We all experience momentary bursts of anger every now and then. We get hangry after back-to-back-to-back meetings at work. We grow frustrated when a certain Cheeto-hued White House resident goes on yet another Twitter tirade.
For the most part, though, these relatively minor annoyances are easy to deal with: You feed yourself or sign off Twitter for the day and the anger subsides.
But walking back your anger when you’re having a heated conversation with someone ― a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, some very unfortunate person at a call center ― is a lot more difficult.
There are things you can do in the moment to calm yourself, though. Below, therapists offer their best advice for getting control of your temper before it gets control of you.
1. Acknowledge that you’re angry.
When you’re angry, you notice it in your body. You experience it physically far more than you do cognitively, said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California. You are literally hot and bothered.
“Anger will often also cause changes in our body, such as muscle tension like a stiff, sore neck, rapid heartbeat or breathing that becomes rapid and shallow,” Smith said. “Feeling fatigued or heated up for no obvious reason can be a sign of unrecognized anger.”
If you’re not physically feeling it, you might hear it in the sound of your voice.
“One way to realize that you’re getting angry is to listen to the volume of your voice. Is it increasing?” Smith said. “That’s a sign your emotions are building and can indicate you’re getting angry.”
Once you notice this, try to modulate your voice.
“Just as increasing anger can correspond to an increasingly loud voice, so can the opposite,” Smith said. “Try responding to your loud voice by gradually lowering it. This is an effective strategy to emotionally talk yourself back down.”
2. Follow your body’s cues, safely and slowly.
The standard advice here is to take deep breaths, in and out. When you’re really in anger though, and the breathing, counting or similar techniques aren’t working, it pays to take cues from your physiological sensations. Ask yourself what your anger wants to do, said Brittany Bouffard, a Denver psychotherapist who’s trained in a form of alternative therapy called Somatic Experiencing.
What your anger wants you to do? What does that mean?
“Notice if, for example, your hands, forearms, and biceps want to clench, or if your abdomen grips and you want to yell,” Bouffard said. “For any of these, you can try — safely and slowly — letting the muscles do as they like but as if in slow motion or underwater.”
The slowness is crucial here because you’re “allowing the motion to integrate into the system, allowing it to feel [that] it completed what it needed,” Bouffard said. (In other words, your body wants to react. Let it, but in a gentle, modified way.)
Let your hands slowly but firmly grip something that is safe (to the object and yourself), or let your abdomen clench, Bouffard said.
“If your body wants to punch, find a pillow ― of course beware to not punch anything” or anyone, she said.
Obviously, this is ideal to do if you’re by yourself. But when we pull back from the conversation and let the body’s survival mechanisms do as they need, “the body discharges that survival energy rather than it feeling stuck,” Bouffard said.
“It stops you from continuing the day tense and with angry thoughts,” she added.
3. Give yourself a time out.
How do you do the exercise above when you’re in the middle of a face-to-face conversation? Call a personal timeout, said Saniyyah Mayo, a psychotherapist in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
“Walking away gives you time to calm down and collect your thoughts before responding,” Mayo told HuffPost. “This also aids in decreasing anger and or de-escalating the situation. A timeout allows time for you to reflect on the actual trigger that manifested the anger, which helps with identifying the trigger to prevent it from reoccurring.”
Of course, don’t just peace out of the argument. Let whoever you’re talking to know that you just need a little physical space, Mayo said. Otherwise, your actions might be misconstrued as passive-aggressive.
4. Ask yourself what emotion is behind the anger.
Now that you’ve calmed down, think about what’s motivating your anger. More often than not, anger is a “secondary emotion” we use as a mask or a defense for an entirely different feeling (shame, for instance, or embarrassment).
“If you can bring conscious awareness to the real emotion, then you can actually take an outsider view and discover why it’s happening,” said Patrick Davey Tully, a therapist in Los Angeles.
Once you’ve pinpointed what’s really motivating your anger, you’ll gain insight into your needs that haven’t been met: Maybe you snapped at a co-worker for asking a simple question, not because you think they’re incompetent, but because you’re generally feeling overwhelmed with your own work.
Once you’re aware of the real emotions at play, you can communicate it to the person you snapped at, Tully said. In the scenario above, you’d apologize to your co-worker — explaining that you snapped because you’re overwhelmed (and acknowledging that doesn’t justify your behavior!) — and perhaps consider asking your manager to lighten your workload.
5. Change the tone of the conversation.
After your body is calm ― and you’ve given some thought to what was behind your burst of anger ― use “I” statements when you share your thoughts or feelings with the other person, advised Megan Negendank, a psychotherapist and sex therapist in Sacramento, California.
“Say you’re arguing with your S.O. about how you deal with your parents,” Negendank said. “You might say something like, ’I feel frustrated when you criticize how I am handling things with my parents because it seems like you don’t trust me to make the right decisions for myself. I would like you to be supportive of me and only give me your input when I ask for it. I know you care about what is best for me, but when it comes out as criticism it just hurts me.’”
The alternative, more hostile approach ― “You are so judgmental about how I deal with my parents. You have no idea what you are talking about” ― isn’t likely to get you anywhere.
“When we use ‘I’ statements instead, our partners are less likely to get defensive and more likely to understand what is going on with us,” Negendank explained.
6. Change the subject of the conversation.
Let’s say you’ve taken the advice above, but you’re still feeling heated. That’s OK. Nothing needs to be resolved right now. If you or your partner/co-worker/friend still feel hotheaded, changing the topic of conversation can also be a good way to cope with anger in the moment, Mayo said.
“Sometimes, ruminating over the person or thing that made you angry only causes you to stay angry.” she said. “Focusing on something else helps change your mood and how you will respond. If things are heated, changing the subject will alter the trajectory of the conversation as a whole.”
The easiest way to do this? “Make a joke and reroute the conversation to a safe, calm, enjoyable dialogue,” Mayo said.
If you were discussing something serious ― or something that needs to be resolved eventually ― table the discussion for later or the next day, when cooler heads prevail.
By “cooler heads prevail,” we don’t mean this:
Take what you’ve learned here and cool it, hothead!