In mild cases, the more you understand your anger and what stimulates it, the more likely it is that you will acquire ways to manage it better and stop it becoming aggressive. It may help to accept that your feelings are neither good nor bad, but are trying to convey something to you.
When you feel angry or experience any feelings related to anger (upset, annoyance, frustration, resentment or feeling judgemental), then undertake some self-reflection and ask yourself questions such as, ‘Is my anger masking some other feelings?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then acknowledge these feelings. Here are some means by which to manage symptoms of frustration and anger when they surface in order to diminish your tendency to be aggressive.
Accept that anger is not a bad thing to feel or express Anger is a normal and natural feeling and it is acceptable to express it. The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it is inappropriate.
You may be someone who experiences mood swings – low moods, bad moods, increased anxiety or irritability. You may occasionally overreact to things that normally wouldn’t bother you. This is normal.
- New ways of managing moods. Try to find new ways of coping with emotions such as anger, upset, annoyance, stress. Sometimes just allowing yourself a few moments to recognize how you are feeling can help. One can permit feelings and accept them as neither good nor bad but indicators of our well-being, without always having to act on them.
- Press pause. Take some quiet time out of the day and press the ‘pause’ button. Walk away, count to ten, distract yourself, keep quiet, bite your tongue. This buys some time out from your anger and frustration.
- Ask yourself: What things might I try to stop me getting angry? (Breathing, positive self-talk, exercise, talking to someone I trust, assertiveness.)
People with anger difficulties often talk about first being frustrated and, after that sets in, getting angry. Frustration is a feeling that we all experience from time to time, especially when we expect something different from what really happened. On the plus side, frustration can be helpful as it leads to new ways of thinking about a problem. Frustration is basically about not getting what we want - or getting what we do not want! Finding ways to manage frustration may improve our sense of well-being in everyday life.
- Identify frustration triggers. These include thoughts that place unrealistic expectations on you or others – typically, thoughts that include the words ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought’: ‘You should do what I tell you’. Also look out for people, places and tasks that trigger frustration.
- Cultivate frustration tolerance. This refers to how robust we are in the face of life’s stressors and challenges. Low frustration tolerance happens when a person gets easily frustrated when they cannot get what they want. Their frustration is intolerable and they cannot cope. (‘I can’t bear it!’ or ‘I can’t stand it’). High frustration tolerance is basically about toughing things out. It helps us to experience normal levels of healthy annoyance in response to being blocked, while trying to solve problems, or accepting things that, at least at present, cannot be changed.
- Think in terms of high frustration tolerance statements. For example:
‘This is an uncomfortable situation, but I can stand the discomfort.’
‘This situation is hard to bear, but I can bear it – some difficult things are worth tolerating.’
‘Even if I feel like I can’t take it any more, past experience has shown that I probably can.’
- Aim for the middle way or neutral ground in thinking. Being less extreme in our judgement of negative situations can help us have less extreme emotional responses, such as energy-depleting anger. Many situations are difficult to tolerate, but we need to remember at such times that we have tolerated similar in the past.
- Find control. Find ways of controlling the degree of frustration that we experience in daily life. This may be achieved by changing the things we do, or thoughts we have, when we feel frustrated. Alternatively, there may be nothing we can do – in which case, it may be less energy consuming if we are able to learn to accept and tolerate the uncomfortable experiences.
Venting means letting out pent-up feelings of anger or getting things off your chest. Venting is often explosive and can be very aggressive. When we vent our anger, we often feel better immediately afterwards. However, not long after the venting most people report feeling guilty, ashamed or sad for the hurt they have caused to the other person. Originally venting was thought to be healthy for reducing anger difficulties. However, the sway of recent evidence suggests that venting is not as helpful as once supposed because it increases the chances of further anger in the future. See if you can express your anger in a healthier way.
- Recognize and label your angry feelings. ‘I am feeling angry because . . .’
- Is it important or unimportant? If it is important, can you influence or control it?
- If it is important. If it is important, and you can control it, are there strategies that are necessary in order to implement the actions? If so, then list them. If the incident is not important, dismiss it and move on to other issues.
Anger rumination can focus on injustice, angry memories, thoughts of revenge and angry afterthoughts. In ruminative anger, the body’s cortisol and adrenaline levels increase as part of the body’s fight or flight system. However, if we do not fight or run, the cortisol and adrenaline stay in the body, affecting the immune system, sleep and emotional well-being. These hormones have been linked with both heart disease and depression.
- Spot it. As with all aspects of anger, the first task is to recognize when we are doing it. So whenever you start to dwell on something that makes you feel angry, remind yourself that you are ruminating – ‘Warning! I’m ruminating!’
- Stop it. Once you’ve recognized you’re ruminating, stop as quickly as possible. However, this may be easier said than done if ruminating has become a habit. But, be easy on yourself and give yourself time to change. And as with all habits, patience and practice of new behaviours are essential.
How to stop it – ten tips
- Say to yourself, ‘Stop ruminating!
- Calm yourself by breathing, relaxation, meditation or exercise.
- Does it really matter that much? What would I say about this in five years’ time?
- Have I got the facts right? Maybe there’s been a mistake, or I’ve misunderstood?
- Have I checked that there is no other reason for this situation?
- Have I explained myself clearly?
- Am I just tired and irritable?
- Maybe I jump to conclusions too quickly?
- I will act when I’m calm and have thought about it clearly.
- Ruminating like this is most likely harming me.
These extracts are taken from Coping with Aggressive Behaviour by Dr Jane McGregor with kind permission of Sheldon Press.