If you’ve ever had someone step on your toes, figuratively or literally, beyond the initial shock and pain there will often be feelings of anger that follow. You may think:

  • Didn’t they see me standing here?.
  • Who does she think she is?.
  • What an inconsiderate jerk!.
  • He didn’t even apologize!.

If you are not able to interrupt that stream of thought, your anger will escalate. There’s a story of a guy who was walking to a neighbor’s house to borrow his lawnmower. All the way over he was grumbling to himself, “I’ll bet he won’t loan me his lawnmower. And after all the things I’ve done for him.”

By the time he gets to the door and knocks, the neighbor opens his door, and the guy yells, “Keep your stupid lawnmower!” I know the story seems ridiculous, but we do this very thing when we make up what someone else is thinking and feel angry about it.

Anger is one of the first emotions we experience as infants. Experiencing frustration and anger from not getting what we want when we want it is more or less universal. There is a space between stimulus and response. If you are stressed or disconnected from your feelings (dissociated), you have no space. Someone angers you and you reflexively shoot back with angry words.

If you can learn to relax your body and check in with your feelings (what am I feeling, and where am I feeling it?) you can increase the space between stimulus and response, and identify your anger (“Hey, when you said that, my anger shot up!”) and perhaps make a different choice than the angry words that you might have locked and loaded.

Appreciating your anger

It’s easy to look at anger as a negative emotion. After all, we typically get angry in those moments when things are going wrong, we’re feeling disrespected, or there is a grave injustice we’re witnessing. Anger shows up in situations we’d rather not experience, such as when someone cuts you off in traffic or insults your child, and so it’s easy to designate anger as a negative.

Another reason we may feel wary around anger is that when we encounter anger, it’s often anger that has gone or is currently escalating out of control. The more visible displays of anger include yelling, throwing things, punches being thrown, curses being hurled at someone, in essence, all the danger to persons or property that result when someone is in the path of an angry person.

This kind of anger leaves destruction in its wake, so it is natural to assume that this is the face of anger. Considering this, we rightly want to avoid it.

However, anger is a healthy, normal emotion that human beings experience. In all the examples cited above, the reason anger flares up is because our primitive brain is trying to protect us. It wants you to worry about being hurt, to drag memories of betrayal into the present, to churn and cycle and fret.

We talk about raw or primitive emotions like anger and fear. These are some of the first emotions we experience, at a time when we don’t have the neocortex to understand that an angry look or swat from a parent isn’t the end of the world, so early trauma becomes an existential crisis. If those young places of trauma get triggered, we can re-experience those same feelings of existential crisis, which is why a relatively minor problem sometimes can seem catastrophic.

A word about regression

Most of us have a capable adult represented in our neocortex – this is where we reason things out, solve problems, and can hold things in tension (such as, “I’m frustrated with you right now” and “I still love you.”) However, throughout each day most of us move in and out of younger self states, based on our normal thought processes or external stimuli.

You take a bite of that candy bar you loved as a kid, and for a few seconds, you’re eight years old again. Someone cuts you off on the road and you want to drive him into the ditch and set his car on fire. I think of this as a teenage head space. In the next moment, I grow myself back up by telling myself “Maybe he was on his way home to his sick kid” – letting him off the hook to free myself from anger and outrage.

This movement to a younger self state is called regression (with a little “r”). Now this is important: my default response to anger is regression, and if I am regressed I will not be able to have a capable adult conversation. If I can notice it, name it, and can take a moment to grow myself back up (remind myself of whatever truths are helpful), I can often avoid the negative outcomes of unregulated anger in my relationships.

Anger is one of the ways we become aware when our boundaries have been violated, and it moves us to remedy the situation. Anger can and does serve a positive function in our lives, as long as it is managed and expressed in a healthy way. The goal is to understand why you are angry, express that, and find the balance between hiding it and blowing up.

Reasons to control your anger

When your anger is out of control, that’s when anger causes pain. It’s estimated that around 16 million Americans suffer from impulsive aggression, a condition known as intermittent explosive disorder (IED); this disorder is sometimes also referred to as an anger-management disorder.

This disorder is marked by sudden, uncontrollable bursts of anger that are usually vastly out of proportion to the situation. A person with this disorder will do things like fly into a rage, slam doors, punch holes in the wall, or spew verbal insults. Suffice it to say that when a person acts this way, the people around them are nervous.

Out-of-control anger negatively affects your relationships. If people are scared of you, scared of the things you’ll say and do when you get angry, they are likely to walk on eggshells around you trying not to upset you. They can’t be honest about what they truly think or feel because they may upset you. They either have to stay and distort reality for your sake or leave.

