There are many ways to deal with anger, but they are not created equal. While some, like playing a quick game on your phone, serve to let your anger dissipate, others, like screaming into a pillow, sometimes only compound the emotion. Productive anger management takes work — perhaps even years of it. One of the best methods is also the simplest: journaling. The practice of writing down your thoughts whenever you feel the steam coming from your ears not only helps ease your anger — but allows you to organize your own thoughts before you engage in an argument.
“It is important to note that the emotion of anger is normal and common,” says Jim Seibold, a marriage and family therapist based in Arlington, Texas. “Issues involving anger arise from our response to it, not from the experience of it. When we are angry, poor responses often happen impulsively. Journaling can help slow down our reactivity and help avoid impulsive behaviors that would be hurtful or offensive. If we are taking the time to write down our thoughts, we are likely to interrupt the fast, impulsive behaviors.”
So the first benefit of journaling is one of its most crucial: it prevents you from turning your anger into more anger. From there you can identify and reflect on the causes of your anger, which Seibold notes is often a secondary emotion: the result of some other feeling, like guilt or jealousy. “Journaling can help to identify those feelings, leading to a softening of anger,” he says. “This can also lead to a more holistic conversation that includes these other emotions. Anger can certainly exist as a primary emotion as well, but exploring the possibility of other emotions through journaling helps us make sense of the situation.”
Equally important is identifying whether your anger is the result of irrational thoughts. “Our emotional responses are rooted in the meaning we attribute to a particular event,” Seibold continues. “For example, a husband does not call or text to say he is running late from work. If the wife believes this is because he is likely having an affair, that is going to produce a much different emotional response than if she believes he got caught up and forgot.” Journaling allows you to spell out the thoughts behind your emotions—much like Charlie Kelly figuring out who Pepe Silvia is—and gives you the space you need to determine whether those thoughts make sense. “By doing this, we can potentially reduce the intensity of anger we feel, resulting in a much healthier expression of anger,” Seibold says—for instance, asking your partner where they’ve been instead of immediate jumping to a treacherous conclusion.
Anger, divorce coach Catharine Blake adds, is primal. Rage responses draw on what she calls the “lizard brain,” that is, the part of the brain that governs flight versus fight responses. “When we react from here we are defensive, hyperactive and fearful,” she says. “Journaling allows somebody to take the time to become more mindful and in turn, slow down. Then a person is able to work from their executive functioning part of the brain (logical thinking, problem-solving, team work). Then, our ability to filter out what information comes out of our mouths allows us to ensure that we do not spill and cause irrevocable damage to our loved ones.” Like Seibold, she recommends using your journal to question and revise the thoughts driving your anger. Refining assumptions like “My partner doesn’t know what they’re talking about” to “My partner is hurting and I need to understand why” will help you resolve conflicts in a healthier, more productive manner.
So how do you start journaling? Easy: get some paper and a pen (or just your computer). Next time the anger sets in, start with this short list of prompts recommended by psychologist Bernard Golden, founder of the Chicago-based organization Anger Management Education:
- In what way am I feeling threatened? How serious is the threat?
- What are my feelings behind my anger?
- What were my knee-jerk conclusions? What are some conclusions I could have made that would not have made me as anger?
- Are my expectations realistic or are they really overly influenced by my hopes and wishes?
- Write down four qualities of your partner that you most love.
- Write down the ways in which your partner has shown his or her love to you.
- List three favorite activities you most enjoy doing together.
- Which key desire(s)do you feel is being threatened–i.e., your trust, connection, respect, validation, or need for safety? Write about that.
Congratulations — you’ve started journaling! The next step is to make that journal count. A significant risk in the practice, experts caution, is that it can trap the journal-er in a cycle of anger, always stewing in their rage but never working it out of the system. “If you find yourself journaling about the same situation over and over, it can cause you to stay upset or even get more upset,” cautions Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist. “It can act as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations in real life. If you decide to make a regular practice of journaling, make sure that you use it to make progress, not to stay stuck.”
Ensuring you make progress can be as simple as having those difficult conversations. “The sooner you process and repair conflict, the less likely it is to stay in your long-term memory, impacting your lasting impression of your partner,” says marriage and family therapist Amy Bishop. “Once you trust your partner to respond to your concerns with care and compassion, you may be more likely to bring up relationship injuries in real-time, a key trait to secure relationships.”