Someone cut you off as you drove to work. Your boss passed over you for the latest promotion. A close relative with young children refuses to get a Covid-19 vaccine.
Nearly everyone has encountered a situation that left them simmering in anger. To get rid of the fiery feeling, people will often vent to someone, but that’s not necessarily the best path, said Brad Bushman, professor of communications at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
“You know, rather than venting anger or stuffing it inside, turning down the heat is the best approach,” Bushman told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his podcast, Chasing Life.
Anger is an emotional response to a “real or imagined threat or provocation,” he said. It ranges from mild irritation to blind rage and, when not addressed properly, can lead to health problems like cardiovascular disease, he added.
When the emotion triggers us, it also evokes your fight-or-flight response, said Ryan Martin, associate dean and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Your muscles may tense up, the heart rate increases, and the digestive system slows down as you prepare to fight, he said.
To manage your response to everyday challenges, some coping mechanisms are more helpful than others. Here, experts share some of the most effective strategies to process your anger — and a few approaches that do more harm than good.
Do take a deep breath
When people become angry, it spikes their physiological arousal, like heart rate and blood pressure, Bushman said.
To lower your arousal, he suggested people take in a deep breath of fresh air and count to 10. As time passes, arousal decreases, so the longer you count the more time your body has to relax.
After feeling angry, Bushman said he meditates and practices yoga to unwind. Some other relaxing activities include listening to soothing music or taking a bath.
Don’t vent to others
Venting is a popular way to blow off steam and let those around you know why you’re angry.
However, arousal levels stay high because venting keeps the memories at the forefront of your mind, Bushman said.
“What often happens when we talk to our friends is they just validate what we’re feeling,” he told Gupta in the podcast episode. This feeds the flame instead of dialing it down, Bushman explained.
Anger often hits us when we’re facing a problem, such as something interfering with our goals or not being treated respectfully, Martin said.
The energy that surges with the fight-or-flight response can be channeled into solving the problem that is making you angry, he explained.
Singer Joan Jett said she encountered many situations in her career that stoked anger inside of her, such as being spit on while onstage. She took that anger and wrote songs like “Bad Reputation” as a way to release the feeling.
“If you didn’t channel it towards some kind of positive outcome, you’d just burn up inside and are consumed by the fire of your emotions,” Jett told Gupta.
Don’t get physical
The worst approach to handling anger is to blow off steam in physical ways, such as boxing or breaking things, Martin said.
It’s a maladaptive expression style that is associated with long-term problems with anger control, he explained. This can reinforce that behavior, so when you become angry in the future, you’re inclined to get physical again, he added.
A prison that had a common practice of letting prisoners hit a punching bag when they got angry called Bushman to ask whether this was a good idea. He said it was a “horrible” idea and to get rid of it.
“Our own research has shown pretty conclusively that hitting a punching bag increases the likelihood that you will aggress against real people, including innocent bystanders,” Bushman said.
Physical exercise like running, which gets your heart pumping, is also a bad idea, he added. With your heart rate elevated, your arousal levels remain high, which is the opposite of what you want to happen when you’re trying to control your anger.
Do think positive
It’s difficult to feel two emotions at once, Bushman said, so channel your energy into a positive emotion to push out the anger.
To produce feelings of love, give a loved one a hug or cuddle with a companion animal, he said. To produce humor, read or watch something funny, Bushman suggested. And to produce empathy, help someone in need.
Don’t suppress your anger
Sometimes it looks like the easiest option is to suppress your anger, but it’s not an effective way to deal with the emotion, said David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and research psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.
“Simply ignoring anger long-term is a surefire way to increase its intensity in the long-run,” he said.
Trying to move on is not productive because it doesn’t address the factors that led us to getting angry in the first place, he added.
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Some people will go so far as to cut others out of their life who anger them, Rosmarin said.
“Yes, it can suppress the negative emotions associated with anger in the short run, but the reality is that people are going to upset us from time to time, and we need to learn to deal with that,” he explained.