Anger management: Learn healthy ways to handle it, and unlearn bad behavior

RON BORRESEN   |   Times
Published Sept. 14, 2018

What makes you mad? Dropping your new phone in the toilet — after deciding not to take the extra coverage that would have replaced it? Being cut off in traffic? Having a parking place "stolen" from you? Doing dishes after shopping for and cooking the meal, while others relax? Being passed over for a promotion? Most of us might be angry for a short while, utter a few expletives and move on, start job hunting or call for help in the kitchen. But others feel driven to lash out with an emotional explosion: yelling, screaming, kicking, punching, blaming and plotting retaliation — the kind of behavior common in road rage incidents or revenge shootings.

Then there are those whose anger is more subtle. It percolates to the surface with negativity, bitterness, long-held grudges and a general lack of compassion toward others, sometimes to the point of seeking to sabotage those who hurt you.

"Anger is the most difficult emotion to control," said Brad Bushman, researcher, author and professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University. Bushman has been researching anger, aggression and violence for more than 30 years. "Anger is fueled by a sense of unfairness and injustice," he said, "and the desire to do something about it to stop the injustice."

That's one reason why so many people suddenly stop their cars on the road to have it out with another driver. And why some people decide to use guns and other forms of violence to settle disagreements or to make it clear who's really right or more powerful. While anger is a normal emotion, how you express anger can be costly in terms of employment, relationships and your health. But just as you learned from childhood how to deal with frustration when things didn't go your way, you can also learn how to better manage anger so it isn't a problem for you or others.

"Rage rooms" are popping up all across the country, including in the Tampa Bay area, to give people a place where they can legally, and without hurting others, vent anger and pent-up frustration by smashing computers, breaking glasses and plates, kicking furniture and punching holes in walls. But according to the experts, venting in aggressive, emotional ways doesn't really help.

"It's actually the worst thing they could do," Bushman said. When someone is angry enough to lash out physically or verbally, they are highly aroused, and "venting in that manner keeps those levels high, feeds the flame," according to Bushman. "It's really just practicing how to behave aggressively" and conditioning yourself to repeat the behaviors.

A better way to deal with anger is to try to calm yourself and figure out what is really making you mad. Dropping an expensive piece of equipment such as a cellphone or tablet is frustrating, yes, because it means you'll be without the device for a certain amount of time, be inconvenienced because, for example, it contains your only contact list and calendar, and you'll probably have to spend money to replace or repair it. But the real reason the incident made you put your fist through the wall or kick the dog is that it made you feel clumsy, inadequate, less than perfect, like a failure because you allowed the accident to happen. And, if you're really being honest, you feel it's just unfair that something bad has happened to you, yet again. You can't seem to catch a break. Once you can recognize the emotions that are really at the root of your anger, you can begin to change the unwanted behavior.

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Nick Joyce, a staff psychologist at the University of South Florida Counseling Center, works with students of all ages who are dealing with a variety of mental health issues, including trouble with anger. "I have clients take out a piece of paper every time they feel angry and write down the emotions they are feeling at that moment because feelings lead to behaviors," Joyce said. "It makes them aware of their feelings and forces them to take a break from their automatic reaction. Lashing out is what they are conditioned to do. This breaks the cycle."

Bushman says distraction also helps. As soon as you feel you're ready to snap, stop and do something else. Count to 10, breathe deeply, say a prayer, do something nice for someone. Even petting a puppy can help defuse anger. Taking that moment is important because anger wears off with time and because those behaviors are all incompatible with anger. "Anger and empathy don't go together," Bushman said. "Empathy and distraction help distance you from anger," which gives you time to react in a more reasonable way.

Whatever method you prefer for calming anger, Dr. Kimberly Hartney, chief of psychiatry at Tampa General Hospital, said it's important to make a change because chronic anger is bad for your health. "It increases your risk for hypertension, metabolic syndrome, obesity and depression. It accelerates aging, may contribute to premature death and may increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease," Hartney said.

And just as aggression and explosive anger are learned behaviors, you can also learn healthy ways to handle anger. Hartney likens it to how children eventually learn how to cope when things don't go their way. "Two-year-olds are chronically angry because they can't express themselves in language," she said, "but when they are given the tools to express themselves and to convey what they want, their behavior changes and it helps reduce their anger." The same goes for adults. They, too, can learn how to handle anger in a healthy way that is less likely to turn even a relatively small mishap into a catastrophe.

"That's what mental health providers do," Hartney said. Anger management group meetings and individual counseling are very effective and for most people don't take long to effect change. "If you are open enough to give it a try," she adds. Recognizing you have a problem is half the battle. Unfortunately, it can take the loss of a job or a relationship, personal harm or a run-in with law enforcement for some people to get help. "If you have suffered medical, social or legal consequences because of your temper, you should see a professional," Hartney said.

Contact Irene Maher at