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Expert-approved tips to calm down when you're angry

It's helpful to understand why we get angry in the first place.

Anger is an important instrument for anyone's emotional toolbox. It protects, helps discharge stress and can bring words and feelings to the surface that may need to be expressed to help relationships grow.

But the manner in which one handles feelings of anger can lead to vastly different outcomes. "There’s nothing wrong with anger, it’s what you do with it that matters," said Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "Outsmarting Anger: 7 Steps for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion."

Indeed, the author of "The 5 Love Languages," Gary Chapman, has counseled countless families and couples over his career and has seen numerous instances in which mismanaged anger destroys marriages, fractures friendships and sometimes even separates parents from children. "Much of my counseling has been in helping individuals understand and process anger," he said.

Why we get angry

It's helpful to understand why we get angry in the first place. "In human relationships, anger is the emotion that arises when we feel that we have been wronged or in some way mistreated," Chapman said. "It's a call for action to right the wrong. However, when we yield to our first impulse, we usually make things worse."

Shrand had a similar take: "We feel anger because we want something to be different. We wish someone would stop doing something or start doing something," he said. He explained that when we're angry, the part of the brain in charge of managing emotional responses known as the limbic system, gets ready for a fight. In such a state, "we can get impulsive, irrational and lash out without thinking," he warned.

"Anger is part of the brain's fight-or-flight response, so it has to do with our survival instinct," said Stephen Dansiger, an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing clinician and author of "Mindfulness for Anger Management." He described some of the body's physiological responses when angry: a rising heart rate, muscle tension, sweating and heightened hearing and vision. "The body is literally preparing to deal with the perceived threat," he said.

What to do with our anger

Problem is, such base instincts may perceive threats where no real danger exists. "When we're angry, we see ourselves as a hammer and everyone around us as a nail," said Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting." That may include reacting to an insensitive comment from a spouse or to a child who just threw their plate of food on the floor. In such instances, Markham warns, "there is no real threat, but our bodies react as if there is."

The best way to deal with anger, the experts said, is to diffuse it. That means doing whatever it takes to remind your brain there isn't really a threat or emergency and that it's time to calm down.

"There's an entire body of research on how to calm down and retrain the nervous system," Markham said. She suggested techniques like running your hands under cold water, taking deep breaths, getting some fresh air, humming, shaking your wrists, counting backwards from 100 until you start to feel calm again, or even forcing a laugh or a smile to trick your brain into switching gears. "These are all research-supported ways to calm down in the moment," she said.

Another technique that Shrand suggested is to put the palm of your hand on your forehead. "Right behind your forehead is your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for thinking rational thought," he said. "Touching that area, reminds your brain to keep reactions frontal (logical), and not to go limbic (emotional)."

Just being aware of your anger helps, too.

"Anger problems can be averted by using a mindful scale of 1 to 10 to occasionally check in with levels of anger," Dansiger said. Doing so, he said, redirects your brain from an emotional response to a logical response in a similar way your palm on your forehead does. "Assigning a number to your anger can also help you recognize if you're truly angry, just annoyed or are overreacting," he said.

When couples are angry at each other, Chapman offered this idea: "Simply use the ‘time out’ sign used by referees in sporting events," he said. "That signals to the other person and to ourselves that we need a quick break."

After all, sometimes the best thing to do during in a moment of anger is to walk away for a few minutes. "When I walk away," Dansiger said, "I am no longer escalating the situation, and that is how most anger gets out of hand, through individual or mutual escalation."

Benefits that come from managing anger

When we learn how to properly manage anger, relationships can grow. "The sky's the limit with healing and improving relationships through mindful anger management," Dansiger said, adding that when we demonstrate power over our emotions, people see us as more reasonable and are more likely to listen to what we have to say. "There is also more of a chance that our family, friends and colleagues will meet us where we are, and that relationships will become more real, more loving, more kind," he said.

Chapman had a similar observation: "There are no long-term healthy relationships without resolving our encounters with anger," he said. "The difference between long-term, healthy relationships and broken relationships is often found in the way we manager our anger."

Proper anger management, Dr. Les Carter, a semi-retired psychotherapist in Waco, Texas, explained, moves us beyond emotional response and heightens relationships and conversations to become more productive and purposeful. "Moving beyond anger means a person is mindful of higher priorities that continue to matter," he said.

"While anger is a natural emotion, it has a great deal to teach us," Dansiger concluded. "When channeled correctly, it can give us more power, humility and deeper connections."


CORRECTION (September 30, 2021, 4:15 p.m.): An earlier version of this article omitted Dr. Les Carter's full name.