Live Through This

The Temper Trap

Tips for controlling your anger.

Illustration by Kelly

Illustration by Kelly

Not too long ago, I went a whole 12 months feeling like I’d satisfactorily straightened out all the stuff in life that can drag a person down. I liked my job, I was in a good relationship, my finances were in order, and I was simply, purely, outrageously happy. Stress slid off me like a drop of water on a waxy glazed doughnut. Nothing got to me. I could charm any demon working in customer service; I totally sympathized with other people’s idiotic vehicular maneuvers. And then one day out of nowhere—maybe my hormones were off or maybe it was the stars—I ran headlong into my own bad mood. I suddenly felt rotten, foul, and irritated with myself and other people. My reaction: I started to laugh. How delightful that these emotions came for a visit! I was in such a no-stress zone that I was weirdly able to enjoy being a crab-ass for a day before getting over it.

If it sounds like I’m being all high and mighty, let me assure you: it wasn’t always this way. People who’d known me for longer than two years were amazed by my transformation. For most of my life, anger has been an emotion I felt deeply and couldn’t control. I got into my first fistfight when I was 11 and wanted to defend my crew of BFFs from a new girl who threatened to topple us with her coolness, so I started throwing punches at her and her older sister. For many years after that, I let my fury turn me into a bully: I kicked anyone who made me mad, I dumped drinks on strangers, and I told friends “harsh truths” just to prey on their insecurities.

I grew up in what I would call an explosive household; it’s different now, but as a kid, there weren’t a lot of boundaries in my family when it came to expressing ourselves, and thanks to me as a teenager, we had one of the loudest houses on the block. Any time I considered something unfair—which was often, whether it was how my soccer coach treated me or having to obey a curfew—I would rant and rage, relying on shaky logic to sputter speeches about “the man-made constructs of time” and getting agitated to the point of being violent toward myself and others. First, the anger would turn me numb with a coldness that started in my scalp and rolled through my body and down to my feet. Then a bonfire would ignite and burn inside of me, and I believed my words were like razor wire, slashing through every perceived injustice. And when other people inevitably failed to see things my way, my fight-or-flight instinct took over—and I fought. I scratched and slapped lovers who I thought disrespected me, and I once attempted to pour bleach on someone’s face in a blackout fit of anger for reasons I don’t even remember. I’m mortified by my behavior now, and really lucky that no one ever got hurt, or called the cops.

Anger is a difficult emotion to understand, even for experts, because there are so many variables involved. It’s a survival mechanism that kicks in whenever you feel somehow threatened, and can range from mild annoyance to uncontrollable rage—for some, like myself, it escalates from one to the other in a matter of seconds. When not taken to aggressive extremes, anger can be positive, because it lets you know that you’re upset and motivates you to do something about it, although there’s no formula to predict how it will manifest. Depression, stress, exhaustion, poor nutrition, genes—all of these things can affect how likely you are to be easily pissed off. Sometimes it’s just a matter of circumstance. I’ve seen people fume when they lose a video game, screaming and throwing controllers at the screen, whereas I’ll shrug and say, “Who cares?”

You might feel overwhelmed by anger for any number of reasons, or for no reason at all. Maybe you’re upset by something someone did, or triggered by a memory of a past grievance or trespass. You try and cope with your feelings logically so you don’t lose your cool, but sometimes the body overrules the brain and starts pumping adrenaline through your system anyway. All of a sudden your heart is pounding, your muscles are tightening, you’re feeling flushed all over, and it’s almost impossible to think rationally because you just want to jump out of your skin. A couple of weeks ago, I got in an argument with my girlfriend because she didn’t see that the gate was open and let our dog out, and the dog ran loose through the neighborhood. I understood it was an accident, but that didn’t stop me from being furious about it. Once anger has turned into full-on rage, it’s easy to lose sight of what the hell it is you’re even mad about, which is now probably secondary to the intensity of your reaction. And being told to caaaaalm dowwwwn and juuuust relaaaax only makes it worse.

So how do you avoid falling into a flaming pit of ire when you’re already in midair? Honestly, for a long time, nothing worked for me—writing or talking about my feelings intensified them, and punching pillows made me feel more aggressive. I’d generally cry or yell until I was burned out, and then I’d fall asleep. This is why I think the first and most important step in addressing issues with anger is realizing that you have an issue to begin with. What I found helped the most was taking care of my life overall to ensure that certain triggers didn’t have as much power over me. If you’re the type of person who is easily set off, here are some things you can do to help yourself:

Eliminate as much stress as possible.

