Rachel talks through her personal experiences of coping with anger and shares her tips with you.
Last year we asked our Instagram followers, ‘what do you do to cope when you feel angry?’. Some followers dealt with their anger in unhealthy ways such as binge eating, acting out, internalising bad feelings and breaking things. Others had more healthy responses like exercising in moderation or going outside for fresh air, listening to music, writing or drawing to express themselves.
Why I have struggled with feelings of anger
As someone who is both highly sensitive and who struggles with regulating my emotions, anger is one of the feelings I find hardest to contain. It is something that I have not coped well with in the past and something I must constantly work on in everyday life.
Being highly sensitive is a physical trait that Dr Elaine Aron in her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ says affects about 15% to 20% of the population. It means you have a higher-than-average sensitivity to the sights, sounds, emotional cues, and other stimuli around you. This can include external stimuli, like your surroundings and the people you’re with, or internal stimuli, like your own thoughts, emotions and realisations. In everyday life this means you tend to feel things more deeply than others seem to, are easily overwhelmed by loud, crowded spaces and hectic environments, and sometimes need to just withdraw and be alone. There are positives to being highly sensitive, such as intuition, empathy, creativity and awareness of others’ needs, but the negatives are overwhelm, exhaustion and burnout.
In my case, this overload can turn to irritation and impulsive angry outbursts, especially when I feel like I am a ‘victim’ of inconsiderate behaviour in public or my home environment. This has got me in unpleasant situations with neighbours, people on public transport, people at concerts, bars and in other crowded spaces.
Coupled with my high sensitivity, and perhaps caused in part by it, is my emotion dysregulation, or emotional instability.
Emotion dysregulation is a lack of ability to manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions, like fear, sadness and anger, in a way that is considered acceptable. i.e. you struggle to moderate your emotions, and this can lead to impulsive outbursts and aggression towards yourself or others.
For me, as a child and teenager, it often meant social withdrawal or avoidance, crying, sulking and lack of flexibility around change. It could also manifest as bad or antisocial behaviour - screaming and shouting in an explosive rage at parents, defying teachers and others in authority, answering back, impulsive rudeness and school detentions.
Nowadays, I am a lot more self-aware than I was as a child and young person, more mellow and better at managing my emotional instability and my high sensitivity, but there are still situations where I am negatively triggered, and the emotion that comes out in the most ‘socially unacceptable’ way for me, is anger.
Coping with anger as a sensitive person who struggles with emotional instability is a constant challenge. There are things that I have learnt over the years that have helped me, but I know that this is still my area of weakness.
Emotion dysregulation can feel like having an exposed nerve ending or being in the eye of an emotional storm. Often it feels hopeless trying to manage anger when you seem naturally predisposed to outbursts.
What has helped me to cope with anger
Validation and empathy
Self-awareness and a greater understanding of what is going on in my brain and how my life experiences and sensitivity have impacted me has led me to feel more compassion towards myself than I did when I was younger.
Therapy has also helped me validate my feelings and thoughts, when perhaps they were dismissed (and not always intentionally) in my younger years by parents, teachers or peers. When thoughts and feelings are ignored, dismissed or even ridiculed this can result in feelings of injustice, shame and self-loathing, and this is what may trigger dysregulated emotions like anger.
Having someone validate the way you feel or think in a situation and not make you feel strange or odd about that, can be a positive step in being able to think or act differently in the future. Not having our feelings validated may even lead us to resist changing our behaviour.
When people show empathy, you can be much more likely to be receptive to their suggestions. For me having a therapist say to me, ‘‘I can understand why you would have reacted like that in that situation, that must have been really frustrating for you’’ is the validation I have needed to try to improve my behaviour. It is also realising that every human being is flawed and makes mistakes, and you are not a terrible person.
Expressing and being assertive
One thing that may lead to feelings of invalidation is feeling like you are unable to express your feelings or opinions because you are afraid of how others will react. This may be because there’s been a history of them not validating your views before. I was often afraid of stating my view as a child and young person so I’d let a feeling boil up inside me, which would then come out in a dysregulated way later e.g. in an anger or crying outburst.
To avoid feeling anger and resentment for not being able to express myself when I want to, I see if I can express myself in that moment in a non-angry way. I can be assertive without letting this turn into an argument.
