Four Proven Ways to Handle Anger

April 9, 2020

Four Proven Ways to Handle Anger

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. Aristotle

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Meet my imaginary client, Matt.

Matt’s running late for work. But then he gets stuck behind a school bus making multiple stops. Matt thinks, “Great. This is all I need this morning.”

Then he hits a construction zone. And Matt thinks, “This is getting ridiculous.”

When he finally reaches the street where his office is located, he hits every single red light.

Matt is ready to explode. He yells, “I can’t believe this awful day! I can’t stand it!”

Have you ever had a morning like this? It’s frustrating, right?

But Matt’s frustration is being fueled even more by a distorted thought pattern called magnification.

Photo by Ahmed Saffu on Unsplash

It’s like using high-powered lenses to view our problems. Suddenly they’re magnified several times their original size, causing us to feel a magnified sense of stress, worry, and conflict.

This is also called "catastrophizing,” making problems feel much worse than they are.

Catastrophizers blow their tops when things don’t go their way. Take the problem of slow traffic: catastrophizers tend to be the ones slamming fists on steering wheels, honking their horns, and gesturing to other drivers – and I’m not talking about blowing kisses.

Research shows that catastrophizing is directly linked to higher levels of anger as well as higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.[1]

On the other hand, those who can downplay or neutralize potentially stressful situations are more resilient to these problems.[2]

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Anger Therapy

If you want to learn more about Anger Management, I highly recommend Anger Management for Everyone: Ten Proven Ways to Control Anger and Live a Happier Life.

To whet your appetite, here’s a summary of their principles:

Image by Pamela Coburn-Litvak on Canva

    Here we will focus on the second step of the process: learning how to think about anger triggers differently. It can remove the magnifying lens, helping us see things in a more realistic and manageable way.

    The following principles are key to anger management for all of us.

    Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.

    A good place to start is doing our RESEARCH, examining the evidence that led to our magnification. We can ask questions like,

    • What exactly makes this problem seem so catastrophically bad?
    • Are we using any other distorted thoughts to prop up our catastrophizing? Are we exaggerating the facts or jumping to conclusions?

    Principle #2: Be a REALIST.

    Next, we want to look at our magnifying thoughts in a more REALISTIC way. 

    Magnification often involves unrealistic expectations. Some of these are our “SHOULDS” – and boy, are these heavy thoughts to carry around. Here are some examples:

    • “I SHOULD never get stuck in traffic.”
    • “I SHOULD never make a mistake.”
    • “Life SHOULD always be fair.”

    Sure, we would all love to avoid traffic jams, mistakes, and getting treated in ways we don’t like. But sometimes this stuff happens.

    We can get wrapped up in the unfairness of it all, or we can try to re-frame our “SHOULDs” into something more realistic.

    How about something like this:

  • It would be nice if I never got stuck in traffic, but it happens. And I can stand it when it does.”
  • I would rather never make mistakes, but I’m human. Mistakes will come. And I can stand it when they do.”
  • I would love it if life was always fair. But I can stand it when the minor things in life are not fair. And I can do my best to make my part of the world as fair as I can.”

Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.

To find the right cost-benefit ratio, we can ask ourselves:

  • What are the costs vs. benefits of believing that life should always be fair?
  • What are the costs vs. benefits of believing that I should never make mistakes?

When he’s really frustrated, Matt is tempted to say, “Look, when stuff happens, I have a right to get angry about it!”

And you know what? He’s right. Matt does have every right to get angry.

But what if he chose not to?

Matt also has the right to live in a way that will remove unnecessary pain and give him the most peace of mind.

To get there, though, he may have to let go of some of his anger.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. Mark Twain

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Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.

You may ask, is anger ever the appropriate response?

And the answer is yes, of course.

We’ve all seen people get hurt according to universal standards of fairness. The Golden Rule, treating others the way we want to be treated, is such a standard. 

We are responsible for living this way ourselves. And it’s natural to get angry when we or someone else breaks this standard.

But magnification can cause us to equate minor offenses, that really shouldn’t mean anything, with major ones. So we can ask ourselves:[3]

  • Are we angry over something major or minor, like a personal preference?
  • Was it an honest mistake, where no one intended to hurt anyone else?

For minor stuff, it’s often best to simply let it go and move on.

For major stuff, forgiveness is often the most healing way forward. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to be angry; only that we are choosing to let go of the wrong.

Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that prisoner was you. Lewis Smedes

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This post also appeared on another website of mine, Leaving the Shadowland.
[1] Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R. (2005). Cognitive emotion regulation in the prediction of depression, anxiety, stress, and anger. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1249-1260.
[2] Kalisch, R., Müller, M. B., & Tüscher, O. (2015). A conceptual framework for the neurobiological study of resilience. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38.
[3] Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 159-165.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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