Tips for De-Escalating Your Anger
October 11, 2018 7:41 PM   Subscribe

Trauma survivor seeking self-soothing suggestions for how to turn down the volume on moments when I feel severe anger. Routines, mantras, insights, thoughts, the anger equivalent of fidget cubes. (Please not book recommendations ... for now.) Whatever works for you with your everyday anger, I'd like to know about it.

I am a newly diagnosed male trauma survivor in his mid-40s. The trauma was not related to sexual abuse nor military service, and involved physical peer abuse and parentification. I have been working on this in therapy. As I work on these traumas, I find that my needle disproportionately jumps to "rage" much more easily.

I have next to no ability to self-soothe negative feelings, and that very much includes anger. So whatever works for you is something I'd like to at least know about it - even if you learnt it as a child, it's likely I didn't. So don't feel it has to be something fancy.

I am very skilled at both controlling my anger and masking it, and both my sense of morality and my existing levels of control mean I am not a danger to anyone. This is more about my emotional health and turning down the volume on the feeling itself. I want to explicitly repeat that: this isn't a 'bursting at the seams' or 'close to slipping' issue where you need to worry that someone's in danger. I wouldn't do that.

The routines I see people talk about with relation to PTSD, etc. seem focused on de-escalating anxiety, panic, or fear, or coming out of flashbacks. While these are useful to me, as I can feel these too on occasion, anger is a different treatment scenario, and I'm not finding appropriate material.

So I would appreciate routines, mantras, thoughts, the 'anger' equivalent of fidget cubes, etc. -- to quickly bring the needle back down.

The only thing that could be tough is significant levels of exercise, both because I am out-of-shape and also because I cannot always take the time to go off and do that. Even a walk can take 15-20 minutes, which is not always feasible during the workday.

And I am looking for stuff I can read now, tips I can implement without going through a whole book on it; I've got plenty of trauma-related texts I'm already working through in addition to therapy.

I very much thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Deep breaths.

Acknowledgements of how I'm feeling, to myself or to a trusted friend. Not venting, just "I'm feeling frustrated because X. I will be okay."

Compassionate self-talk "It's okay that I'm feeling angry." and "Bob didn't mean to be rude, he's just trying to do his job."

I also find it helpful to look at what's fueling the anger - often fear or anxiety. Like, the other day I got pissed off that someone was (I felt) disrespectful of my time .. that was a real issue, but my anxiety about being behind on a major performance goal really poured gasoline on the fire.

Going for a walk isn't always feasible but when it is it can really help. So can a quick trip to the stairwell to go up and down a flight.

Watching out for accumulation of negative feelings and taking the opportunity to reset when I can. When I'm having one of those days where everything seems to be going wrong - taking a quiet minute - even in the bathroom if necessary - to breathe and tell myself "I'm having a rough start but I'm going to reset and it's going to be okay." Then doing some simple task to break up the fail streak, and taking a moment to appreciate it. "Hey, I got my calendar updated. Good!"
posted by bunderful at 8:25 PM on October 11, 2018 [9 favorites]

+1 to bunderful's comment. I came here to say "write down/journal what you are angry about" for similar reasons.
posted by capricorn at 8:28 PM on October 11, 2018

I can relate to some of your question which prompted me to answer. What has worked for me trying has been trying a whole battery of strategies, holding onto the ones that work, and ditching the rest.

My anger became problematic to me as I started to understand the traumas I had experienced as traumas. This took place in therapy with a therapist with whom, to put it politely, the fit wasn't great. I now have a better fit of a therapist which is making the rest of the working through possible. So I would say, number one tip, have a great therapist who can help you with this. It is important for me to keep my therapist aware if the anger about my traumas starts to spill into my life as we can slow down the work in therapy a bit and work on some strategies together.

First therapist, however, did name the problem as a "flight to anger" like lighting a touch paper and this helps me to recognise and name the phenomenon as it happens.

The book When anger scares you is good and was recommended on here.

If I need to de-escalate I find that iPhone games help. My current favourite is Threes but I have worked through a bunch.

Drawing or doodling helps me, which is handy if I am in a meeting or on a phone call at the time as it can look innocuous.

