Punch a pillow, hug your pet, write to your MP: 22 ways to deal with your anger | Health & wellbeing

From planes and supermarkets to traffic jams and, of course, online, it feels as if everyone is angry. Is it any wonder? Politics has become more polarised and bad-tempered than at any time in living memory, wars are top of the news agenda, and we’re in a cost-of-living crisis. It’s no surprise people are on edge.

Anger itself isn’t necessarily negative. “Anger is a hardwired emotion that is our defence to a threat,” says Dr Nadja Heym, associate professor in personality psychology and psychopathology at Nottingham Trent University. “It’s normal, healthy and evolutionarily important.”

It can be a powerful force for good, says David Woolfson, anger specialist and psychotherapist. “Anger drives us to achieve things – to fight for justice and causes, win marathons, right wrongs.”

Anger’s bad rep is due to the behaviours it can elicit. Rage can drive us to react poorly then regret it, so it’s helpful to know how to process it healthily. Here are 22 suggestions.

Count to three

“When we’re highly aroused, we struggle to think,” says Heym. “Getting past that physiological arousal is an important part of reducing the risk of behaving in a way that is inappropriate and which we later regret. Stop, count to three, think and then act. This engages your cognitive brain, calms you down and gives you time to process whether this is a real threat, and if the response is proportionate.”

Splash water on your face

“Anger engages the sympathetic nervous system, which increases energy and readies us to act,” says Erica Curtis, a US-based marriage and family therapist and author of a forthcoming book, Working With Anger Creatively. “Sometimes that energy surge is quick and intense, urging us to do something impulsive, unproductive and even harmful. Decrease the angry energy by splashing cold water on your face repeatedly while holding your breath.”

Find a physical distraction

Heym points out that on occasion, a physical distraction can help bring down the intensity of angry feelings. “Some people might have a rubber band on their wrist to flick,” she says. “Or you could run up and down the staircase five times, so that angry energy can go somewhere before you start thinking again.”

Doodle angry words

Feel the urge to yell at someone? Curtis says putting pen to paper is a better way to gain clarity and meet your underlying needs. Think about what has made your blood boil and “try ‘yelling’ on paper by doodling angry words that come to mind”, says Curtis. Then take it a step further: “Think about more vulnerable feelings like ‘let down’, ‘hurt’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘jealous’ – and write those down. Then add your needs and wants. Finally, circle words that will help you clearly, and non-aggressively, communicate a need.”

Become a fly

When in a triggering situation, “try to create distance between yourself and your angry thoughts and feelings”, says Christian Jarrett, cognitive neuroscientist and author of Be Who You Want. “Try imagining the scene from a third-person perspective, as if you are a fly on the wall. Or step outside of yourself and describe what is happening, using your name and third-person pronouns.”

Another way to gain distance from intense emotions, according to Curtis, is to “imagine your anger as a colour, shape or form separate from yourself. It doesn’t need to make sense – just notice the space between you and your anger. If needs be, imagine asking it to give you a little more space or stepping back from it so you can see the edges of it. This can decrease its intensity.”

Pre-empt and prevent

Some fury we almost invite, so it helps to run through what could happen – and cause annoyance – before we embark on something. A classic example is road rage. “It’s utterly predictable,” says Woolfson. “There’s going to be traffic, and someone is going to cut me up, so what am I going to do when they do? Absolutely nothing. I get angry because I make it personal, but will it matter by the time I get home?” No, it won’t.

Flip your focus

Constantly riled by the news? “Many people form their identity around what they don’t like and what they’re opposed to,” says William DeFoore, author of Goodfinding: A User’s Guide to EQ and Your Brilliant Mind. “Such people will always be angry.” Instead, he says, focus on “what you like, what you believe in, what you support and what you want more of”.

Find someone to rant to

“I can rant to you or at you,” says Woolfson. “It’s a very important distinction; when I rant at you, I’m pushing you into a corner, but if I say, ‘I really need to get something off my chest, would you listen?’, we have a communication that brings us closer.”