Take a look at your life and figure out what’s causing you the most anxiety or concern right now. Delete what you can. Do you need five extracurriculars? Is it time to end a relationship that’s become more work than fun? You have to make a game plan for yourself. There are certain stresses—like math class or family dramas—that you can’t entirely avoid. Maybe you need to get some extra help from your math teacher so you don’t dread the tests. There are generally solutions to every problem; taking action, versus just allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed all the time, can change your everyday outlook, because it empowers you. When I realized that waiting on freelance checks for way too long left me broke and unhappy, I knew I needed to create some stability for myself, and so I took a day job for a while, and it made me feel in control again.

Talk to loved ones.

When people see you get angry, and particularly when your anger is directed at them, they don’t always realize that being so upset takes a toll on your psyche and that you’re actually suffering, too. Tell them. Ask for their assistance. When my girlfriend and I got into the argument about the dog, I started to raise my voice, but as we got really heated, I told her I needed her help, because I was so angry that I couldn’t handle it. Once she saw that I was coming from a place of pain and not a position of power, she immediately hugged me. If I hadn’t been honest with her, my irrational behavior would have provoked her and our fight would have lasted for hours.

Talking about it will also help you come up with a plan for dealing with your anger the next time it flares up. For instance, I told my girlfriend what pushes my buttons when I’m upset and how I might need a time-out to cool off for a little while, and our discussion made us both aware of how I tend to respond to frustration. You obviously can’t expect people to tolerate your every reaction, but it’s OK to ask them not to antagonize you while you’re struggling to regain control of yourself, and to explain to them what might help you in that case, since they probably have no idea.

Find out what’s bothering you.

Once you’ve calmed down, ask yourself why you reacted the way you did. Do you feel disrespected or scared or jealous or sad or overlooked? Are you blaming someone for making you feel this way? Is there something bigger or deeper going on? These seem like obvious questions, but they’re not always so easy to answer. I once broke a bowl because I wanted to talk to my girlfriend about boundaries of mine that I felt like she wasn’t respecting, and I thought she was ignoring me when really she was just busy with work and it wasn’t the right time for that kind of discussion; later I realized that her behavior had stoked my deeper insecurity about being unworthy of attention. Like I said, anger is a complex emotion. To some extent, reality is often a matter of perception, and the intensity of your emotions can sometimes lead you to distort your reality to make things worse than they are. Reading more on the topic helped me understand how this happens. (I particularly liked Transforming Anger, which offers very basic insights like “Anger makes you believe that you’re seeing things accurately even when you’re not,” and has exercises for regulating your response.) If you’re worried or confused about the frequency or intensity of your anger, consider reaching out to a professional who can talk you through your interpretation of a situation and help you sort out your feelings. (Jamia wrote a fabulous article about how to find the therapist that’s right for you.)

Treat your body well.

You’ve probably heard this a million times before, but nutrition and exercise have a huge impact on mental health. An unbalanced diet can cause exhaustion, and disturbances in sleep patterns and emotional behavior. (Check out this list of symptoms associated with hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, for example: fatigue, crying spells, mood swings—all of which can seriously affect your wellbeing and your ability to deal with stress.) Plus, regular exercise—anything from long walks to kickboxing classes—is a great way to channel that surplus of adrenaline flooding your system. It also releases endorphins, which are those feel-good chemicals in your brain that reduce perceptions of pain and often leave you more exhilarated.

Breathe.

This is the most powerful trick of all, because it’s one you can do entirely by yourself, anywhere, anytime. The idea is to calm yourself down without repressing your feelings, as bottled-up anger can cause a whole host of problems including headaches, digestive problems, even heart attacks. Say to yourself: “I am going to listen to myself breathe.” Then make sure your inhales equal your exhales: breathe in for six seconds, breathe out for six seconds. This gets more oxygen to your brain and bloodstream. Once you’ve established a rhythm, touch your fingers to your heart so you can feel it beat. Start timing your breathing to its beats. Inhale for four beats, exhale for four beats. Then six, then eight. It might sound stupid, but regulating your breathing helps lower your racing heart, and reminds you that you do, in fact, have control over your body. Anger is not the boss.

Forgive yourself.

Your capacity for anger never goes away. This is something I forgot about during my year of bliss when I was enjoying the glazed doughnut of peace that I’d worked so hard for. I let my eventual dissatisfaction with a job wreck my happiness, I forgot about my conscious breathing, I became tightly wound, and little things started to add up again, because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make sense of them. I blamed myself for getting so angry, like when I broke the bowl and yelled about the dog. But it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with feeling mad; it’s what you do with that feeling that matters here. Your anger can be justified even if losing your temper is not. So the next time you find yourself with your fists clenched and your throat closing up and your cheeks turned to ceviché from the salt of your tears, know that you’re sending powerful messages to yourself that something has to change, and that you have the power to change it. ♦

22 Comments

  • flapperhatgirl February 25th, 2013 3:12 PM

    This will come in handy.
    Being homeschooled, I often let out a lot of my anger and frustration on my mom. I feel awful about it, because she works so hard for me.