I have a strong support network which helps me a lot, especially at work where interpersonal stuff can trigger me, and also via WhatsApp where many of my friends represent safe spaces where I can use emoji to express my feelings.

If someone is repeatedly triggering my anger by doing a specific thing, and I think that their behaviour is unreasonable, it is possible to let them know with a very brief explanation of the effect their behaviour is having on me and ask them to stop. The effectiveness of this intervention varies and there is a real risk it can backfire, but it can be an empowering strategy particularly if my relationship with the other person is otherwise quite robust and in the long run they are looking to support me but unaware of the effect their behaviour is having. If the other person is unlikely to respond supportively, though, then this is not worth the effort.

Changing physical space is helpful, particularly going outside, or for example having a shower, or drinking a cold glass of water. I find this grounding.

Over the years that I have been working on this, what I have noticed is that when a strong emotional response is triggered in me it resolves much faster. I used to feel shaken for days if I was triggered and I now have it down to about twenty minutes.

Good luck!
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 8:37 PM on October 11, 2018

One day at a time
Keep it simple stupid
God's (whatever) will, not mine
Shit happens

Some people find meditation effective. There's nothing to it. Sit, breathe, and try to focus on just your breath for five minutes or so. That's pretty much it. You don't need to read a book. Some people count their breaths, especially at the very beginning.

It can useful to start your day with a simple prayer, noting that you haven't gotten angry at anyone yet, and would like to keep it that way. Also, shortly reflecting on your day at night, and what interactions you would have liked to have handled better.

Try to see things from the other perspective. Try to remember that you're not in control of everything, very little actually. Getting angry isn't going to change anything in most circumstances.
posted by xammerboy at 8:49 PM on October 11, 2018

You could look into DBT for some approaches for distress tolerance.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:06 PM on October 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I dunno. I think you need to feel the anger. Let it wash over you. Then watch it go away.

I am pretty laid back but, if pushed, I can get hugely, visibly, murderously angry. I don't really worry about it. I've never actually murdered anyone and it passes fairly fast. It's just an emotion, it doesn't rule me. I don't let it dictate my behavior.

You can't not feel your emotions. Focus on your behavior.
posted by fshgrl at 10:06 PM on October 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thirding the things bungerful said. It really did seem to help just to be able to precisely identify the feeling, its source and the other things going on around it. And to remind myself to breathe more slowly. Sometimes I say to myself, ok, I'm angry, but can I put this aside and pick it apart later? Just seems to help.

Another book that is recommended frequently is Dance of Anger. I didn't identify with it myself.
posted by Dashy at 10:32 PM on October 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

honestly i just lay facedown on the bed or couch and scream into the cushions like a constipated infant until the hilarity of my big angry baby behavior overcomes my rage. it's usually about 2 minutes max.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:44 PM on October 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Making peace with my anger has been a lifelong process. Here are some things that have helped, at various times:
- catching the negative poor me thoughts “how dare so and so” “they probably think I’m stupid” “next time they’re going to take advantage of me...” and just refusing to think about them over and over
- asserting boundaries, speaking up, and just not doing something if it’s not fair.
- other people’s behavior reflect their mindset, not who I am. Even if they treat me badly. Especially if they treat me badly. If they treat me like dirt, it’s because they are feeling like dirt, not because I am worthless like dirt.
- give myself permission not to be nice.
- expressing, in an angry voice, the pain behind the anger. For the first time a few weeks ago I called up my husband and just so powerfully expressed my anger about a bad doctor experience that left me with no good choices but against my values. I connected with my anger in a healthy way. It didn’t destroy anything, it didn’t attack the wrong thing as a proxy, I was angry about X because Y and I said so, with emotion.
- seeing anger as a manifestation of ego and thinking “This pain that I am feeling is the death of my ego; may I one day be free”
- anger doesn’t solve the actual problem; figure out my actual problem and find a fix for that.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:57 PM on October 11, 2018

Temperature changes can help shift moods. I learned that in a DBT group class. So if you can keep a freezer block in an office freezer you can put that on a leg or thigh or an arm or the back of your neck for a few minutes (not on your belly or central organs; have fabric or cover between the ice block and your skin), and that can help you cope with the anger or other challenging emotion. Another thing that I find useful is jumping jacks. You can do them anywhere, including a bathroom if it’s large enough and nobody else is there. I do 25 usually and that is usually just enough to nudge my mood a bit.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:03 AM on October 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sometimes 15. Honestly, the number doesn’t matter.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:03 AM on October 12, 2018

