Lately, is your fuse shorter than usual? Do you find yourself snapping at others more easily, making sarcastic comments, or internally fuming over seemingly minor things, such as spilled coffee or chatty co-workers?
There might be a surprising reason behind your increased anger: Chronic stress. As we know, the past few years have brought an onslaught of pressure. Research shows that stress from the pandemic alone has increased the number of people experiencing anger, according to the Mayo Clinic. Whether it’s the pandemic, economic dips, equity issues, or big political shifts, we’ve all had to deal with some intense challenges and hardships—which aren’t exactly going away any time soon.
Chronic stress or trauma “literally rewires the rage circuits,” writes neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., in his book “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain.” These rage circuits include multiple areas in the brain that regulate our anger response, such as the amygdala, or the brain’s emotional center. When put on prolonged high alert, these regions are more likely to misfire. The result? We get mad faster and more frequently.
Once you’re aware of the impact of chronic stress on your temper, however, you can take back control of your emotions. Here’s how to regulate your anger and use it in constructive, positive ways.
Acknowledge your anger.
When anger arises, we sometimes don’t want to acknowledge it. Depending on our past experiences, we might associate anger with childish meltdowns or aggressive acts. Or perhaps we don’t want to deal with why we’re angry, such as a friend who we love but consistently lets us down. As a result, we shove down the rage and pretend we’re fine.
The problem? Our anger doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it rears its head in less-than-helpful moments, like a curt response to a colleague or a screaming match with our kids. Plus, if our anger is warranted, we miss the opportunity to right a wrong.
When you feel your pulse quicken, heart race, muscles tense, and adrenaline rise, start by acknowledging your anger. Simply saying “I am angry” can help you honor the emotion and take positive action.
Cool the flames.
“Anger is an activated physiological state in which your body is getting ready for a fight,” says Kibby McMahon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and co-host of the mental health podcast “A Little Help for Our Friends.”
To use anger constructively, you want it to be a motivating spark versus an inferno. So if you’re feeling red-hot rage, cool yourself down by taking several deep belly breaths or listening to this 30-second meditation.
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Identify the underlying need.
“Anger is a protective emotion that often arises in situations in which we feel attacked, hurt, or have our boundaries violated,” McMahon says. You can better understand your emotional reaction, she says, by asking yourself these questions:
- What am I protecting myself from?
- Beneath the anger, do I feel hurt, scared, or a different emotion? Why?
- What do I need in this moment?
Double-check your perception.
Since chronic stress can make us more prone to anger, we might see issues that really aren’t there. As McMahon notes, you might think an email from a colleague is overly critical when the tone is actually neutral or matter-of-fact.
“Take a moment to see if your perception of the situation fits the reality of what’s going on,” she says, “or if you’re reacting to something else or a situation in your past.”
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Stop the loop.
When angry, we also tend to get stuck in a vicious thought cycle, which only amplifies our fury. For example, McMahon says, after a squabble with your partner, you spend all day thinking about the ways they annoy you. Often, we’re not even aware that we’re doing this.
To close this unhelpful loop, zero in on your thoughts, McMahon says. What are you telling yourself? What’s going through your mind? Next, consider if these thoughts are bringing you closer to your goal, solving a problem, or making things worse. If you determine the loop is unhelpful, you’ll be more motivated to change how you’re thinking.
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Lastly, focus on changing your mind or behavior, McMahon says. “We are much better at doing something different,” she says, “than stopping something altogether with no replacement.”
For example, to change your mind, brainstorm how you’d like to solve the problem, or consider what you’re learning from the situation. To change your behavior, distract yourself by taking a mindful walk or engaging in a hobby.
Remember, anger itself is not “bad.” Like all emotions, it has value, says McMahon, and can empower us and help us feel more confident. “When harnessed and channeled appropriately,” she says, “anger can help you stand up for yourself and assert your boundaries.”