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Last Updated Thursday July 19 2018 10:52 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Control your anger before it controls you

Nirmala Ferrao
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Control your anger before it controls you

Your anger can be your friend -- just handle it with care!

If you were given the chance to banish anger right out of your life, would you grab at it? Careful before you answer, 'Yes'! Anger, one of the primary, as well as one of the most powerful, emotions cuts across races and even species -- and there are some good reasons for that.

Perhaps the most obvious one is that anger has survival value and a well-established evolutionary advantage. Fear and rage are common to animals because these emotions serve as red alerts, helping them to gear up for fight and survival. And evidently they did the same for primitive man in his life-or-death confrontations with wild animals and other threats. Anger it was that primed his body and mind for action. And anger it was that provided the stimulus for the 'fight' part of his "fight or flight" response. (Fear was the stimulus for the 'flight' part).

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While most of us do not, these days, run into man-eating tigers standing in line at the super-market, anger still remains an emotion that empowers us to protect ourselves against a perceived attack or threat. If you are being taken advantage of, for instance, anger motivates you to take action (not necessarily aggressive) to correct the situation. Extend this useful function to a broader canvas and you find that, on the world stage, too, anger can spur an entire society or nation to change for the better. Popular movements and successful revolts have all been fueled by anger, including the women's suffrage movement and our own independence struggle. Civil disobedience, grounded though it was in non-violence, was nonetheless impelled by anger against foreign domination.

To paraphrase Malcolm X, there's a time and a place for anger, where nothing else will do. A number of studies show that, in the places where anger is usually played out -- especially on the domestic front -- it is beneficial. Angry episodes, these studies have found, helped strengthen relationships more than half the time. People who are the targets of anger in these studies have said things like, "I really understand the other person much better now -- I guess I wasn't listening before." While assertive expression is always preferable to angry expression, anger may serve an important alerting function that leads to deeper understanding in human relationships.

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Anger, in and of itself, is neither positive nor negative, it's a perfectly normal, biological emotion, and it's part of being human. It becomes a problem only when it is either not properly handled, or when it is chronic, i.e., when it recurs in persistent episodes.


Anger is possibly the most poorly handled emotion in human society. That is because we have never learnt -- or, more correctly, have never been taught -- appropriate ways of managing this emotion. By far, the two most common ways of dealing with anger are by either exploding or by imploding: that is, by either blowing your stack or by putting the lid on it and simmering inside.

Control your anger before it controls you

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For decades, psychologists had debated the question of which is the better way of handling anger: to let it rip or to keep it corked. Pop psychologists of an earlier era strongly endorsed the philosophy, "Let it all hang out". Pent-up anger is unhealthy, their argument ran, get it off your chest. Today's psychologists have a different take on both, explosive and implosive anger. Neither holding it in nor exploding in wrath is appropriate or healthful, they say. Lashing out against someone or something verbally or physically actually adds more tension to your body, it has been found. Studies have shown that, contrary to what you may have been led to believe, so-called tension-release methods such as punching a bag or pillow do not decrease anger but in fact increase aggressive behavior. The unbridled expression of anger can also escalate the conflict by provoking the person you're lashing out against to retaliate explosively, too.

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On the other hand, suppressing anger is not the answer, either. When not allowed outward expression, anger can turn inward -- on yourself -- bringing on stress, anxiety and depression. Suppressed anger can also lead to pathological behaviour, in particular, the so-called "passive-aggressive behaviours" -- getting back at people indirectly without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on. Some of the ways in which you might express passive aggression include: refusal to follow instructions or rules; showing up late regularly; withdrawing socially; retreating into silent remoteness; denying anger (e.g., "No, I'm not angry with you, I'm just disappointed").

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If not aggressive expression and if not suppression, then what's the appropriate way to handle anger? It is to express anger -- when indeed expressing it would be beneficial -- in ways that are healthful. But before you can do that, there's something else you need to do. Don't forget that anger is not just a feeling (its emotional aspect); it's also a state of arousal (its physiological aspect). When you're angry, your adrenal glands are releasing stress hormones in response to which your body tenses up. You are full of emotional energy, alert, primed for action. Your breathing quickens, your heart starts pounding, your blood pressure climbs, your pupils dilate, your face is flushed, you may start to sweat. Not the best of conditions under which you can begin to express your anger in ways that are reasoned and rational. You must first calm down inside, reduce the intensity of the arousal symptoms.

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So, anger management is really a three-stage process: First, quell the state of arousal. Second, consider whether the situation really merits a response in terms of expressing your anger (not every situation calls for such expression). Third, express anger, when it is called for, in ways that are healthful and constructive.

Quell the arousal. There are time-tested methods for doing this. Many of them will already be familiar to you. Now all you've got to do is actually put them to work -- something that often doesn't happen when you're in a fume! Here's a listing of some of the best calming techniques.

Control your anger before it controls you

» Count to 10 before you say or do anything. Clichéd, but it works -- that's how it became a cliché in the first place. When you count to 10 (or sometimes 20 or 30 or more if need be), you're actually giving yourself the time you need to subdue the physiological arousal. You can enhance the process by deep breathing: push your belly button out as you inhale and pull it toward your spine as you exhale, and focus on what you're doing.