  • MabelEnchanted February 25th, 2013 3:16 PM

    You have no idea how helpful this was right now!
    It’s so weird how Rookie just seem to…know. :’)
    Thank you thank you thank you

    http://mabelsmind.blogspot.co.uk/

    • I.ila February 25th, 2013 4:34 PM

      I sometimes think that they have spies in my house. Maybe they have a special machine that lets them read everyone’s journal, so Anaheed and Tavi know exactly what to schedule…

  • ShockHorror February 25th, 2013 4:09 PM

    Hello. This’ll probably be long, but bear with c:

    When I was little, like in primary school, I was really horrible. I was in fights all the time shouted at kids and hated myself for it.
    And because ‘kids are kids’ and they knew they could upset me till I lashed out and get me in trouble (I guess. I can’t really remember. Maybe I was just a gigantic arse) they would upset me and upset me and I’d get in trouble for hitting someone.
    And I don’t know why, I assume because I was made to go talk to the head, I stopped.
    I just stopped getting angry and I’d walk away and get upset instead.

    And in way that was even worse?
    Because I have been bullied out of clubs for not wanting to stand up for myself. Not even bullied – just stuck in a group with people for one session who call me names and I never want to go again. I stayed ‘friends’ with people who must have hated me and yeah.
    I remember being followed halfway home from the park after getting angry and shouting and crying and they threw gravel at me. I tried to stay calm after I decided to leave and didn’t turn round or shout or anything.

    Idk what my point is.
    But I guess sometimes anger can be good.
    Not to the point you lash out or hurt someone.
    But shouting doesn’t hurt.

    And it’s better to get angry with people who are hurting you, than try to get away when you can’t and be sad and think it’s your fault.
    Because it kind of was – I always got too angry and idk.

    Either way, little me was awful and I’m glad I’m older now but ergh.
    The advice ‘walk away’ doesn’t work.

    • Liz Armstrong February 25th, 2013 5:14 PM

      Absolutely. Repressing anger is not only damaging to your physical health, it can damage your sense of self esteem and empowerment. It must’ve been difficult going through that, and it’s inspiring to hear that you understand it now. Standing up for yourself and stating your boundaries with clarity and calmness is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with anger!

  • AnaRuiz February 25th, 2013 4:20 PM

    Also, examining yourself and knowing what is good for you. I have serious temper problems, ones that led me to bang doors until the paint cracked and kick walls hard enough to leave imprints. I discovered that instead Of doing these destructive things to my room, I could vent physically my frustration by drawing or painting on my walls, which is something I’m not allowed to do (thus the venting), but it’s something positive!

    Anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • Ms.O February 25th, 2013 4:40 PM

    OH MY GOD.
    You guys read my mind!
    THIS IS SO WEIRD.

  • Maddy February 25th, 2013 5:03 PM

    Amendment to science lesson: the glaze on a doughnut is sugar, so it’s water-soluble. But yes, lipids are hydrophobic.

    Off-topic: Have we had this background before? Or a link to it?

    Like most emotions, I don’t often experience anger, but when I do, it comes intensely.

    Storytime: For some reason, when I was in elementary school, I used to kick lots of people really hard on the shins. Even my best friends. I don’t know why because I don’t think I was really mad per se. I was mortified to find my 2nd grade “yearbook” and read that a very nice girl had written “Please stop kicking me”. Oops!

    Rookie-related: My awesome school library has a Free Books shelf (I keep taking books…I have to read them before I take any more!) and today they had probably 30 National Geographic magazines for the taking! New and old ones! They’re sooo purty, and I thought of Rookie because people had said they collaged with Nat Geos.

    • Liz Armstrong February 25th, 2013 5:49 PM

      Yes! Some recipes call simply for sugar. The one I looked up called largely for milk, which has a lot of fat. And anyway, ever taste a Krispy Kreme? That thing is like made of wax! Delicious, delicious wax.

  • casper February 25th, 2013 5:10 PM

    I like to throw things.

  • missblack February 25th, 2013 5:34 PM

    Oh, this.

    Sometimes I really do think I have anger management issues.

    How does Rookie know that? HOW DO YOU DO IT?

