than those who punched while thinking of the person who angered them. “When you vent, you keep your arousal levels high — your blood pressure and heart rate stay elevated, and you ruminate about what made you angry, which keeps aggressive thoughts alive,” he explains.
Is it ever OK to talk your anger out with someone? Yes, Bushman says, if it’s with the goal of solving the problem. “You need to focus on solutions, rather than just venting,” he says. If you find that you are just rehashing the incident over and over, you need to cut the conversation off and do something else.
2. Take some deep breaths. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale for a count of six. “This slows down your heart rate, which in turn helps your body relax,” explains Golden. To make it more effective, he recommends that you repeat a pair of words like “stop, go,” or “green light, red light.” These types of mindfulness-based exercises have been shown to be very effective: A 2017 study published in the journal Mindfulness, for example, found that more mindful individuals had better heart rates and lower blood pressure during conflict.
3. Check in with your anger. Take a moment to rate your anger, using a scale of one to 10, advises Stephen Dansiger, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of Mindfulness for Anger Management. This helps redirect your brain from an emotional response to a logical response, he says. It can also help you determine if there’s real cause for your anger, or you are overreacting. If, after checking in, your rage is a six or higher, walk away from the situation, he advises. “You don’t want this to turn into a nine,” he says.
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4. Fill out an anger log. Golden often asks his clients to fill out an anger log after they’ve calmed down to get in touch with the types of situations that trigger anger for them, including the thoughts and feelings that precede and follow the event. “It can make you more skillful at altering the course of anger progression by giving you information about where you get stuck,” Golden explains. It also gives you a way to judge your emotions less harshly. “Anger itself can be a sign of depression,” Golden adds. “An anger log provides a tool to help you recognize if your rage is a sign of underlying pain that needs to be addressed.”
5. Eat something. Believe it or not, a need to nosh could be the real cause of your ire, a phenomenon often described as “hangry,” says Dansiger. Here’s why: When your blood sugar gets too low, it triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, he explains. These chemicals help rebalance your blood sugar, but they can also make you more aggressive. While you don’t want to raid the vending machine as a way to decrease your rage, Dansiger does recommend that you indulge in a healthy snack, like a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit, rather than lashing out.
6. Exercise. Aerobic exercise, like going for a brisk walk, is very effective at reducing anger: Research has shown that the more physically fit people are, the less prone they are to rage. It also helps raise levels of brain chemicals such as endorphins, which boost mood, Golden points out. Just remember that it’s not a panacea. A small 2019 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that a 30-minute moderate to intense workout did reduce anger among men prone to flying off the handle. But the emotions returned later — although hopefully by then the subjects had more time to process them. “The hope is once you’ve calmed down enough, you can come up with strategies to turn your anger into something productive,” explains Golden.
What to do if you’re at the receiving end
If someone flies off the handle at you, it can be frustrating, even terrifying. But there are ways to de-escalate the situation. The first step is to walk away if you can, says Golden. If you can’t, talk in a quiet voice. “Don’t say ‘calm down,’ which is an often well-meaning phrase but can antagonize someone,” advises Pauline Wallin, a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Don’t try to argue back or prove your point. Instead, tell them that you realize that they are upset, and that you will sit down and talk with them when they are ready. Once they have calmed down, you can have a discussion, says Wallin.
Oftentimes, this is enough to decrease tension. But if it doesn’t, or if it happens frequently, it’s a red flag that you are in an unhealthy situation, Golden says. Your loved one may need anger management counseling, and you may need to seek help as well.
Hallie Levine is a contributing writer and an award-winning medical and health reporter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Health and Time, among other publications.