Self-care and breathing space
I know that if I am tired, frustrated, stressed, hungry or upset, I am more like to be easily triggered by an anger-provoking situation. I’ve found it helpful to try to prevent angry outbursts by ensuring I get enough sleep, nutritious food and regular exercise to regulate my emotions.
As someone who likes to be in control to the extent that I sometimes get involved in things I needn’t be involved in, I can find my capacity is nearly full most of the time – which is why it’s so easy for me to react in outbursts. I’ve learnt the importance of making time to relax and enjoy things. You cannot be on the go all the time and stay emotionally regulated – not just in your 9-5 job but also working on side projects, as I often am.
Your body needs space to do nothing and be calm. To play as well as work.
Self-protection and reflection
You could also take the time to think and reflect on what situations may make you more vulnerable to anger and protect yourself from them in the future. For instance, for me, I have taken the time to realise that I am triggered by crowded, loud, chaotic places and people who are acting in a way that I find selfish or inconsiderate. I need time alone to recharge and recover after overstimulating situations. I also prefer individual or small group interactions where I feel more secure and validated, so I limit the amount of time I spend in large group situations.
As a child or young person, being overwhelmed in large group situations could lead me to sulk or withdraw. This behaviour on the outside may appear to others to be childish or passive-aggressive, but inside I was feeling extremely uncomfortable, upset and sometimes desperate to get out of that situation.
I used to feel hopeless about my anger and easy irritation with things. Thinking that was just the way I was, and I couldn’t ever change it. I used to feel immense amounts of shame after an episode of emotion dysregulation, almost feeling horrified by the person I had momentarily become.
Mindfulness (meditation) was my saviour in 2014 when I took an eight-week course after work and experienced for the first time, without drugs, a state of complete and utter peace, still and calm. Mindfulness is available to all of us. There are apps for it, there are YouTube videos for it and there are courses for it. I can’t recommend it enough.
People who feel hopelessly trapped in an anger cycle need to feel they can change, and mindfulness can provide that hope for some.
Something else that helps take the edge off my emotional dysregulation, sensitivity and tendency towards anger, is medication. I take the smallest possible dose of my antidepressant. This allows me to absorb more serotonin, the brain’s happy chemical and allows me to tend less towards irritation and negative feelings.
When it comes to medication for your mental health it is important to seek advice from a professional, whether it be your GP, psychiatrist, or community pharmacy before you go onto it, change it, or reduce it.
I have also been seeing a psychotherapist for many months now, and she has been invaluable to me. She has helped me to understand why I am dysregulated, what steps I can take to become less so, and for the first time has allowed me to feel properly validated, self-confident and understood. This has enabled me to remove a lot of the shame, low self-esteem and self-loathing from my life which all contribute to my anger outbursts.
Having someone to talk to who understands you, either a trained therapist, or just an empathetic, non-judgemental friend may help to mitigate the emotional turmoil going on inside if you are someone that tends towards dysregulated angry outbursts. Therapists can help to mentalise what is going on in your life and why you behave a certain way, offer insight and perspective and recommend coping strategies and long-term behavioural change.
Handling difficult conversations
Taking a step back and pausing
I’ve realised as I’ve got older that when I’ve got into heated arguments with family members or others close to me, it’s sometimes been because I’ve been too personally involved in the debate and unable to step back and see it from the other person’s perspective. I struggled growing up with assimilating my identity with the thing I was defending, whether a rock band, famous person or political view. I felt offended if people didn’t agree with me about something because I felt my fragile identity was attacked.
To avoid heated situations with someone with opposing views, I’ve learnt the hard way that taking a breath and pausing before reacting and not taking on the role of trying to overprotect the thing you are defending, is key.
Stopping before you speak
Rows with people can fracture relationships. If you are unable to calmly state your view, then it may be best to try to ignore what is being said or leave the situation politely until you feel calmer. Debates that start off being about a political view or opinion can soon turn into a personal argument if people feel attacked. This is unpleasant for all involved. I’ve had to swallow my pride and learn some humility.
Anger management courses can often teach people to stop before they speak. This is of course easier said than done for people who are easily triggered but practising mindfulness (bringing yourself into the present and not running away with your thoughts or feelings) may help.