Laura Huxley (second wife of Aldous) in "You are Not the Target" suggests tightening up the stomach muscles as in an isometric exercise.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:32 AM on October 12, 2018

When it is a person making me angry, I can sometimes deescalate the feeling by thinking of the most generous scenario possible--that they were in a car accident this morning and were really shaken up, and that's why they're snapping at me about stupid things. That they are being rude to hide the fact that they're scared of losing their job. Whatever story in which I can imagine being overwhelmed by some feeling and acting in a way I'm not proud of.

This doesn't work with things, though, and I often get angry at things. When I feel that anger--something fell off the counter, I bumped my head, the toaster isn't working--it helps me to think about just the instant I'm in. Don't think about what I'm going to have to clean up or whether I'm going to be late for work without breakfast. Think about whether I'm OK right now, in the physical sense. I am not hurt, I am alive and healthy. If I bumped my head maybe that hurts, but is it fading? Is there any other pain? What parts of me are okay? Narrow my focus to *right now* and *right here,* and the problems start to feel much smaller.

No clue if this will help you, but it's how I manage my anger.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:41 AM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am very skilled at both controlling my anger and masking it, and both my sense of morality and my existing levels of control mean I am not a danger to anyone.

In that case, your anger is only any kind of problem because it feels unpleasant to you.

Given that you can control it, it's clearly not messing with your cognition to any great extent. This is good, because it means that you actually have mental reserves available to implement the dealing-with-anger tactics of your choice.

When I find myself experiencing fury that I can't find a way to surf toward some productive end, what I will generally do is notice that I'm feeling rage right now, decide that on the whole I'd prefer not to be feeling rage on the basis that it's unpleasant and right now useless, and remind myself that although there is never anything at all that I can do to not feel whatever I am feeling at any given instant, the experience of this feeling, like any other experience, is a temporary condition only and will pass.

Next I will switch my focus from whatever circumstance or self-talk is currently fuelling the rage to the rage itself. In other words, I will make the current existence of the rage the current problem to be solved, as opposed to whatever it was that triggered the rage in the first place. That, in turn, allows me to attend to the condition of my body and my breathing in the present moment, do my best to relax what's tense, and wait for the 90 second rule to do its thing. A short, brisk walk can be very very useful at this stage but it still works without one.

Right after the rage has settled down I will do a gentle exploration of whatever rage-inducing self-talk I can remember from that episode and dispute as many of the inaccurate or disproportionate elements of it as I can find; this part is a kind of internal CBT, and it's what makes the difference between simply being able to bottle up and contain rage and being able to let go of it. Without this step, useless rage-inducing self-talk would be that much more likely to come back and cause problems later.

Bottling up anger does not really involve shoving the anger itself away somewhere, though that's what it feels like. Rather, it's a process of learning to distract oneself from anger-inducing self-talk, and the reason it's so often an unhealthy thing to do is that distracting oneself from one's own unhelpful thought patterns doesn't actually get rid of them or stop more of them building up over time. Far better to confront them, consider them, and deconstruct everything that's wrong with them. That way, the only stuff that ends up inducing anger is stuff that really should induce anger.

Because fury is as much a part of a life well and fully lived as happiness. It doesn't actually have to be unpleasant, and can instead be the best motivator in the world. As the noted English philosopher John Joseph Lydon has observed, anger is an energy, and sometimes it's exactly what circumstances call for.
posted by flabdablet at 5:31 AM on October 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Came in to suggest an ice pack/cold water to the back of the neck but see Bella Donna's beat me to it. This strategy seems a bit literal ("cooling down") but there's scientific support for it - something about triggering a dive reflex. I've mostly used it for anxiety attacks but it can work for other overwhelming emotions.

I've found that meditation has given me a different relationship to my emotions, in that I'm able to acknowledge them and move on, although meditating can be really difficult in the moment so practicing when you're not feeling overwhelmed is important. As one therapist phrased it, simply "sit with" your emotions.

Alternatively, jumping jacks or pushups. Not as much of a time commitment as a walk.

