Anger Management: Counting to 10 and Beyond

Even though counting to 10 still works, it helps to add a few extra anger management techniques to your arsenal. Find out more.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 06, 2006
6 min read

From rude drivers to anonymous hackers to co-workers that make your job harder than it should be, it seems that everyone is getting on your nerves and you're about to lose whatever hold you have left on your temper. What to do? Learn some anger management techniques. Here are a few that might help.

Simple as it may sound, you may want to start with some age-old advice.

"When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, a hundred," said Thomas Jefferson. That's still good advice, says Dan Johnston, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga.

"The familiar childhood admonition of 'counting to 10' before taking action works because it emphasizes the two key elements of anger management -- time and distraction," says Johnston.

"The familiar technique of counting to 10 not only provides the time needed for delay but also offers a distraction from the anger-arousing event," says Johnston. "While busily counting, we are not mentally adding fuel to the fire of anger by mulling over whatever happened."

Counting to 10 becomes an even more effective way of disarming anger if we also take a slow deep breath between each number, Johnston adds. "Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight stress reaction that underlies anger. Deliberately taking a slow, deep breath not only brings a soothing sense of relaxation, but also helps us to focus our attention in the present moment."

The "energy" of anger often leads to impulsive behavior that only aggravates an already tense situation, Johnston tells WebMD. If given enough time to cool off, however, most people can learn to control their initial impulses.

Once more relaxed and in control, Johnston says, we're ready to "respond," which is the key word in dealing with anger. "Don't react," says Johnston. "Respond. Make a carefully considered choice about the best course of action to take and guide your response by the three anger-regulating principles of empathy, compassion, and assertion."

Empathy is the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view, Johnston tells WebMD. "Adopting an empathic stance opens the door to compassion by providing for a deeper emotional understanding of the source of conflict. Being compassionate in an anger-arousing situation allows for the deliberate choice of a tolerant but assertive response to resolving the conflict."

Choosing to respond assertively is different from the impulsive reaction of acting-out anger, Johnston says. An assertive response is characterized by standing up for our legitimate rights, but it does so in a manner that does not violate the rights of others. "Assertive behavior is a direct, honest, and appropriate expression of feelings and beliefs that helps to establish understanding, consensus, and cooperation."

To make sure you actually understand what you're angry about, paraphrase or clarify what the other person has said to you, says DeAnna Beckman, MSW, LISW, executive director of the Center for Threat Assessment at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "This allows you to make sure you did not misunderstand the message," she tells WebMD, "and it focuses your brain on thinking, not reacting."

Beckman also suggests leaving the situation if necessary. "A simple, 'Can we discuss this later?' or, 'Can I get back to you on that?' can buy time to control your feelings. You can use that time to take a short walk or climb a flight or two of stairs to calm down," she says.

Washington, D.C. therapist Mark Gorkin, LICSW, author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression, offers a five-step method for "constructive confrontation":

  1. Use an "I" statement, question, or observation: "I'm concerned," "I'm confused," or "I'm frustrated" are good ways to begin your exchange.
  2. Describe the problem specifically. Avoid judgmental accusations such as "You never get your work in on time." Instead, be specific: "I've asked you three times this week for the status of the systems report and I haven't received the report or any response. What's going on here?"
  3. Explain why you're upset. Talk about effects and expectations. For example: "Because I didn't receive the report on time, I wasn't able to present it at the meeting and we had to postpone making a decision." That's the effect. The expectation: "We really need the data. I want to meet tomorrow morning at 9 to discuss where you are with the project."
  4. Acknowledge the other person and ask for input. Let the other person know you have some understanding of what he's going through. For example: "I know you're working on several important projects. Tell me what's on your plate. Then we'll need to set priorities and upgrade the importance of this project."
  5. Listen and let go. Once you've engaged in the first four steps, you can be more objective and can let go of any existing anger, hurt feelings, or questionable assumptions.

All these techniques work well, but what happens when you're so angry you can't think to use them? Practice makes perfect, says Jason Kornrich, PhD, director of outpatient mental health services at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y.

"You have to practice dealing with anger before you're actually angry," says Kornrich, who suggests you role-play a confrontational situation with a trusted family member, friend, or colleague.

This is also a good way to teach children how to deal with their anger, he tells WebMD. "You need to practice with them and show them how to deal with their anger. And you need to be a good role model yourself ... if you can't deal with your own anger, your kids won't be able to control themselves either."

Many of us seem to have a much shorter fuse these days, Kornrich says. "Between the after-effects of Sept. 11, the economy, the war in Iraq, the price of gas, the constant barrage of bad news on the television, the anger level we deal with every day has been increasing."

There are ways to minimize the stresses and irritations that build up, Kornrich says. For starters, stay off your cell phone while driving. "This can just make you doubly frustrated, while you're trying to deal with a conversation and traffic at the same time. This is a good prescription for road rage."

Knowing your weak points can also help you avoid situations that can push you over the edge. If you hate traffic, for example, go in to work earlier or come home later. If you need a breather between work and family responsibilities, go to the gym for an hour before going home. Too much bad news on TV? You can shut it off or change the channel. Also consider cutting down your hours on the Internet.

"On the Internet, inhibitions go out the window," Kornrich says. "It's a good vehicle for bullying other people because you're not face to face with the other person, and it becomes a dehumanizing experience." Too many hours on-line can also cause you to lose your social skills and graces for the "real world," he says, because you have fewer "training opportunities" for interacting with other people.

Of course, we can't avoid anger completely in our lives. "The key though," says Kornrich, "is to catch ourselves at step one or two, rather than wait till we hit step nine or 10."