Key points

  • Anger is generally a secondary emotion underneath which we protect more vulnerable feelings, such as sadness, hurt, fear, or jealousy.
  • Anger has evolved to help us stay safe, and we become angry when we encounter perceived or imagined threat as well as actual physical threat.
  • Venting anger is likely to be helpful only if it is non-physical and is combined with a new interpretation of the experience.
  • Techniques that calm the body in combination with purposeful delay of action can allow us to skillfully respond vs. react to anger.

Some years ago, I was having a drink with a friend in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco when I had the bizarre experience of feeling acute rage at a stranger, seemingly out of nowhere. I turned to the person to confront him before becoming conscious of why I was angry. It took me several beats to realize that the very intoxicated young man I was dealing with had accidentally burned me on the back of the arm with a lit cigarette, provoking my primal reaction.

This anecdote reveals a couple of important truths about anger. One is that anger is generally a secondary emotion underneath which we protect more vulnerable feelings, such as sadness, hurt, fear, or jealousy. In my story, my conscious mind worked in reverse of my unconscious reaction; I was aware of experiencing physical pain and was able to piece together what must have happened only after I felt enraged at the stranger. My anger, despite being a secondary reaction, was powerful enough to obscure my primary feelings as well as the likely facts of the situation at hand (e.g., that I had been burned by a cigarette, that the smoker was drunk, and that the harm was accidental and would not continue).

A second, related truth about anger is that it has evolved to help us stay safe. It’s an activating “fight” response that is meant to ward off threats to ourselves or to others we are trying to protect. In the modern world, we experience anger not only when confronted with actual threats or harm, but also when we encounter perceived or imagined threats. Our interpretation of situations is a highly important determinant of emotional reactions in general, and this may be especially true for a powerful and activating emotion like anger.

From an evolutionary standpoint, negative interpretations of others’ intentions were likely adaptive in many survival situations. If an early human saw someone else approaching with a large stick, the interpretation that harm was intended could be life-saving. We may be hardwired to have a tendency to attribute negative intent to others’ actions when lacking complete information. For some people, negative interpretations and resulting anger is a daily experience that can destabilize personal connections and be intensely psychologically draining.

How Can We Cope with Anger?

These cognitive-behavioral tips for coping with anger may help:

1. Be careful about venting.

Research shows that unless venting is paired with a new interpretation of the angering event, it can be a way to actually rehearse anger, and thus make it more present and powerful (Murray, 1995). In the example of my having been burned by a cigarette, I could have interpreted the injury as having been intentionally inflicted. Venting to my friend might have felt validating and supportive, but it only would have decreased my anger had she been able to help me see that the burn was accidental.

A literature review of the expression of more general negative emotions including anger, grief, and reactions to trauma suggested something similar. It appears that emotional expression is only adaptive if it offers some resolution regarding the source and significance of the distress. This resolution may be greater self-understanding or self-acceptance regarding our own actions and reactions, or an improvement in social relationships through problem-solving (Kennedy-Moore and Watson, 2001).

2. In line with the concept of new interpretations, try to identify and challenge thought patterns that are associated with your anger.

Examples of angry interpretations include, “I’m being disregarded or taken advantage of,” “My needs are being ignored,” or “Other people are lazy, controlling, incompetent, or selfish.” It can be helpful to identify alternative explanations for what happened, even if you don’t find them believable initially. You might try to employ thought records or other cognitive tools to help you reduce the sense of threat and feel safer.

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Physical aggression may sound cathartic, but tends to increase angry feelings.

3. Beware of physical aggression toward objects.

Similar to verbal venting, “cathartic” aggressive behaviors like hitting a pillow or punching bag or throwing objects can have the opposite of the desired effect (Bushman, 2002). These actions increase adrenaline (a “fight/flight” hormone) and can be a way of reinforcing an association between anger and violence.

4. Do what you can to reduce physical activation and demonstrate a sense of calm even before you feel it.

Deep breathing, walking, stretching and muscle relaxation may help. Relaxing your face into a calm expression can be surprisingly effective; some older research demonstrates that our own facial expressions influence emotional experience (e.g., Laird, 1974). A calm body gives rise to a calmer mind.

5. Resist the sense of urgency that is often associated with anger and allow yourself time to respond rather than to simply react.

Angry feelings make us want to react immediately and impulsively when the more skillful method is often to take some time to respond in a considered way. Take a break and delay action to give yourself the best chance of responding in a way that aligns with your values.

An Exercise for Coping with Anger

Can you identify common themes for your anger, particularly thought patterns? When have you managed anger in a way that felt effective and values-consistent, and how were you able to respond that way? Is there a specific tool that you are willing to try the next time you feel angry?


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