Wellness

12 Ways Therapists Deal With Anger When They're Pissed Off

Because even the professionals need help managing rage sometimes.
10/24/2018 05:45am ET | Updated October 24, 2018
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Mental health professionals sometimes use what they teach their patients when they're feeling angry themselves.

People cut us off in traffic. Co-workers drop the ball on their half of a project. Family members post enraging political posts on social media. And your significant other knows exactly how to push your buttons. Anger happens to all of us ― even the trusted, certified mental health professional that you sit across from each week.

You may think your therapist has it all figured out, but even they are human enough to find themselves seeing red from time to time, said Amy Serin, a clinical neuropsychologist and co-founder and chief science officer of The Touchpoint Solution.

“Therapists may have knowledge on how to manage anger in general, but like anyone else, our stress switches can turn on anger in milliseconds and we aren’t immune from becoming impulsive, fearful or reactive when we are in this mode,” she said.

Luckily, with a base of healthy behaviors and neuroscience hacks, anyone can turn off their anger and come back to a place of feeling calm and thinking rationally, Serin notes. So how do therapists deal with getting hit with a storm of rage? We surveyed some to get their best tips on how they tackle anger whenever it pops up in their lives:

1. Use the “STOP” technique

“In the moment, I use a technique called the STOP technique,” said Katie Leikam, a therapist specializing in LGBTQ issues in Decatur, Georgia, and owner of True You Southeast.

The method involves going through the following sequence: S, Stop; T, Take a breath and reconnect with the present moment; O, Observe and notice what is happening around you; P, Proceed with your newfound information after having taken a moment to evaluate the situation.

“I take the time to stop being angry, think about why I am angry, observe what is really going on and process what to do next. And that’s been really helpful,” she said.

2. Think before you act

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Meg Josephson, a psychotherapist in New York City, says whenever she gets revved up with anger, she will “count to three, check the facts and consider ‘is my anger warranted?’”

She then makes a point of considering how her actions will affect a situation if she expresses anger. “This will help reduce saying something impulsive that may damage the relationship,” she added.

3. Engage your senses

If she finds herself in the heat of the moment, Daniella Bloom, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encino, California, takes several slow, deep breaths through her nose and out her mouth. “This will start changing your brain chemistry from fight or flight to flow and let go,” she said.

Most importantly, she then makes a point of throwing her senses off the trail of her anger. “I go outside and inhale some fresh air, pound the pavement to move that aggressive, angry energy down, smell a calming aromatherapy scent or play soothing music from Pandora or Spotify,” she added.

4. Play out what you would say in your mind

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“There is an old phrase that says, ‘Buried feelings never die’ and this is particularly true of anger,” said Ti Caine, a hypnotherapist and life coach with Future Visioning in Sherman Oaks, California, who explained that stifling your emotions can be harmful and that you should therefore allow yourself to feel and express them.

Sometimes, however, acting on something like anger in the moment isn’t productive. So in these instances, Caine uses his imagination. He suggests feeling the anger and then going into your mind and mentally acting it out. For instance, take a moment to imagine yourself screaming at the person who frustrated you instead of actually engaging in the act in real life. Run through what you’d like to say if you had the chance to really unleash your thoughts in the moment.

5. Give the anger some space

“It’s important to create space between the emotion and the reaction, as the reaction is where people can find themselves getting into trouble,” said Danielle Swimm, who provides counseling and eating disorder treatment at Collide Behavioral Health in Annapolis, Maryland.

She adds that giving yourself space to process an emotion gives you time to de-escalate and not overreact to a situation. “A few things I do to create space when I feel angry include going for a walk, going for a drive, taking a few deeps breaths or setting a timeline for when I can react,” Swimm said.

For example, if it’s an email that made her angry, she gives herself a day to process it before she replies. “This helps create space for me to think logically and not emotionally,” she said.

6. Ask yourself, “Why is this anger happening?”

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Taking a look at why your emotions are occurring can help you separate momentary frustration that will blow over quickly from something deeper, according to Kryss Shane, a licensed mental health professional and LGBTQ expert.

“When it’s something temporary, taking a second to step back and take some deep breaths is often enough to calm the body and the nerves. When it’s something deeper, there are a variety of options,” she said.

While she recommends that some of her clients engage in acts like hitting the gym, journaling, or cranking up the music and singing along, Shane has found a maneuver that works for her every time.

“I’m a big believer in dancing it out. The combination of dancing and music I love often shakes me out of an angry or frustrated place,” she said.

7. Breathe through it

LeKisha Y. Edwards Alesii, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Center for Health and Emotional Wellness in Durham, North Carolina, uses breath work to combat difficult feelings.

“When I notice the anger ― which includes physical signs such as talking fast, tensing up, breathing in a shallow manner, negative self-talk statements ― I take deep breaths and use mindfulness strategies to stay in the moment and focus on how I am breathing,” she said.

She also does her best to keep anger at bay before it even pops up.

“I try to prevent myself from getting too stressed out in a proactive manner to avoid angry outbursts. I try to engage in brief periods of relaxation, maybe lasting a minute or so, throughout the day,” she said.

8. Do something you can concentrate on for one minute

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Kari Ann Greaves, founder and director of Reflections Counseling and Consulting Services in Wethersfield, Connecticut, takes a “mindful minute” in the form of going for a quick walk, drinking a glass of cold water or eating a mint.

“Taking a mindful moment helps me relax and change my thoughts. Then I let the situation fizzle and move on to something else and come back to it at a later time if needed,” she added.

9. Challenge your assumptions

Crystal I. Lee, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, notes that when you get angry, there is usually an assumption or judgment that you’re making about the situation or person that made you upset.

“For example, if someone cuts me off while driving, I might assume that person is an inconsiderate jerk,” she said. “Instead, I try to think of alternative reasons why the person cut me off. If I instead assume that person is rushing off to the hospital to see a loved one, my anger dissipates.”

10. Funnel rage into positive action

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“I often find myself very angry by politics. In those instances, I do my best to use that energizing force to try to make change,” said Amy Bishop, a marriage and family therapist with Springs Therapy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

On very frustrating news days, Bishop will donate to a campaign or cause she supports, or call, email or visit her legislator’s offices.

“This burns off some of the energy that comes with being angry,” she said.

11. Get to the root of your anger

Larry Stybel, a licensed psychologist based in Boston who provides psychotherapy services through OptiMindHealth, imagines what he would say in the moment and then does a deep dive. He asks himself three questions: “Does this need to be said or done? Does it need to be said or done by me? Does it need to be said or done by me now?”

By the time he gets to the third question, he’s not typically over his anger but he feels less inclined to react to it. “The time gap between the stimulus and the response is so critical to happiness,” he added.

12. Gather your thoughts

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“What I found works well is to always give yourself a moment to gather your thoughts,” said Adrienne Alexander, a certified conflict resolution and conflict management specialist based in Atlanta.

She adds that words spoken in anger can’t be taken back, which is why she opts to write them down first.

“I have so many written and erased text messages and notes in cyberspace that you wouldn’t believe!” she said. “It’s easier to type and erase than it is to recover from a misunderstanding or things said in haste out of anger or frustration.”

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