We all get angry.
And when we get angry, we have our go-to (often subconscious) ways to respond. I was raised in the Midwest, and like a classic Midwesterner, I bury my anger and then watch it leak out into my conversations and relationships in the form of sarcastic comments, passive-aggressiveness, and who can forget the cold shoulder.
I’m really fun, I swear.
These are all, albeit unhealthy, ways we try to cope. And we aren’t the only ones that do this. It turns out coping is pretty universal because rats do it too.
Psychologist Jay Weiss did a series of studies with rats that showed when under stress, if the rats had access to a running wheel or could gnaw on a piece of wood, they were less likely to develop ulcers. Their ability to self-soothe lowered their stress levels and improved their overall health.
Not into rats? Okay, here’s another example.
Researcher Robert Sapolsky in his book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers,” shares a story about the wild baboons he studies in Africa and their response to stress. Typically after losing a fight, baboons will respond by either beating up a lower-ranking baboon, grooming, being groomed or sulking. The baboons that either fought or spent some time on self-care showed lower stress levels.
Sulking, on the other hand, was not helpful.
Why bring up all these coping mechanisms in the animal kingdom? It helps us see that self-soothing is a natural response.
But without a plan, it’s easy to default to unhealthy ways of soothing.
Sure, being passive-aggressive, lashing out, or sulking can feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t benefit you or your relationships. Like rats, having an outlet for our anger is significantly healthier for us than having nothing at all. And while we don’t suggest gnawing a stick, here’s how Sapolsky defines an outlet:
“Outlets distract from the stressor and are something that is positive for you — a reminder that there’s more to life than whatever is making you crazed and stressed at the time.”
Outlets aren’t meant to help you stuff a negative situation down or even distract you from it. Outlets work because they help put your anger into context, helping you navigate the situation better in the future.
An outlet can be anything you love doing: going on a hike, making something with your hands, or reading a good book.
It’s well-known that exercise is a particularly good option. Why? When you encounter a stressful situation, your body enters its “Fight or Flight” mode and directs resources to the parts of your body that are immediately useful to survival. In other words, you have a shot of energy in your muscles, so why not do what your body was planning on doing anyway?
Here are two of my favorite (and well-practiced) outlets for dealing with anger.
Outlet One: Reflection
After any particular maddening situation, it’s easy to begin stewing or ruminating. You know that moment, moment long after an argument is over, where you’re still going over all the ways you would’ve won if you’d said X, Y, and Z? That’s one example of rumination.
Rumination is a continuous thought pattern where we obsess over past or present negative experiences.
This obsessive rehashing of our undesired or unresolved situations isn’t helpful but is a normal thing we do in our anger. Rumination doesn’t occur just in our thoughts; it can happen out loud as well. Telling everybody who will listen about that jerk that ripped you off, even though you’re pretty sure they’ve all heard it before, is another way we ruminate.
In our heads or out loud, rumination leads to increased stress levels, emotional distress, and can negatively affect our overall mental health.
So how do we actually get perspective on our negative situations without ruminating? We suggest reflecting on the problem instead of ruminating on it.
While these two practices may seem similar as they are both a form of thinking about a past situation, the difference is rumination passively relives the problem while reflection actively moves forward.
When we reflect, we ask ourselves questions to find action steps to bring us out of whatever event has us feeling stuck.
“Why did this happen?”, “How did things get to this point?” and “What is my role in this?” are all reflection questions that help us focus on finding resolutions to an issue instead of emotionally reliving it.
At its very basic level, reflection is the recall of situations or thoughts to investigate so we can better understand ourselves.
You can reflect alone, thinking in silence, you can reflect by journaling, or you can reflect with an intentional and honest conversation with a friend. In whichever way it’s accomplished, the goal of reflection is to gain new insight or understanding of a situation so you can act differently the next time it happens. We’ve written another article called The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Reflection, if you’re interested in learning more.
Honest reflection can be hard even when we’re happy or calm, but that’s not always going to be the case (especially as we’re writing about our anger), so here are two final tips to keep in mind:
Reflection is about you–not someone else.
To make reflection the helpful tool it is, it has to be about understanding yourself (both the positive and negative), what you want, and how to create healthier action steps for the future.
It’s not about creating a list of why you were right, how you were wronged, and ways to ‘out-argue’ next time. While that can feel cathartic, it’s not going to help you in the long run, and it’s just not the goal of reflection.
The other thing worth remembering: you’re not alone.
Outlet Two: Community
Anger makes it hard to see things clearly, even yourself.
In moments like this, our community plays an important role as an anchor for our identity. Challenging situations can make us doubt who we are and see others differently than we usually would.
To give an example, say you’ve gotten into a pretty nasty fight with a close friend that you’re worried might end the relationship. This fight triggers thoughts about your ability to maintain friendships, your worth, and you start to think you’re meant to be alone. (Inversely, anger may start distorting what you know to be true about your friend and their character.)
Your community is what will bring you back. Friends will remind you that you are, in fact, not better off by yourself. Your family may gently (or bluntly) remind you’re seeing that friend in the wrong light.
Anger and stress can make us believe in a distorted reality, but our community serves as a counterbalance, reminding us of what is true.
Social physiologist James Pennebaker notes, “If you have a trauma that you have not talked about with anyone, the number of friends you have is unrelated to your health. Social support protects your health only if you use it wisely.”
In other words, honest conversations are the key component to your community helping you through a particularly stressful time, not the number of people in your community.
Anger itself isn’t right or wrong; it’s an emotional cue pointing us to something that is wrong.
But as we know, those cues can become confused, and we’re mad at one thing but taking it out on another.
Maybe you’re from the Midwest like me and didn’t know there was another way to see anger. Maybe you’ve never admitted you’re angry, or your anger is the kind to explode loud and then settle quietly like it never happened.
It takes work to overcome these subconscious outlets, but it’s important if we want to mature. We hope this article shows you that while you can’t always control what makes you angry, you do have power over your response.