Active listening and resolution
Sometimes people can feel hurt or offended by how we’ve behaved towards them, and we should also be willing to listen to them and try to understand how they feel, not get defensive and invalidate them as this will exacerbate ill-feeling and not lead to a resolution in the relationship.
Art and exercise
So many people find expressing their anger in creative ways or letting off steam through exercise helpful. Doing an activity, whether creative or sporty, can be a way to distract your mind from the anger you feel, and a way of positively channelling and removing the stress hormones that anger generates. For me, personally, I use art to regulate my emotions. I love to paint abstract art. My art is simply what comes out of my head and onto a canvas. It is therapeutic and it distracts me. It also gives me a sense of pride and achievement, to replace the negative emotions that anger fills me with.
Music and sound
When you’re emotionally dysregulated, an emotion that most people would feel for a short time becomes a mood that can last the whole day. Your behaviour can be very mood dependent. When I’m feeling particularly angry or frustrated, there are certain songs I listen to that help me get that anger or frustration out. I love rock and metal; I also love techno and electronic music. Dancing in a club to music or listening to music loudly after a stressful day, can be the medicine that I need.
It’s also essential that I always have access to music in public, to stop me from getting angry and irritated by loud sounds. At night when I’m trying to sleep, I also use earplugs, so I’m not frustrated by a neighbour or street noise.
If I’m feeling down or fed up, sometimes I play the guitar and sing, to express the emotions I need to express. Music is cathartic because the people writing it are often expressing their feelings. Being able to connect to people’s words and songs is powerful and can help you to process your own feelings.
Writing and avoiding online debate
I also like to write to get my frustrations out. I write poems or blogs to express how I feel. But I have to steer clear of getting into angry debates on social media about issues that I care about, as this almost never makes me feel better, and almost always gets me into a horrible conflict situation which makes me feel even worse. If you’re really angry about an issue in the news, then you could consider having some time away from it. You could have a break from TV or/and social media or unfollow accounts or news sources that may trigger feelings of anger in you.
Taking control of what you can, accepting what you can’t
This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s something that has helped me mellow out over the years. Sometimes my anger and frustration are caused by an underlying fear that I can’t control things – humans destroying the environment, the way people feel about me, my relationships, people being selfish and inconsiderate in public, the high cost of living, injustice and inequality in society etc. Sometimes letting go is what you need to do to let the anger dissipate.
Becoming more accepting and tolerant
My anger and arguments with others have often stemmed from my ideals not marrying up with reality. My positives are altruism, leadership and reliability, but I can sometimes feel easily let down and disappointed because I can be overly idealistic or too selfless and too sensitive. This can lead me to be angrier with the way things are and more motivated to change things than the average person.
I tend to be someone who wants to sort everything out and can exhaust myself by doing so. I have had to force myself to relax more, not put too much pressure on myself and not expect too much from others. I’ve also had to be more accepting of the fact, with the help of therapy, that there’s only so much I can do to help the causes I care about and not feel guilty. I’ve also had to accept that a lot of people don’t think or act in the same way as me and I may care more about things.
Being more tolerant in distressing situations, accepting that you can’t change the world on your own, you can just do what you can and that it’s ok to just do nothing sometimes, has helped me enormously.
Planning, preparation and being present
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more sensible with things like money, accommodation and career choices, and lifestyle choices, to feel more in control and less overwhelmed in the world. I’m as organised as I can possibly be as this limits my stress levels, and when something goes wrong now, I try to be present and rational in my response and accept that it will be fine, rather than going to my old default place of anger, fear and irritation.
If you can realise that some of your anger might be down to a fear of losing control, recognise that this is what’s happening and try to teach yourself to put things in perspective more this may help you. You can’t control what happens to you, only how you respond to it.
Choosing how to channel my anger
Ultimately, we all feel anger in our lives. It is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. How we choose to channel our anger is the most important thing. Use your anger to fuel creative expression, lobby for positive change, write words that will inspire people, make changes to your circumstances that would make you happier and avoid trigger situations.
Take time for yourself, be mindful, breathe, get to know your anger and its triggers and know that in time, with work, you can be in better control of it.
Cool Down: Anger and how to deal with it
This booklet outlines how anger works and explains the benefits of keeping your anger level under control or expressing it in a constructive way.
Boiling Point: Anger and what we can do about it
This report is about problem anger, how it affects individuals, families and communities and what we can do to minimise the harm it causes.