Photography: Tal Silverman. Styling: Ash Thomas

Punch a pillow

Release, according to DeFoore, can be a healthy way to express anger. He suggests “hitting a pillow or a mattress or yelling alone, not directed toward anyone”. Woolfson agrees: “I teach people to punch pillows or to sit in the car with no one around and just roar.” He is keen to point out that these techniques don’t get rid of the underlying anger, they just deal with it in the moment.

Be proactive

Many of us feel furious about the state of the world. “Seek out constructive ways to channel those legitimate feelings, by writing to a newspaper or your MP; or getting involved in a grassroots campaign,” suggests Jarrett.

… or do nothing

The urge may be to lash out, hit something or burst into tears, but Woolfson says: “If you can do nothing when you’re angry, you’re doing a lot because otherwise you’d be doing all those unpleasant things. Hold your anger and say, ‘I feel really angry right now. I feel like doing and saying really unpleasant stuff, but I choose not to.’ Your behaviour is always a choice.”

Hug your pet

“Have a cuddle with your pet, your child or your partner,” says Heym. “Hugging releases oxytocin, a hormone we think of as being for bonding, but it’s also important in processing threats, where we have to fight or deal with them in other ways.”

Write an email to yourself

Want to give somebody a piece of your mind? “I write an email to myself, spelling out all the stuff I don’t ever want to say, but that I want to acknowledge,” says Woolfson. “You’ll come back to it a couple of days later, when you’re in an adult state and think, ‘Thank God I didn’t say or send that’.”

Limit exposure

Feel as if there is anger everywhere? “It depends on where you’re looking, what you’re reading and watching, and who you’re listening to,” says DeFoore. “If you consume upsetting, frightening or infuriating information, you’re naturally going to experience more anger.” Curtis says: “Close the app, shut the laptop, seek out something positive or soothing. “ Read uplifting news to balance the negative. We are not wired to sustain constant streams of upsetting news.”

Walk in nature

Feeling wound up? “Go for a long walk in nature and reflect on it,” says Heym. “There’s plenty of research to show that walking in a biophilic environment reduces anxiety and stress levels.”

Look beyond the rage

“It’s hard to put a lid on a boiling saucepan: the more you try to push it down, the more pressure you build up and eventually it’s going to explode,” says Woolfson. “That pressure usually involves ignoring all the feelings that drive anger, which are often hurt, fear, shame, sadness. When we don’t pay attention to those, we build up the anger ourselves.”

Exhale

Think you’re about to blow a fuse? Blow out instead. “Try fully exhaling until you are forced to inhale, and repeat several times,” says Curtis.

Take a cold shower

“You’re tensing up and getting hot, so cooling down might be a good way of reducing that temperature,” says Heym. “We know, for example, that when the temperature rises, aggression tends to go up. This is because we feel irritable in hot or crowded places and being uncomfortable ups the risk of us reacting.”

Anger is often triggered when we feel ashamed of ourselves. If you feel angry for making a mistake (for example, accidentally deleting an important file), Curtis advises: “Keep asking yourself what it says about you that something went wrong until you hit on a negative belief that feels true – even if you know it’s not. Get curious about attitudes like ‘I’ll never succeed’ and then check those attitudes against the facts. These unquestioned long-held beliefs may have very little to do with your current situation.”

Breathe deeply

“When we’re hyper-aroused, we shallow breathe, which pumps up our sympathetic nervous system,” says Heym. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response. “Taking three or four deep breaths, focusing on our breath, tends to reduce our anger.”

Cry

Want to burst into tears? “Why not? Releasing our emotions in a proportionate and appropriate way is better than bottling them up,” says Heym.

Choose calm

Remind yourself that your reaction is a choice. “I’ve been asked by my children, ‘Why don’t you just lose it?’ I say, ‘That’s not the person I want to be but I will let you know that I’m angry with you in a quiet and polite way,’” says Woolfson. “The stereotype of anger is shouting and being abusive, but we can choose to express anger in a truthful, contained, dignified, healthy way.”

Photography assistant: Georgie Wilding

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