This is really random but I also picture a squirrel. In case you're waiting for a deep explanation of this, there isn't any. It's just that once I watched a squirrel run around to distract myself and now use a squirrel as a mental shortcut to getting to that point of de-escalation. Picking something to focus on is easier than just focusing on my breath in the moment.

Finally, it seems like you have a handle on not acting out, but if you're tempted it's helpful to play out the scenario in your mind. Imagine the steps you'd take and the end result. Presumably acting out would result in worsening the situation and remind you that you don't want to. This can also shortcut your mind to how you'll feel after the rage episode.

Oh and also - I promise this is actually the final thing - sometimes anger is justified and can be an impetus for productive action after the moment. Don't feel like you should be guilty about feeling anger or eliminate it entirely.
posted by ersatzhuman at 5:46 AM on October 12, 2018

Recognize the anger and remind yourself that while it is a strong physical emotion, you can choose to let it pass through you.
Learn to relax your muscles. At bedtime, as you lie in bed, practice relaxing muscle groups, letting stress flow out as you exhale. When you're angry, consciously relax your neck and shoulders.
There are biofeedback apps; I have not used them. I do use a heart rate app and try to slow my heartbeat as I breathe calmly.
Cold water on your face has a physiological action; keep a washcloth in your desk, get it wet with cold water, put it on your face.
posted by theora55 at 5:55 AM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ugh it's hard. Any kind of exercise will help, even if it's just rocking back and forth onto the balls of your feet.

When I was very angry, which lasted oh about ten years or so, the main thing that helped was being in a very loud punk band. I'd scrawl down angry lyrics and once a week go scream them somewhere with a bunch of fairly unmusical but quite loud music behind me.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:36 AM on October 12, 2018

One thing I find surprisingly effective is to take a pen and draw heavy straight lines on a pad of paper, pressing down hard enough to carve through multiple sheets (but not so hard that the pen breaks).

Something about the focus and control needed to get enough pressure going really works for me.

Synchronising my breathing so that I breathe in when I lift the pen and out when I stroke also makes a difference.
posted by rollick at 8:25 AM on October 12, 2018

When I feel angry it's often because I feel helpless. I try to find the funny side (caricatures of the wrongdoer and such) and have occasionally been able to turn anger into spontaneous bouts of evil laughter. Try to use funny curse words or funny insults in you mind.

Also letting yourself be angry and only analyzing it after you have felt it has been really helpful to me. Eventually experiences are mediated by that analysis and I get over it much more quickly.
posted by ipsative at 8:31 AM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I got a lot of benefit from a trauma focused therapy with individual and group sessions. It allowed me to identify my anger, which I had not been even able to name/recognize until well into my 20s.

In the short term, there are lots of great worksheets and mnemonics in the workbook Dialectical Behavior Therapy. These worksheets are also available online as pdf. There is a whole module in DBT for emotion regulation in DBT so if that therapy is available to you, I really liked it.

The thing that has helped me the most in the long term is identifying where the anger was coming from. Usually for me it's fear and a sense of being not cared about which leads to fear. Sometimes my sadness leads to anger. So managing those emotions has helped decrease my anger. Getting my sadness needle down from a 10 to a 7 or even a 9 (because depression) gives me room to breathe.
posted by bilabial at 9:41 AM on October 12, 2018

Oh, and I wanted to add that I find that pleasant smells, nice things to touch, breathing, and other emotion management techniques DO work for my anger, so if you're wary of trying them for yours, maybe just give it a shot.

A thing that has worked for me is the conveyor belt that is recommended in DBT. You imagine the thing that's causing the emotion, or the emotion itself, riding on a conveyor belt, and in your mind you just watch it drop off the edge. Why does it work? I don't know. Does it take me from a 10 to a 0? No, but it helps.

Another really handy thing is making a time to worry, which I transformed into making a time to be angry. The idea in DBT is you set aside some amount of time every day to worry. That's all your allowed to do in that time. If you run out of things to worry about in that time, tough, get back to worrying. I used it for anger. I have reached a point where I no longer feel I need it regularly, but sometimes I do find myself saying, "I can be angry about this later, it doesn't have to take all my energy now, I have other things I'd rather be doing right now."

