Coping With Overwhelming Anger
Anger is a common, signal emotion that includes everything from just being mildly irritated to being resentful, furious, and enraged. Anger is natural, normal part of you. It is a signal letting you know that there is danger and that your standards, values, or even your life have been violated by someone else or even by you.
Anger gives you information and tells you to protect yourself. However, anger can become a very disabling emotion that is difficult to control. Unfortunately, many of my clients struggle with anger that is associated with trauma. This level of anger often causes outbursts that are significantly out of proportion to what caused or provoked them. When this occurs repeatedly and for longer periods of time, anger eventually turns into a frustration which can then manifest itself in verbal or physical aggression toward oneself or others. This then frequently results in a loss or sever damage of friendships and relationships, loneliness, isolation, and feelings of guilt and hopelessness.
According to research, Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been associated with negative emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, and disgust, as well as impairments in the ability to effectively regulate these emotional states. There is evidence showing that each of these negative emotions and emotion regulation difficulties are related to the severity of PTSD stemming from various trauma types. (1)
Many of my clients diagnosed with PTSD, experience anger as a sudden blow up because they are not aware of what triggers their anger and miss the important cues. In therapy, we focus on learning these triggers, recognizing the anger cues, and de-escalating emotions before the anger explosion. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) specifically focuses on coping skills that can reduce overwhelming emotions and establish emotional balance. However, there are methods, techniques, and exercises that you can successfully practice at home even if you are not currently working with a therapist. Lets’ take a look at some of these.
1. Learn to recognize physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of your distress and anger.
Physical – clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth, headache. stomach ache, increased and rapid heart rate, sweating, especially your palms, feeling hot in the neck/face, tense body posture, hands in fists
Emotional – feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, guilt, irritation, resentfulness
Behavioral/Other – wanting to get away, rubbing your head or face, being sarcastic, craving a drink, smoke, or other relaxing substances, raising your voice or yelling, acting in an abusive manner, wanting to strike out physically or verbally
2. Distraction – once you recognize the above signs, you must remove yourself from the situation. Distraction does not mean avoidance. However, when you distract yourself from a stressful, conflict situation, you are allowing yourself time to calm down at a tolerable level before returning to resolve the problem or situation in the future. While in the distressing situation, it is important to communicate to the other party that you need to take a moment but that it is your intention to return and deal with the situation. Simple distraction techniques include:
Engaging in a pleasurable activity, such as: talking to a friend on a phone, exercising, taking a walk, biking, going for a drive, sleeping, eating your favorite food, playing a game, listening to music, cooking, playing with your pet, going shopping, getting a haircut, taking a long bath (by the way, you should do something pleasurable that makes you happy every day, not just when feeling angry)
Paying attention to someone else: think of someone you care about, look at their picture and imagine having a nice conversation with them; watch other people around you; offer to help someone with a project
Keeping your favorite proverb, quote, or a prayer with you. When distressed, read it to yourself and allow the words to soothe and calm you.
Doing chores – cleaning, washing dishes, laundry, watering, paying bills, etc. Interestingly, most people find that cleaning something up or getting something organized gives them a sense of control, immediately relieving tension. I actually personally use this technique with a great success. When feeling overwhelmed, I tend to clean my desk. It works every time. 🙂
Breathing and relaxing – your body will feel better, your alert responses (fight or flight) will decrease, and your brain will be allowed to think about a solution in a much healthier and a productive way. A simple breathing technique is to breathe slowly through your nose, hold your breath for five seconds, and then breathe out very slowly through your mouth. Repeat five times to calm yourself and deescalate your anger. It is helpful to close your eyes and imagine a relaxing place or a scene. If you would like to have a bit more specific, yet very simple relaxation technique, please leave your email below.
3. If you feel aggressive toward yourself or others, the following coping techniques are very helpful:
Exercise as intensily as you can. If you cannot engage in a physical activity, try pushing against the wall with both hands as hard as you can until you are exhausted.
Yell and scream by yourself as long as you can.
Hit a pillow, throw rolled up socks at the wall
Squeeze an ice cube
Draw faces of people that made you angry on balloons and then pop them
Cry – crying has been showed to release significant amount of stress hormones
Realize that you cannot control other people’s behavior, but you can control your own choices and actions. How you react to distressing situations is your decision. You have all the power as well as responsibly to make the choice. Be aware of your “anger buttons,” in other words, these are situations that regularly trigger your anger (for example, someone making a joke about you). Learn to anticipate being triggered, so you can diffuse the situation and make a conscious choice about how you will react to it.
Please feel free to comment and ask questions.
Resources for this article:
McLean CP, Foa EB. Emotions and emotion regulation in posttraumatic stress disorder. Curr Opin Psychol. 2017 Apr;14:72-77. PMID: 28813323
Williams MB, PhD, LCSW, CTS; Poijula S., PhD. The PTSD Workbook, 3rd Edition, 2016
Moles K., CSW Strategies for Anger Management, 2003
McKay M., PhD; Wood JC, PsyD; Brantley J., MD, The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, 2007