    Though I must say that my brother and I have a very excellent system for dealing with our anger: whenever we get pissed at each other, we just yell at each other like insane people, possibly throw a few punches, and then two minutes later we are Over It. It’s like magic.

    Little7Trivial

  • Melisa February 25th, 2013 5:52 PM

    For a second I was a about to hyperventilate thinking this article is about the band.
    It is not but it is awesome anyway. <3

  • MegW February 25th, 2013 7:31 PM

    When I was a little girl, everyone at my daycare called me “Mean Megan” because 1. I go by Meg but my real name is Megan, 2. I hate the name Megan with a passion, and 3. I would just go around and hit people. (And I wondered why I had no friends.) I’ve gotten better at day-to-day controlling my anger, but on bad days I will still go off on people. These are some super awesome tips for bad days.

  • catpower44 February 25th, 2013 7:46 PM

    Honestly. It’s like you guys can read my mind and know what’s going on in my life. This seriously applies to me so much. Thanks!

    http://flowyshirtsminiskirts.blogspot.ca/
    http://cosmicballerinas.tumblr.com/

  • canadaaustin February 25th, 2013 9:09 PM

    I think this is a drawing of me… strange but totally awesome if it is.

  • Taylor Wright February 25th, 2013 9:22 PM

    Any chance the illustration was based on this photo?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasha_f/6488111815/in/photostream

    Kelly, I love the illustration! Also, I feel like this applies perfectly to anyone going through the college process. These are great tips thank you!

  • runningfilm February 25th, 2013 10:00 PM

    When I was younger, I never really learned how to cope with anger. It was just something that never came up at home or school. When I hit puberty, a ton of bad things happened all at once in the world around me and I was so, so angry at all of it. Since I didn’t know how to let it out, I turned to self mutilation. It took four years to get out of that cycle of hurting myself to let the anger out. I still have periods of really intense anger that scares me sometimes, but I’m getting better at dealing with it.

    TL;DR: I wish I had read this article a decade ago.

  • kendallakwia February 25th, 2013 11:23 PM

    I am slowly but surely learning how to control the problems I have, which include some anger issues. This has been accomplished with zoloft. I’m very thankful that I have the tools I need so that when I stop taking meds I will know exactly how to deal with my stressors and how to avoid volcanic meltdowns. This article just affirmed that :) I’d like to emphasize the second point, that explaining your feelings to whoever is around you 1. shows you just how well your family and friends treat you during your weakest and most uncontrollable moments, and 2. allows you to channel some anger into something else. Sadness? Maybe, but it’s better than kicking walls in (like I used to). What I find helpful is taking a step back when I feel threatened: asking for alone time, or just leaving. Still, the thing that helps me calm down the most is SCREAMING, breaking candles and pencils, etc.

  • flocha February 26th, 2013 2:44 PM

    Normally, when I’m angry I end up throwing stuff at walls. I have tried to stop myself doing this, especially since I hurled my speakers at a radiator and managed to break them.

  • Isil February 26th, 2013 5:49 PM

    This article was exactly what I’m looking for. I get angry so easily and when I’m angry, I cry a lot, or I hurt people around me. I mean, real hurting. Last semester we were talking about the color of a sweater with my friend. I said pink, and he said orange and the argument lasts like 15 minutes, then at some point I lost my control and slapped him (it was like a little slap. the ones when you slap yourself to wake up or something). I was so furious, and I could cry if I haven’t take my rage out. My friend just laughed at my ridiculous rage and he forgave me.

    And I think the things you give above is somehow similar to my crying thing, too. When I was so stressed I cry. A lot. I cry because my boyfriend played Dota, some shitty things like that.

    And I probably have this low blood pressure issue a lot when I’m stressed or tired. I should have myself tested.

    Thank you for this article it was a nice topic to mention.

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com

  • soretudaaa February 26th, 2013 7:00 PM

    To me, the worst thing about being a really really angry person is the guilt that comes right after. Being angry is like being on a spell, and once you hurt somebody (verbally or even physically) you’re not angry anymore, you’re just awfully guilty and sad and ashamed and feeling like the worst person ever.

  • LuneSirene February 28th, 2013 4:12 PM

    Speaking of customer service… I have to go to work in three hours. Working at a customer service desk can actually be a really helpful way to make yourself less of an angry person. You have to be incredibly fair and understanding with people that are infuriating and not always fair to you. It’s that whole fake it until you make it thing. I pretend to not be annoyed or angered by these people, and eventually it becomes true. I just let all of that roll off of me, and eventually it just started to work in real life. The part in your article about breathing is the best. I have to do that occasionally at my job when someone really frustrating comes up to the desk.