And sometimes I actively choose to feel angry. I just say to myself, hey, I'm choosing anger right now as a response to this situation. I'm in control of this, and I'm going to feel it while it's here, or while I have time (and set a timer!) and then I'm going to choose something else.

Was it easy to get there? Not especially. But it's definitely been better for me and I am absolutely certain that things are better for me than they would be if I hadn't been practicing these skills for the last decade or so.
posted by bilabial at 9:48 AM on October 12, 2018

- Came in to suggest an ice pack/cold water to the back of the neck but see Bella Donna's beat me to it. This strategy seems a bit literal ("cooling down") but there's scientific support for it - something about triggering a dive reflex.

If you lack access to ice in the office, you can also fill the washroom sink with cold water only and place your face in that for about 30 seconds.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:41 AM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've struggled with anger, not for your reasons, but enough that it was causing behaviour problems for me as a young adult. I still need to watch myself, even after 50.

"Talking it out" does not help me; indeed, I think it makes things worse. I've come to think that it indeed rehearses and reinforces the emotion and bad behaviours, like repeating a bad habit. I had to find ways to break my anger habit.

Removal and distraction works very well for me. Physical activity, in particular works well. For me that was any endurance exercise. Cycling was my drug of choice. Static meditation never worked for me. I'm a "flow" person, not a nirvana one. Anything that induces flow works really well for me in removing anger. Martial arts, Tai Chi in particular, works well too.

Otherwise, anything which engenders other, positive emotional patterns with low stimulation worked better. I know you don't want book recommendations, but reading a book, any book, works well for me.

When I'm calmer and have more distance, I'm much more able to process the problems or the stimulus and deal with it. But in the instant, I needed to learn to walk away rather than to engage, and find something more useful to direct my energy into.
posted by bonehead at 11:00 AM on October 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I offer this because you allowed for things we might have learned as children. I actually do not remember the song itself from when I watched Mister Rogers as a child, but I have found it helpful as an adult!

What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel (when you feel so mad you could bite)?
posted by tomboko at 11:46 AM on October 12, 2018

When it is a person making me angry, I can sometimes deescalate the feeling by thinking of the most generous scenario possible--that they were in a car accident this morning and were really shaken up, and that's why they're snapping at me about stupid things. That they are being rude to hide the fact that they're scared of losing their job. Whatever story in which I can imagine being overwhelmed by some feeling and acting in a way I'm not proud of.

Yes, I do this technique as well. Like when I get super angry because someone cuts me off in traffic or is tailgating me or honks at me because I didn't run a red light* I try to come up with the most generous interpretation, like, "Maybe their wife/girlfriend/SO/best friend is in labor and they're racing to the hospital."

I get annoyed by little kids very easily, so for example, if some kids are acting obnoxious at say the grocery store, "Maybe their parent just died and they're letting off steam and that's why their other parent is just letting them" or whatever.

It also can help to think of times when I've been the one being the asshole for what at the time probably felt like a very valid reason. This usually helps with those kinds of things.

Anger directed at situations or things: Intense exercise can be really helpful. Go for a run. If possible, get a punching bag and some boxing gloves. (Not always possible in a particular moment, but these can be helpful as more long term solutions.)

If I'm really upset, either angry, panicky, crying, whatever, I find sticking my face in a bowl of ice water really helps me reset. (I learned this as a DBT coping skill fwiw.)

*I live in Massachusetts. There's a reason drivers up here are called Massholes. I have a lot of traffic rage inducing moments.
posted by litera scripta manet at 12:59 PM on October 12, 2018

I struggled with immense anger as my marriage came to its end, and Steven Stosny's HEALS practice was amazingly effective in grounding that in a productive way. This article describes the practice and the philosophy behind it.

Also may help: My emergency mantra is "Improve, Appreciate, Connect, Protect". When you're at a loss, doing anything from one of those categories grounds you, shores you up, even if it has nothing to do with what is upsetting you. Improve anything: put on socks if your feet are cold, wipe the countertops, work on your knitting project, get a little exercise. Appreciate anything: the light from your window hitting the sparkly clean dishes in your dish rack, the strength of your hands, autumn leaves. Similarly with Connect and Protect.
posted by Sublimity at 6:42 AM on October 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

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