Also helpful in putting the brakes on arousal is repeating a calming word or message to yourself: 'R-e-l-a-x', 'Cool it' -- whatever works for you.

» Call Time Out. When you feel the situation is beginning to get away from you, ask yourself these two questions: 'Am I so angry that I can't think?', and 'Am I so angry I want to lash out and hit this person?' If the answer to either of these questions is 'Yes', walk away from the situation. Tell the other person you're too angry to speak to them at that time. Go away somewhere to calm down. Calming actions can include taking a walk, calling a friend or relative, listening to music, prayer or meditation, writing down your feelings in a letter (for yourself, not to give to the other person), a warm shower, a good night's rest.

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» What about the frequently-suggested technique of Visual Imagery, which would have you calm down by imagining a happy scene such as an idyllic holiday? It's not a technique that has universal appeal -- or, indeed, credibility. Somehow, it seems a tad difficult to transport yourself to a Caribbean beach when the waiter's just spilled a mess of gravy down your new blazer. But if you think visual imagery could work for you, by all means give it a go.

If you practice calming-down techniques, you'll find with time that they become second nature to you so that, in a situation of potential conflict, you are able to recognize the signs that your fuse has been lit and to stamp it out before you explode.

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Analyze your feelings. Once you've got your anger to subside in intensity, you can get down to figuring out exactly what it was that made you angry. This self-awareness is the first step in the successful management of anger. We become angry when one or more of our 'primary needs' is not met or is being threatened. We all have these needs chirping away inside us like so many hungry chicks. We need to feel safe, significant, successful, valued, accepted, encouraged, cared for. We must also have fairness, justice, trust, loyalty and so on. When someone or something gets in the way of one of these needs or values, the frustration we feel brings on the anger response.

So, ask yourself which of these needs or values was under threat when you got angry. If you and your spouse have an understanding that you will each undertake certain chores regularly, but your partner does not do so, leaving you to handle them yourself, you may feel your need for support is going unmet. Also, that values of fairness and justice are under threat. Often, you may discover a pattern -- e.g., you may find that your anger at work can be sourced, in each instance, to other team members brushing aside your opinions. As a parent, you may find that your anger is triggered when your children are messy or don't cooperate.

Control your anger before it controls you

Without this clear awareness of why you did get angry, it can often happen that, in the aftermath of the anger episode, you end up feeling guilty and remorseful -- and this does not really solve anything.

Ask yourself three questions. Once you are clear about what brought on your anger, it's time to ask yourself these questions:

1. Is there really an important issue at stake here?

Is this matter so important to me that it deserved to bring on a rage of hormones? Will it matter 5 minutes from now? (Five hours? Five years?). Very often, as we all know only too well, once we've got the symptoms of arousal under control we realize it's not such a big issue as it seemed to be. Not so important, after all. And if that realization comes to you, what-do-you-know, you're off the hook. No further resolution is called for.

But of course, this is not always the case. Sometimes, there is, indeed, an important issue at stake. In that case, on to the second question.

2. Was my anger justified?

The issue at stake may be important, but perhaps the other person made a genuine mistake or did something in carelessness rather than intentionally. If your gripe was not legitimate, if the situation called for understanding rather than anger, then once again you needn't even go to the next question; you've got your arousal under control and the matter ends right there.

When considering whether your anger was justified, it helps to look at the anger-provoking situation from a different perspective -- the other person's. If you understand the circumstances behind another person's behavior (infuriating though it may have been for you), it becomes less of an affront. We cannot always know the circumstances behind another person's behavior, so often it may make sense to give them the benefit of the doubt -- and, in the bargain, keep our own equanimity. The man who switched lanes to sleaze past you may well be an habitual road-hog with clogged coronaries… or, on the other hand, he may be running late for his toddler's first stage performance on Parents' Day. Give him the benefit of the doubt and you'll keep your own mood mellow.

But, if the situation did justify your getting angry, then move on to the next question.

3. Will anger help?

Sometimes the problem is beyond your control (e.g., a delayed flight, a broken-down lift). If you can't do anything to remedy things, ask yourself, "What's the point fuming?" No point.

If you've considered the above three questions, and come to the conclusion that you do need to express your anger, you've arrived at the final step.

Work out a constructive response. Expressing your anger constructively means being assertive -- but not aggressive -- when telling the other person that you are angry, and why. It means expressing how you feel calmly and with an attitude of respect, without blaming or attacking the other person. 'I' statements (not 'You' statements) are the kind you need to use in expressing anger, in a FEELING-WHEN-BECAUSE format. For instance, instead of saying, "You're such an inconsiderate jerk", try saying, "I FEEL angry WHEN you don't do your share of the household chores BECAUSE it makes me feel I don't have your support." Follow up with a statement of the change you believe would help solve the problem now and prevent your getting angry in the future. "I want you to follow through on what we had agreed."

Showing respect also involves listening to the other person's response and trying to understand his/her point of view. Seek to understand, not just to be understood. In a close relationship, even as you're expressing anger, you can communicate that you still care for and love the other person. A calm voice, courteous words, a gentle touch on the shoulder says that, although you are angry about what has happened, you still care about them and value the relationship. When anger is expressed in this kind of reasoned, respectful way, it can actually encourage growth and intimacy. It's a win-win outcome, and that's the best outcome of all.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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