Keep calm and carry on: A guide to curbing your anger

Everyone, even the most ‘chilled-out’ person, gets angry from time to time. 

Like all emotions, anger can make you feel different things, such as being irritated, frustrated, or enraged. It can be caused by external events, such as someone cutting you off in traffic, or internal events, like feeling disappointed by your latest exam results.

And there’s nothing wrong with feeling angry for the most part; in fact, MensLine Australia states “it can be a healthy emotion when it’s expressed appropriately and in proportion to the situation.” An example of this might be using the anger from your exam results as motivation to study harder for the next one.

But problems can arise if your anger causes you to hurt others or yourself, as a result of arguments, physical fights, abuse, assault and self-harm. 

And as anger is a common symptom of depression in men, it can be a warning sign that you need to check in with a GP. Depression is treatable, and if it’s well managed, then symptoms like anger can go away. 

There’s no need for you, or the people around you, to live with your anger if its caused by a medical condition that can be treated. And there are techniques you can use, and support is available, if you need help controlling your anger.

What is anger? 

Anger is a human emotion that everyone experiences. It can range from mild (feeling annoyed) to extreme (intense rage). It can be our way of expressing or responding to a range of other feelings such as embarrassment, frustration, jealousy, guilt or feeling under pressure. 

Physical responses to anger

When you start to feel angry, your body often experiences changes — your heart rate and blood pressure increase as your body produces the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response

How anger can impact your body

If unmanaged, anger can place your body under significant stress. Better Health Victoria states some of the short and long-term health problems that have been associated with unmanaged anger include:

  • Headache
  • Digestion problems
  • Insomnia
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Skin problems
  • Heart attack, and
  • Stroke.

However, it’s unclear if these health conditions cause, or are caused by, anger. 

Anger vs. aggression

Sometimes, anger can lead to people acting aggressively or becoming violent. While many people believe anger and aggression are the same thing, they aren’t — anger is the feeling, while aggression and violence are actions. 

Sometimes, anger can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to prevent it spilling over into violence.

Warning signs your anger may be an issue

The good news is, there are ways to get your anger under control. The first step though, is to work out whether you have an issue with anger or not.

MensLine Australia states that if you are wondering whether you need help managing your anger, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I sometimes have trouble controlling my temper?
  • Am I finding it difficult to stay calm in challenging or frustrating situations?
  • Am I having anger outbursts?
  • Am I lashing out at others in response to minor irritations?
  • Am I frequently getting into arguments?
  • Have I ever become angry and regretted it later?
  • Has my anger caused problems in my relationships or at work?
  • Have I threatened violence against a person or property?
  • Have I ever lost control of my anger to the point where I became violent or abusive?
  • Has anyone ever commented on my anger?
  • Am I having difficulty calming down after becoming angry?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions, you may need to find ways to manage your anger.

Techniques to control anger

According to Health Direct, Australia’s virtual public health information service, there are several techniques to prevent your anger from boiling over into abuse or violence.

These include: 

  • Identify the things that make you angry — if you know the things that frustrate you and make you angry, you may be able to avoid them or do things differently when you’re faced with them. When you start to feel angry, ask yourself what is causing it. If it’s a valid reason, then you can acknowledge that. But also ask yourself if your reading of the situation is correct — maybe there’s another perspective
  • Spot the physical warning signs of anger — If you can identify the physical warning signs of anger, you will have more opportunity to calm yourself before the situation escalates
  • Time out — step away from a situation and giving yourself space. It may help to say “I need to take a break — I’ll come back in half an hour.” This gives you a chance to cool down
  • Controlled breathing — try taking five long, deep breaths and slowing your breathing. While you’re breathing, try to relax the muscles in your arms and face.
  • Talk yourself down — telling yourself you can handle the situation can help calm you down. You might try saying things like “Okay, I can handle this” or “I’m not going to let this get to me.” Or you might try words like “relax” or “take it easy” while you breathe deeply. Try to avoid negative statements that might make you feel angrier and which talk up the situation, such as “she’s always doing that” or “how dare he!”
  • Distraction — shifting the focus from the situation to something else, even briefly, can be enough to defuse a situation. If you can listen to music, count to 10 or call a friend, it may be enough to distract you from what is making you angry
  • Use imagery — picturing yourself in a relaxing situation may help. Use what you feel is relaxing — it may be swimming or lying on a beach, sitting on a mountain top, or reading to your children
  • Gentle exercise — exercise such as yoga or other forms of stretching can relax your muscles and make you feel calmer. Taking your dog out for a walk can be a circuit breaker and change your perspective.

MensLine Changing for Good clinical manager John Soulsby says identifying triggers and being more self-aware can help people curb their anger.

“If people think more about what their specific triggers are for getting angry, it can help. For me, my trigger is driving — my risk of getting angry is higher when I’m driving; it doesn’t mean I’ll do anything, I just know that about myself,” he says. 

“So before I start driving, I’ll ask myself how my anger levels are between a one and 10. If I’m at a two, then I should be OK. But if I’m sitting at a six already, then I might take a different way home to lessen the risk of someone cutting me off, or drive slower.

“And the reason for the difference (in anger levels) is likely to be the setting events that precede the possible trigger — so if I’ve had a good day, I’m well-rested, well-fed, everything’s going well at home and at work, then I’ll be getting into the car at a one (out of 10) and the risk (of an outburst) is really low. But if I’m hungry, or things aren’t going right at work or whatever is going on, I might be jumping into that car at six or seven out of 10. Then if someone cuts me off, the risk of me experiencing intense anger is way higher, and it’s more difficult to manage the risk. Having that self-awareness gives us greater chances of keeping calm.”

Benefits of dealing with your anger

Soulsby says men who manage their anger experience benefits in almost all areas of their lives. Most men who struggle with their anger want to change, but just don’t know how.

“Anger and resultant violent behaviour isn't a pleasant experience for the people doing it — it's obviously worse for people on the other end of it, but it's not a place where most people want to be,” he says. 

“People don’t want to be feeling angry all the time. It’s just whether they are motivated to do something. The consequences of not doing something are horrible — people lose relationships at the very least, but they can also end up in jail as a result of all of this, and people even get killed because of this. 

“Men who make these changes are just more at peace; they’re less agitated and their relationships, or future relationships, are going to benefit. Their relationships with their kids, or even ex-partners, and friends and colleagues, will improve. 

“And there can be an inter-generational effect — if guys have kids, they are obviously role modelling better behaviours, promoting strong values, and kids (can) pick up on that.”

The next step — professional help

If you can’t curb your anger via the above techniques, it may be time to seek professional help. 

The first step might be to talk to a GP, who can refer you to a psychologist or an expert in dealing with anger.

As Soulsby puts it, men shouldn’t strive for perfection, but improvement should be an achievable goal for most men.

“We're not perfect, we're going to crack the shits occasionally, but we have got to be able to stop before it gets to a point where it impacts our behaviour in a way that it negatively impacts ourselves and others,” he says.

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