Anger is a primitive emotion—a fight or flight response (mostly fight), and conventional wisdom states that we need to release it somewhere. But that’s not necessarily the case. Because whether you’re screaming into a pillow or at your children, blowing off steam only results in more of it.
“By acting angrily, you actually increase the likelihood of continuing to act angrily, just as acting loving and compassionate tends to increase the individual’s tendency towards love and compassion,” psychotherapist Ross Grossman told Fatherly. At the same time, anger serves an important role. “Every moment of anger provides a temporary reprieve from the raw sting of inner pain,” psychologist Bernard Golden told Fatherly. “In this way, it’s a coping mechanism.”
How, then, is a dad to cope without perpetuating a cycle of anger? Here are a few tips:
Quick! Find a Distraction
Distraction is a short term but necessary tactic for managing anger. Before you fly into a rage, try playing a distracting game on your phone for about 20 minutes. Indeed, researchers are developing computer games for that very purpose. After 20 minutes of distraction, you’ll be able to apply a levelheaded approach to the situation at hand. “Once you’re cooled off, you also need to understand what you need from the situation so you don’t get angry again,” psychotherapist Sara Stanizai told Fatherly. “It’s good to relax you, but then the real work begins.”
Try Working Out
Exercise is an effective way to use up excess adrenaline, leaving nothing behind for anger to feed on. But working out can also enhance your emotions—including the negative ones—so a couple of reps might just make you angrier. And if you’re mid-rage, hopping on the treadmill could even be dangerous. “Avoid actually working out while you are still intensely angry,” Golden warns. “Research indicates that men who do so are more likely to have a cardiac event as a result.”
Talk Less, Breathe More
When the physical response of anger causes a person’s heart rate to surge, making a conscious effort to take deep breaths is one of the most effective ways to bring it back down to a normal beat. Deep breaths increase oxygen flow to angry brains and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system—the opposite of “fight or flight”, often called “rest and digest”—which leads to a state of calmness. Breathing alone helps people fend off anger more effectively than venting does, research shows. Stop letting out all that hot air, and compensate with a few cool breathes in.
Whether it’s keeping a journal or writing a scathing email that you’ll never send, putting words down on paper is an important step for coping with anger. Golden recommends writing two letters — one to the person or people who provoked the anger assertively addressing what lead up to that, and the second letter as the ideal response to that. “You may simply throw the letters away or use the first one as a reference for a conversation or actually send it.”
Experts across the board agree that assertive communication is an ideal antidote for aggressive action, which is almost always the result of anger. Whether a person writes it down first depends on their communication style, but the end goal should be addressing the individual (or individuals) who provoked it in a calm and assertive way — ideally, by using statements that start with “I think” or “I feel”. This will help to ensure rage doesn’t bubble up again.
Confront Your Own Thoughts
Instead of confronting others, Grossman recommends angry people practice confronting their own thoughts. Through a process he calls “systematic desensitization” individuals can list scenarios that make them angry and practice dealing with them in better ways. Like journaling, this can help people see where their anger is coming from, if it’s fair to bring up the issue, and that they can do to control these situations before they escalate in the future. “Making a list of things you can do to change the unhappy situation or condition is useful,” he says
Have More Fun
Ultimately, anger is a simple emotion and the solution to it doesn’t have to be complicated. As much as physical activity is great for burning off adrenaline and boosting endorphins, psychotherapist Rose Lawrence notes that incorporating any fun activities in the day-to-day can be crucial for decompressing, recharging, and keeping anger at a manageable level.
“It’s easier to find ways to incorporate fun and healthy activities or time for yourself instead of
trying to just stop being angry by counting 1 to 10 or screaming in a pillow,” Lawrence told Fatherly. “People with lots of anger issues are usually missing something in their life. Once you can learn what that is and drown the anger out with fun healthy activities and learning to recharge your battery, the anger becomes your servant—not the other way around.”