Anger can be an all-consuming emotion. How one manifests anger can take different forms. Some yell; others go silent; still others freak out. It may feel impossible to control. But, it can — and must be — understood and reconciled with. Anger, while necessary, does nothing but sow the seeds of discourse in relationships.
“When we get mad or frustrated, it might be easy to think through and process incoming information and output something decent for others to understand us,” says Jacob Kountz an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Bakersfield, CA “But, when we’re angry, this is an intensified version of softer emotions which can put us in a place where we don’t really know what to say anymore.”
There can, of course, be a wide variety of ways that we react to anger, many of which are harmful, either to ourselves or our loved ones. At best, they can do little to solve the problem and, at worst, they can create new problems.
So, the question becomes, when you become so angry that you can’t process emotions any more, how can you manage it? And what do you say when you’re too angry to talk? It comes down to understanding, managing, and explaining your emotions.
The Sentiment: “I’m not in the proper mindset right now and need time to calm down before I can express my true feelings.”
Identify the Real Emotions: Why Are You Angry?
“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 added. “In this way, it’s a coping mechanism.”
As this is the case, Kountz recommends taking the time to identify the emotions within yourself that might be causing anger. People are often strangers to their own feelings, unable to process or even recognize their emotions and the things that trigger them. Ask yourself: What are the events or thoughts that are happening, both around me and within me, that might be making us feel anger more acutely?
Understanding the mechanisms behind your anger allows you to have a better control of it later. Granted, this is only really doable with hindsight. So, in the moment, how do you express to someone that you need to
When you feel anger wash over you to the point that you can’t speak, Kountz also suggests leaning into the idea of stonewalling.
“Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like,” Kountz says, “you get angry and decide to put up a strong wall so that others can’t see you that way, and you don’t have to say anything to them. It’s safe because it protects you from getting more heated. It’s also a survival technique and a way of saying, ‘This is all I have for now, so respect the way I deal with my feelings.’
That said, stonewalling should be seen as a means of buying yourself some time to process emotions and gather yourself as opposed to a permanent anger-management solution. It is not one. Not at all. Constant stonewalling is extremely damaging, as it makes you ignore loved ones instead of finding proper ways to handle emotions. In fact, it’s one of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” In the moment however, trying to remain stoic and process so as to not make matters worse is extremely helpful.
What to Say When You’re Too Angry to Talk
Anger is an intensified version of softer emotions. These emotions, like sadness and worry, are masked by it and left unprocessed. As a result, they often go unresolved. As Kountz phrases it, “Anger is sadness’s bodyguard.” So, when you’re too angry to talk, it’s best to explain yourself in the clearest possible terms.
If you’re not ready to talk about underlying emotions, simply say you need time to sort your thoughts. An understanding partner will appreciate this need.
- I need some time to process this.
- I’m not ready to talk right now. I need to go on a walk and get my thoughts in order.
- I’m too angry to talk.
- Give me 10 minutes to decompress and we can resume this discussion then.
If you’re able to process your feelings, then it’s time for specifics:
- To be honest, I am angry, but it’s because I’m sad about ____X____, and worried about ____Y_____.
- I’m angry because ____X____ and ____Y___ and need some time to process this.
This type of approach not only provides the listener with deeper emotions they can connect with, but it de-escalades the situation in general as anger is placed to the sidelines. It’s also important not to place blame or accuse the other person when you’re riled up. Anger is not a mask to wear when you want to problem-solve.
What Not to Say When You’re Too Angry to Talk
If you are going to try things out with your partner in the moment, make sure you’re ready to do so. If you decide to talk while you’re still upset, you might end some saying something that will only make things worse, because at that point your brain is in survival mode and may not be working in a solution-oriented capacity.
Additionally, as Kountz noted earlier, stonewalling might be an effective stopgap measure, but it will not help a person get to the root of whatever is causing their anger. So. throwing up a wall in an effort to process your emotions in the short term might be all well and good. But refusing to explain yourself and keeping the wall up is dangerous.
In any case, when angry, it’s important to avoid responding to a partner’s question of “What’s wrong,” by responding with:
- “I’m Fine”
- “It’s no big deal”
None of these phrases are helpful, as they’re only serving to hide your true emotions and will only exacerbate worry, stress, and anxiety. The object is to express yourself clearly without anger, not claim that everything is fine when it’s not. This is tell-tale stonewalling. And if it becomes your go-to solution to disagreements or moments of heightened anger, eventually, it will create larger, long-term problems that will become much more difficult to solve.
“If conversations occur that keep making you angry and you continue to stonewall,” Kountz says, “it will be easier to increase the space between you and whomever you’re angry with. Unfortunately, over time this could develop contempt where you find yourself name calling, bringing up the past as ammunition, and forget what it’s like to listen to someone who just wants to hear from you. Things can get messy quickly if they aren’t nipped in the bud.”
Moving Forward: Making Sense of Anger
Anger is an important emotion. The object is to not avoid ever feeling angry ever but knowing how to deal with it in the moment so it doesn’t lead to flare-ups, screaming matches, or other such behaviors. You want understand your the underlying soft emotions that lead to anger and find positive ways to blow-off some steam. So, what are some quick ways to defuse anger?
- Distract Yourself
Distraction is a short term but necessary tactic for managing anger. Before you fly off the handle, ask your partner for a time-out and try playing a distracting game on your phone for about 20 minutes. In fact, researchers are developing computer games for that very purpose. After 20 minutes of distraction, you’ll be able to apply a level-headed approach to the situation at hand.
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.
- Write Your Feelings Down
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. This also has the secondary effect of allowing you to understand why you were so angry to begin with, which is helpful for understanding triggers going forward.
Whatever the case, find a tactic that works for you. Count down from 10. Go yell in the car. Workout. What’s important is that, after such moments, you take time to process your anger and find ways to prevent it from flaring up again. Know thyself and all that.
It’s also important to learn from mistakes. We all have moments of anger. If you have difficulty addressing emotions and lose your cool with your family, it needs to be addressed. Hearing dad explain himself directly after an incident can lead to an important teaching moment — and helping kids not feel at fault. You can still take a break for ten minutes or an hour to calm yourself down, but you have to bring the subject up and explain what happened to your spouse or kids sooner rather than later. Leaving too much time between eruption and explanation can make matters much worse.