The 9 Best Ways to Control Anger
Did you know that angry people are far more likely to have a heart attack? Learn how to control your anger with these tips.
Anger is neither good nor bad
We all get angry. The dog hikes his leg on your new sofa; somebody spills coffee all over your laptop; your teenager does/doesn’t ______ (fill in the blank). Of course we get angry. But anger itself is neither good nor bad. It’s what you do with it that matters.
“Anger is a negative emotion, but it’s not necessarily bad,” says Brad Bushman, PhD, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University who studies anger, aggression, and violence. “Anger makes people feel strong and powerful, which can motivate them to stand up for what they believe is right.”
Consider, for instance, the role of anger in social movements and how it can motivate us to right the wrongs we see. It may also lead to better outcomes, alerting others to “Listen up!” For instance, your 5-year-old may be more likely to comply with a heated—rather than calm—request to hold your hand while crossing a busy intersection.
But normal levels of anger can easily cross over into the unhealthy realm. Case in point: the hothead who struggles to get along with others. Relationships suffer, of course, unless you learn how to control your anger. But research shows that health does, too.
What’s going on in the angry brain?
When you get mad, your brain’s more rational prefrontal lobes shut down, and the reﬂexive back areas take over. Hormonal and cardiovascular responses kick in. Your body pumps out cholesterol and a group of chemicals called catecholamines. Those, in turn, encourage fatty deposits to pile up in the heart and carotid arteries. No wonder hotheads are more likely to have a heart attack than those less prone to fury.
One study, published in 2015 in European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care, found that the risk of a heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours following a burst of intense anger. The ﬁght-or-ﬂight response can prompt your nervous system to cut blood ﬂow to your stomach and divert it to your muscles, impacting digestion secretions.
“If someone spills coffee on your laptop, your heart rate and blood pressure increase—that’s the physiological response,” says Bushman. “You would then label your arousal, such as by calling it ‘anger,’ if the person did it on purpose or you think they did.”
And anger causes a surge in the stress hormone cortisol. During prolonged and frequent eruptions of rage, parts of the nervous system become highly activated, which can affect the immune system over time. So, how can you learn to control your anger? Answers ahead!
It’s hard to make smart choices when you’re in the grips of a negative emotion. Rather than trying to talk yourself down from a cliff, avoid climbing it in the first place. To control your anger, identify warning signs that you’re starting to get annoyed. When you recognize them, step away from the situation. Or try relaxation techniques to minimize your irritation.
Temper your expectations
“So much of anger stems from having unrealistic expectations of others, the world in general, and ourselves,” says psychologist Bernard Golden, PhD, founder of Anger Management Education and author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work. “We often maintain these without recognizing them in the moment. They include expectations that ‘Others should behave as I do,’ ‘Life should be fair,’ and ‘If my partner really loves me (s)he should _______.’ ”
It’s easy to dwell on things after you’ve been provoked. But doing so is like using gasoline to put out a fire; it only feeds the flame by keeping angry feelings active, suggests a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The next time someone makes you angry, try this strategy to control your anger: Pretend you’re viewing the scene at a distance. In other words, pretend you are observing like a fly on the wall, rather than as a participant in the situation. “Angry people are immersed in the situation and tend to ruminate about what made them angry,” says Bushman, a co-author of the study. “When people adopt a fly-on-the-wall perspective, they are less immersed. They step back from the provocative situation.”
“In the past two decades there’s been increased study of the use of mindfulness meditation to deal with anger and aggression,” says Golden. In one study, published in 2017 in Mindfulness, researchers found that participants who practiced daily meditation for three weeks substantially reduced aggressive behavior.
But you don’t have to be a hothead in need of cooling off to reap the benefits. Nor do you have to devote big chunks of your day to meditating—even just a few minutes a day can make a big difference.
“Rather than challenging irrational thoughts, mindfulness meditation emphasizes the capacity to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without being overwhelmed by them,” says Golden. “It helps people pause to reflect on the meaning of their anger and how to respond rather than react to it.”
Even if you don’t take time to actually meditate, you can bliss out with breathing exercises. “Taking deep breaths reduces psychological arousal,” says Bushman. Specifically, they help slow your heart rate and keep your mind focused on something other than the source of your stress.
Transcend the moment
The next time you get angry with a friend, partner, or another family member, “evoke an image of an experience in which you felt greater caring or love for that person,” suggests Golden. Another trick: “Picture yourself in the future looking back on this event and ask yourself, ‘How will I feel having taken this action?’ ”
Get plenty of Zzzs
In a study, published in 2020 in the journal Sleep, researchers analyzed the daily diary entries of 202 college students, who tracked their sleep, daily stressors, and anger over the course of a month. Participants reported feeling angrier on days they were sleep deprived than they did on days they were rested.
Book an appointment
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn to spot anger triggers and to control reactions. “Cognitive restructuring involves learning to identify and challenge distortions in thinking,” says Golden. Those include what’s known as catastrophizing (automatically assuming you’re in a more threatening situation than you actually are) and personalization (believing that statements or behaviors of others are directed toward you, when they aren’t), says Golden.
If anger is a symptom of a bigger problem such as depression, prescription drugs could be a solution.
- Brad Bushman, PhD, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University who studies anger, aggression, and violence
- American Psychological Association: "Strategies for controlling your anger: Keeping anger in check"
- Bernard Golden, PhD, founder of Anger Management Education and author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work
- European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care: "Triggering of acute coronary occlusion by episodes of anger"
- Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: "Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behavior"
- Mindfulness: "Meditation Inhibits Aggressive Responses to Provocations"
- Acta Scientific Medical Sciences: "Exercise and its Impact on Anger Management"
- Sleep: "0276 Does Losing Sleep Unleash Anger?"