Mind

How to handle anger and protect your inner peace

Learning techniques and strategies to deal with difficult emotions will help you protect your happiness.

By Bronte Chaperon
Angry woman

There are many things in life that can cause us to feel angry and upset: a fight with our partner, friends that cancel plans last minute, that d-bag that cut us off in traffic this morning...

We all experience anger, but we deal with it in different ways. Some would flip the bird at the car that cut them off and not give it a second thought, while others would spew about it until they got to work and talked about it with their colleagues.

Whichever method sounds like you, it's okay, because you'd likely forget about it and get on with your day.

But sometimes, even though we think we've got a grip on our emotions, an event or situation may happen that really gets under our skin - something that makes us incredibly angry and upset. In these situations it can be unclear how to relieve the tension and frustration we're feeling.

Registered Psychologist, Susan Wall, explains that this anger is actually useful - in its raw form - but it can also be very damaging and destructive.

"Everyone experiences anger. Anger is one of our primary emotions. Like all of our primary emotions, our anger tells us important information about our experience of a situation. Generally, anger suggests that something unjust has happened to us.

"It may suggest our needs have been ignored, stomped on, or dismissed by another. In essence, our threat system has been activated, and this signals, we need to take action to address the situation," says Wall.

Whether your anger is fleeting or linked to an ongoing problem such as fighting with someone you live with or settling a nasty divorce, dealing with these situations in a positive, healthy manner is imperative for a happy mental state.

Dealing with anger productively

So how do we soothe ourselves and relieve our stress and anger?

Susan says that it'll be different for each person as some of us prefer to deal with the problem physically while others like to calm themselves emotionally.

"The challenge is to be able to take yourself away from a situation and soothe and calm the feeling. That way it can be used to help achieve a better outcome."

"Some need to release the physical energy associated with anger. People can do this by running; skipping; swimming; drumming or even dancing.

"Others, like to use creative outlets - whether it be through art, or writing. Free writing is often helpful, just sitting down with pen and paper, and starting with the words 'I am feeling angry'.

"Alternatively, some prefer to soothe the emotion, by using calming music, reading or sitting by the beach. Mindfulness and meditation can also be incredibly useful."

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of mindfulness (where have you been?), the practice involves intentionally focusing on your immediate experience. Which sounds way easier than it is - trying to keep your mind empty and thought-free is incredibly difficult.

But while it may be tricky to do at first, the benefits of mindfulness are plentiful: stress reduction, less emotional reactivity and more focus.

Safe to say, calming the mind is wonderful for coping with anger and other difficult emotions. Once you're calm and collected, you're able to make more rational and productive decisions in regards to finding a solution to your anger.

"It is only when the threat system has been quietened, that we can move into a position, to step outside of it, and make sense of what triggered the reaction," says Wall.

"Ask questions like, 'When did I start feeling like this? What was it that happened? What is it about that which has left me so upset?'"

"Once we understand what we are angry at, we can then work out what we need to be different. This can help us to consider our options, and start planning actions, to help move towards implementing those actions."

Why some people deal with anger better than others

For some, dealing with anger in a productive manner isn't easy, and this comes down to a whole range of factors.

"It all sounds so easy, but can be quite tricky to execute. For some, anger was not allowed when they were young, so they ignore it, and stuff it away. This can however lead to explosive outbursts, sometimes over quite small things.

"Others were never coached how to contain their anger - and may even feel they have no control over it, saying 'it just happens' when they have an outburst. The one thing we know though, is that anger is something we can all learn to manage - it is within our control."

So even though you may feel a burning rage to yell someone's ear off or send an emotionally charged text message, you can control your response to the stressful situation.

Before acting or responding to an infuriating situation, why not take a few breaths and walk away from the situation for a while? If it's something that can be left until morning, have a sleep on it before you react.

Reacting aggressively in the heat of the moment can have terrible consequences. It is always better to get back to a person or bring up a difficult conversation at a later time when you - and the other person - are both calm.

If you seriously and frequently struggle to deal with your anger, there may be an underlying reason for your strong emotions.

"Someone who has frequent anger outbursts, often has experienced a past of injustices. As a result of their past experiences, they develop a belief system, which leaves them prone to looking for further injustices across their life, pushing them to turning the spotlight on them, and even at times, seeing injustices when injustices don't exist.

"Such a belief system, renders them to be reactive to circumstances, in an effort to protect themselves from further hurt and harm.

"If this is the case, then it can help to seek professional help, in an effort to release ourselves from the power and influence of the past."

Susan Wall is a registered psychologist who practices privately in the Wellington region. To find a GP, mental health professional or counsellor, click here.