How to Manage Anger (3 Myths, 3 Steps)

Mar 18, 2024 | Leadership, Stress

Anger. We all experience it, but rarely talk about it.

Although anger is there to protect us, typically we wish it weren’t there at all.

We might even feel ashamed and try to suppress or override it – makes sense if we don’t know what else to do about it.

But there are more skillful ways to manage anger, starting with understanding it better.

Anger responds to perceived threat

Anger is like an alarm system that gets activated by a perceived threat (real or imagined).

The body gets tense, the heart rate quickens, and the breath gets shallow – all signs of the threat response.

Anger also activates the limbic or “emotional brain,” particularly the amygdala which is the source of our fight-flight-freeze reactivity.

When this area of the brain is active, it becomes more difficult to access areas in the frontal cortex which we need for empathy and self-regulation. While anger wants us to act, it also causes us to act in ways that we later regret.

The good news is that when we understand our anger and know how to work with it, we can shift it.

So let’s tackle some myths and practice a new approach.

Myth #1: anger is bad

No one chooses to feel anger. It just happens. Yet we judge ourselves and feel shame for feeling it.

Let’s face it, anger is not a socially acceptable emotion, especially for women.

Also, anger can make us say and do things that hurt others – hence, it’s unacceptable.

But anger often arises in response to our own hurt. It can also motivate us to act against injustice (e.g. standing up for someone who is harmed).

Because anger is a response to threats on our values and well-being.

Fact #1: anger is information

Anger is information. Like all emotions, it is trying to guide us.

Anger arises when the brain processes changes in the state of the body such as a raise in heart rate, a holding of the breath, or sweaty palms.

Then, to help make sense of these physical changes, the brain scans for pre-existing experiences, information or beliefs to help it interpret the meaning of the body’s changes and predict – in the case of anger – some kind of threat.

For example, I perceive that someone rolls their eyes at me, and my heart rate raises, my jaw clenches, and my breath becomes shallow. My brain recalls prior similar expressions, and says this is anger.

So what’s the information? I am perceiving disrespect, which is against a value of mine.

Myth #2: I am my anger

Often we might identify with the anger. We have an unconscious belief that the anger is who we are.

We might believe that “I am an angry person,” or “I have an anger problem.”

This is dangerous, because if we believe anger is bad, and we are an angry person, then we must deep down believe that we are bad.

Then we believe that anger actually threatens our worthiness. And we can fall deeply into shame.

Fact #2: anger is an experience you’re having

You are not your anger. You are having an experience of anger.

All emotions are temporary. They arise, and they fall away. They are not who we are.

Anger, like any emotion, is simply an experience we are having. Like all experiences, it will not last.

Plus, research confirms that our emotions are what our brains make of them.

Myth #3: ignoring anger can change it

When we have a “bad” feeling, we want it to go away – naturally! But we usually don’t know how to do that.

We may try to ignore it, suppress it, or distract ourselves from it. Maybe we turn to t.v., comfort food, alcohol, or some other activity.

While we might get our mind off of it, ignoring or bottling up an emotion with a lot of energy like anger, uses up our energy. Have you been feeling exhausted?

Like filling a glass of water but never emptying it, at some point the energy is going to overflow – or in the case of anger, explode.

As research shows, controlling our emotions takes effort and can deplete our energy.

Fact #3: accepting anger can change it

While it might seem counter-intuitive, accepting that we are experiencing anger is the best way to shift it. This doesn’t mean we follow and act on it. It means we simply accept that we are sensing anger.

We give space for the energy of anger to be there, at least for a few moments or breaths. We do this by naming it, noticing it in the body, and instead of following the story or judging it, allow it to be present.

A review of studies found that the act of accepting a feeling (of the “Monitor and Acceptance Theory”) – that is, allowing a present-moment experience to “arise, unfold and pass”  – is key to improving difficult emotions as well as improving our emotional regulation.

Another study found that neural activity in the area of the brain associated with strong emotions and reactivity (the amygdala and limbic area) calmed down when people put their negative feelings into words. And at the same time, a part of the brain associated with cognitive control (in the prefrontal cortex) increased.

3 steps to manage anger

  1. Name it. Very simply, label the emotion. Be careful not to identify with it. So instead of “I am angry,” say, “This is anger.”
  2. Allow it (with compassion). Briefly give it space to be there in the body and in your thoughts. Are you holding the breath? Deep breaths, especially with longer exhales, will activate the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. Notice the sensations in the body. Is there tension in the jaw, shoulders, hands, belly, legs? Have compassion for yourself as you notice the discomfort.
  3. Be curious. What’s the information in the anger? For instance, how do I feel threatened? What did I want to happen that didn’t? What values are being stepped on? What is the anger predicting or wanting? What prior situation is informing me?

If you are past reactivity, you might next explore how to respond. Since anger wants us to do something. Is there an action to take? Can you choose a different mindset?

Remember, anger is just a part of the brain’s job of predicting and protecting us. It’s a part of us that wants to be heard, so let’s give it some respect. ;)

Photo by Julien L on Unsplash


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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