Often, people with uncontrolled anger will have many broken relationships as people choose to leave to steer clear of the rage. There can be personal and professional consequences to having uncontrolled anger including losing friends or work because of anger.

Uncontrolled anger takes a heavy toll on a person’s health. Anger rouses your body for possible action, which triggers a series of physiological changes to accommodate the possibilities. Your heart races, muscles tense, and more. If you are angry a lot, or your anger is intense, then your body remains in this state of readiness, which isn’t good for you.

The stress and strain that unrestrained anger puts your body under affects your health by weakening your immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds and other ailments. It also increases your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiac health issues. You want to control your anger because not doing so is detrimental to your well-being.

How to deal with your feelings of anger

When you are angry, there are two extremes to be avoided: 1) stuffing it and hiding it, and 2) releasing it without any control. If your goal is to manage your anger in a healthy way, here are some tools that can help with that:


Job one is noticing your emotions. Ask yourself several times a day, “What am I feeling and where am I feeling it?” This reconnects you to your body and can increase the distance between stimulus and response. It’s the difference between getting angry and reflexively shouting back in anger, or saying “Wow! You said that and my anger shot up! I’m going to need a minute.” If you can notice it and name it, it isn’t driving your emotional bus.

Disrupting intrusive thoughts

Like the lawnmower guy above, we can set ourselves up for an argument by how we respond to an anger stimulus. If I’m frustrated by something my spouse or child did, especially if we’ve talked about it before, my primitive brain wants to drag up every other time the person messed up and then pound them with it.

My only hope is to interrupt that intrusive cycling thought and replace it with something better. One surefire way to disrupt a cycling thought is as follows:

  • Make a tight fist.
  • Decide how you are going to open it (pinky or index first).
  • Open it.

For that moment of decision in step two, you physically cannot be thinking anything else, and you are snapped back into the present. That doesn’t mean the ingrained process of cycling won’t try to reassert itself in the next moment.

Those neural pathways are often well-worn. But for an instant, we can disrupt it, and if we have something else to stuff in that space “No laundry lists”, “This is frustrating but it’s not the end of the world” or anything else that feels helpful, we have chance to interrupt the intrusive thought and go in a different direction, which gives us access to words of grace instead of accusation.


Emotion is energy in the body. The level of anger is directly proportional to the amount of emotional energy in the body. Stress cannot exist in a relaxed body. If, in the moment, we can interrupt escalation (fist technique) or use awareness to reclaim our ability to make a decision (notice and name anger), we can use tools to down-regulate.

Breathing in through your nose, out through your mouth; affirmations – saying things to myself that are calming or encouraging; and relaxation – scanning from the top of your head to your toes over the space of five seconds and relaxing your muscles – these are your best tools for managing anger.


Stimulus: My wife raises her voice at me


  • I notice my anger shot up
  • I tell her I’m going to need a moment before replying
  • I begin my breathing, in through my nose, out through my mouth
  • I tell myself God is particularly fond of me, as I breathe
  • I imagine my anger/stress leaving my body through my mouth
  • I do a body scan, relaxing my muscles from the top of my head down to my toes
  • I decide how I want to respond to my wife

It’s okay to tell yourself that your anger exists and that it is a legitimate and healthy feeling. Anger has a function in your life, so when it shows up, be curious about what it’s telling you.

Anger can sometimes be dealt with by exercising self-restraint, and while this can be useful in the moment to do no harm, we have to circle back around and process it or it will harm us.

As beings made in God’s image who are meant to exercise wisdom and temperance in their dealings with others, acting without thinking is not a good idea because of the harm it can cause. But we do well to do repair work on ourselves when things upset us, so we don’t stuff it and become withdrawn or resentful.

Through relaxation techniques, and training yourself to listen well before responding, you can put the brakes on anger so that when you express yourself, it’s expressed in a way that’s productive and not destructive.

If you find yourself struggling with your anger, whether that’s finding it hard to express your anger outwardly, or you struggle with expressing anger in ways that aren’t destructive, there is help available to you.

Counseling for anger management will teach you effective ways to deal with conflict as well as relaxation techniques such as visualization that will help you calm down when you start to get angry. Anger makes for a poor master, but when it is under control it can serve you well.

If your anger and expressions of anger are not under your control, consider anger management counseling to retake control over this emotion and learn to do something different when activated.

“Pinecones”, Courtesy of Robert Zunikoff, Unsplash.com, CC0 License


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