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.
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.
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. ♦