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Why Am I So Angry?

Anger can be a force for good, but chronic, intense anger is neither helpful nor healthy. Here's how to get a grip.

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Most of the time you’ll answer “no” to at least one question; if so, this is not one of those times when your anger is a sign that you should take some action. Better to distract yourself from your angry feelings and get on with your day.

If you answer “yes” to each question, you have a legitimate beef and should take action (but spend some time brainstorming possible responses before doing anything). Often the best approach is to speak not aggressively but assertively -- not to swallow your ire but not to spit it out either. Explain your feelings as impassively as possible, and request a specific change in the other person’s behavior. For example, if you’re mad because someone called you “dumb” for a remark you made, don’t simply say “Stop putting me down!” Say, “You called me dumb. I feel hurt and angry. Please don’t use words like ‘dumb’ to describe me.” 

This simple approach can go a long way toward restoring your tranquility. “When you answer the four questions and either distract yourself or take constructive action, you no longer feel quite as helpless about the situation,” Williams says. “As much as is possible, you’re taking control, whether it’s of your own thoughts and feelings or the other person’s behavior. This can be a very powerful way to reduce the anger you feel.”

Research confirms the value of Williams’ approach. In a recent study, heart patients were asked to describe a situation that had made them angry. Those who had received anger-management training experienced less anger and a lower surge in blood pressure than those who had not received the training.

Tips for Taming Your Anger

Here’s what else you can do to keep anger from turning toxic:

  • Take better care of yourself. Often it’s possible to curb anger simply by cutting back on stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, which can shorten your emotional fuse. Getting more sleep can also help. Ditto for exercise. “I’ve found that anger is less of a problem for people who work out regularly -- say running an hour a day,” says Karina Davidson, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at Columbia University in New York City and president of the American Psychological Association’s health psychology section.
  • Talk over your feelings. Having a heart-to-heart with a friend or family member can help you understand and overcome your anger. “Hearing honest feedback from others can be a great way to understand and change our emotional responses,” Davidson says. “Sometimes the people around us are better than we are at recognizing our characteristic emotional responses, if we’re willing to listen.” 
  • Just don’t go overboard: Kupfer says that rehashing your anger with more than a couple of people can actually reinforce angry feelings, making them more intense rather than less intense.
  • Practice delay and distraction. Counting to 10 really works for some people, as does wearing a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it each time you feel angry. Mindfulness meditation can help, as can humming a favorite tune or saying a prayer, Williams says. He also advocates deep breathing -- silently intoning the word “calm” each time you breathe in and “down” each time you breathe out. “Listening to loud, aggressive music can be a great way to curb anger,” Davidson says. “Anything that takes your mind off angry feelings.”
  • Get help for depression. Psychologists used to believe that anger and depression were two sides of the same coin. But recent studies involving PET scans of the brain reveal the two conditions are distinct, Davidson says. Even so, experts say that depressed people often feel angry, and that getting help -- via psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication -- is a good idea. The same SSRI medications prescribed for depression often prove helpful for chronic anger.
  • Stop believing that life must be fair. It’s a cliche to say so, but life isn’t fair. Feeling that it should be sets you up for resentment and rage, Kupfer says, “Most of the time, we get angry because we feel that someone has violated one of what has been called our ‘unenforceable rules,’” such as the “rule” that other motorists should be courteous or the “rule” that Bernie Madoff shouldn’t have stolen from his investors. Stop trying to enforce these rules, he says, and you may find it easier to keep on an even keel.

 

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Reviewed on June 09, 2009

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