We all get mad. But if you’re getting mad, staying mad, and thinking about being mad a lot of the time—or if yourangerhas become A Thing and people are noticing—that’s worth paying attention to. Maybe you’ve lost some friends because of your short fuse or paid some not-so-fun consequences for losing your temper at work or your temper blazes from 0 to 100 every time you’re behind a slowpoke in line. Honestly, if you’ve ever stopped to wonder, “Do I have anger issues?” it might be time to talk to someone about your anger. Here’s how to know if you could benefit from someanger management strategies—plus what that even entails.
When should you see someone for your anger?
Anger is a normal, productive emotion that serves a legit purpose: alerting us to the values that matter to us, the boundaries we don’t want to be crossed, and the changes we want to make in our own lives or in the world.
So eliminating anger entirely isn’t realistic—nor is it the goal. We all get angry, but the key is learning how to manage your anger and maybe even channel it in ways that benefit you—like a little self-reflection, a creative outlet, or maybe even some personal growth. Learning to control our anger takes practice, it’s not easy, and it’s an ongoing process for anyone.
“If a person is concerned about their anger, it makes good sense to talk with someone about it,” saysRyan Martin, PhD,an associate dean and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and the author ofWhy We Get Mad. “It’s a healthy, smart thing to take time to reflect on those feelings and think about the impact they’re having on their life.”
That said, there are some clear signs that you should talk to someone about your rage. The biggest red flag: Your anger interferes with your relationships, work, or safety.
“If your anger causes arguments, outbursts, violence, or disconnection within your important relationships, such as your marriage/relationship, children, friends, parents, coworkers, boss, etc., it is time to see a professional,” saysDanielle McGraw, PhD, a clinical psychologist and owner of Flourish Mental Wellness, who specializes in relationships, trauma, anger and anxiety.
If you’re finding it hard to deal with conflicts without getting irate, you’re having explosive angry outbursts, people around you seem legit scared or upset by your anger, or if it gets in the way of your work or family life, those are all signs you would benefit from talking to a pro. Same goes if your anger is putting you or others in unsafe situations like if you’re trailing cars that cut you off in traffic or starting arguments in public places, Dr. McGraw says. And if your anger is leading you to overuse substances like drugs or alcohol to cope or you’re harming yourself in other ways, that definitely warrants reaching out to a therapist.
What even is anger management therapy?
We’ve all heard about anger management, right? But what does that look like in practice? One of the common approaches to anger management therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves changing your thought patterns to change your behavior, says Dr. Martin. During these sessions, your therapist will help you understand and recognize your anger triggers and warning signs, and then equip you with coping skills (plus relaxation tips) to reduce your anger in the moment. They’ll also help you learn ways to challenge the unhelpful thoughts that lead to extreme anger and replace them with more productive ways of looking at things. The typical anger management treatment span is 12 sessions, but you might need more or fewer depending on your progress, says Dr. McGraw.
While we tend to think of anger management as something you do in a group setting, individual therapy is also an option. There are pros and cons to both, so it really depends on whether you’ll open up more in private or you prefer the validation and support that comes from being around other people who share your experience. The key is that you feel comfortable because, if you’re not, your progress could suffer, Dr. McGraw says.
Here’s how anger management works.
A lot of anger management focuses on pinpointing and troubleshooting the usual patterns we fall into when we’re mad, says Dr. McGraw. When you experience anger, your internal anger “scripts” and motor impulses automatically activate. If the scripts you’ve learned about anger are negative, then a negative reaction—like screaming your head off at someone or getting aggressive—will follow. Fortunately, the way we respond to anger isn’t fixed. Anger management therapy helps you learn more effective skills you can practice in therapy and in your own life. Over time, your default script can become a healthy one. Pretty cool, right?
One part of this involves investigating the thought patterns that take you from minorly mad to Big Mad. “Anger is most often a result of how we evaluate a situation” says Dr. McGraw. So, if you’re stuck in a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking (“Nothing ever goes my way, and everyone is out to get me”), your therapist will help you understand the assumptions that are leading to your anger and replace them with more balanced thoughts. You might start to ask yourself questions like: Is there more to the story than what my thoughts are telling me? Do the facts of the situation support my thoughts and feelings? Is my thought based on feeling or fact?
You’ll also learn physical tactics that help you regulate your nervous system so anger doesn’t get to that boiling-over place, she says. That can start with mindful meditations where you pay attention to what anger feels like in your body, especially when you’re just starting to get angry. Mindful deep breathing exercises will help you learn to slow down your nervous system and regulate your blood pressure and heart rate, thereby disrupting the anger signals your body sends to your brain. You might also learn progressive muscle relaxation: tensing and relaxing muscle groups throughout your body one at a time, sending your body signals to relax.
Finally, you’ll also learn how to lean into your anger. It might sound counterintuitive, but embracing your anger and learning how to interact with it productively and compassionately will help you figure out what it’s trying to tell you, says Dr. McGraw. “Underneath strong emotion is often a need,” she says. “And by identifying that need we can help soothe the emotion.” For example, if you get angry after being rejected, you might be craving more connection or intimacy. Once you know that, you can do things that bring more of that into your life.
What if your anger isn’t disrupting your life…yet?
If you’re worried about your anger even though it hasn’t led to negative consequences yet, it’s worth talking with a therapist to prevent things from escalating, saysNicole Cammack, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the president and CEO of Black Mental Wellness.
Honestly, if it’s been on your mind lately, chances are you could benefit from an anger audit with a therapist. “The mindfulness and thought-challenging work makes it worth taking anger management, even if anger is not quite interfering in your life yet. These are skills anyone can benefit from,” says Dr. McGraw.
When you learn to be mindful of your emotions, how they feel in your body, and have the language to describe them, you can have a healthier relationship with your emotions in general. Thought challenging is also a valuable skill for all of us to learn. “We often have thoughts, hold them as truth, and go with them without question,” says Dr. McGraw. But “learning to evaluate our thoughts more effectively and learning to choose our thoughts can help us be more in control of our emotions and behavior.”
Here are a few rage-reducing tips to get you started.
Just because you’ve always reacted to anger a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the way you’re programmed for life. You can absolutely unlearn patterns that don’t serve you and pick up new and healthier ones—and you can start right now.
1. Don’t take it out on your pillow.
Fight the urge to punch your pillow or get aggressive with walls. It may seem helpful, but it’s actually not. “While lashing out at an inanimate object when you are angry is better than doing it to a person, you are still building the association of ‘when I am angry, I hit’—so this can reinforce aggression when it comes to anger,” Dr. McGraw says. (Don’t worry: Tuning into your frustration during boxing class is still allowed. “If it’s part of an exercise routine and not immediately following the anger situation, it is not problematic,” says Dr. McGraw.)
2. Maybe skip (un)happy hour.
Turning to substances to make you less angry and more chill is also not the thing. It’s just an avoidance mechanism that’s neither physically nor mentally helpful, says Dr. McGraw.
3. Look for your warning signs of anger.
“Are there any thoughts that you notice before an outburst? What about physical symptoms? Sometimes people may notice an increase in heart rate, feeling hot in your hands or throughout your body, or racing thoughts,” says Dr. Cammack.
4. Try to get out of the situation and into a calmer headspace.
Look for strategies that help you calm down in the moment. The same things might not work for everyone, but the gold standards are removing yourself from a person or situation and taking a literal time out, taking deep breaths, getting your body moving,journalingto better understand your feelings, or doing grounding exercises to help bring you back to the present moment, says Dr. Martin.
“My favorite grounding techniques help you to center yourself and come back to the present moment through engaging your senses. You can go outside or even look in a room and identify five things you see, four things you can touch (think about the texture), three things you can hear, two things that you can smell, and one thing that you can taste,” says Dr. Cammack. “Once you are in a more calm state, you can identify a next step: Do you need to talk to someone, engage in another strategy, or just remove yourself from the trigger?”
The bottom line:If your anger has started negatively affecting your life or relationships, or even if you’re worried it’s going to, there are steps you can take to deal with it. Talking to an expert can help give you the tools you need to take back control of your emotions.