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  • Natasha J. Thomas, MD

Tempered: My Favorite Strategy to Manage Anger

Updated: May 12, 2021

For an entire decade of my life, anger was an emotion I had absolutely no idea how to manage. It was in my 20s, a decade where I would encounter numerous tricky emotions. I spent the majority of that decade in medical school and training, and attempting to build relationships.

Medical training, by nature, is exceedingly rigorous and exhausting. And perhaps not by necessity, has an interesting culture of initiation for young doctors. You have to be more than thick-skinned - you have to be impervious. This is not so much because of the clinical work and medical conditions you encounter, but the style in which training and collaborating doctors interact with each other. We are a group with a lot of invested time, opinions and a true desire to correctly assess the best course of action in a person's health - or life. It should come as no surprise, then, that at times doctors have major clashes, humiliating arguments, and unfortunate "turf wars".

As a doctor-in-training, though, there is very little room for full expression of your ideas. Your job at that time is simply to learn and be always on-the-ready should your team, teaching doctors or patients need anything, at all. Moments where you miss the mark can feel like collossal failures. Ask a doctor, they'll tell you.

My life in medical training revealed just about every personal insecurity I have ever held. Now I can see how these insecurities set the stage for my long dance with our most famous, and potentially destructive, "secondary emotion", anger.

What is Anger?

Anger is defined as a "secondary emotion" that is typically triggered by an outward or perceived threat, slight, or challenge to a long-held belief or ideal. It produces an uncomfortable psychological state and physical sensations such as chest tightness or pain, racing heartbeat, hot flashes, upset stomach, headache, ringing ears, etc. It is defined as a secondary emotion because it is believed to be deeply rooted in other emotions such as sadness or fear.

Anger has as many faces as a brilliantly-cut diamond. It manifests as differently as personality. For some people, anger looks like the stereotypical outburst of yelling, stomping off, and slamming doors (or hands on tables). My clinical experience has shown me this is a common expression of anger in men who also struggle with anxiety. But, it may also look like complete shut-down silence, overthinking, and self-punitive behaviors.

In relationships or interpersonal interactions, unbridled anger is scary for the recipient of the anger - but is perhaps even scarier for the person feeling it. Feeling out of control goes against the human instinct for safety and survival. Since anger produces this "out of control" feeling in some people, it can be very unsettling to experience - especially when it's intense. I believe this is why people talk and talk and talk about why they responded with anger after the trigger is over. They are trying to justify and rationalize their behavior, which is often embarrassing. On the other hand, anger can become habit-forming and even "addictive" due to the brief chemical changes it creates in the brain.

Focused Fire: Tuning in to Anger's Message

As with most things in life, anger may have beneficial and detrimental components. It can provide "righteous indignation" that promotes social change and in that manifestation, is absolutely necessary. And sure, anger can help motivate you to make necessary changes in your life - with work, family, health, etc. But in honesty, wild and unfocused anger can damage all those same things - and sometimes coming back from it is very difficult.

If you are someone who is tired of how anger impacts your life, try this tip.

Since we know that anger is an emotion covering for other emotions, the most effective and long-term strategy for managing it comes from a little self-exploration and introspection.

My favorite way to deal with my anger is to simply ask myself five questions:

1) Are you feeling anything besides anger?

2) What is it?

3) Why does it matter?

4) Is anger the best way to deal with it?

5) Why or why not?

I'll give you an example. The last time I felt a good bit of anger was at a restaurant. I was trying to place my order when the woman taking my order rudely cut me off (it was rude, I have witnesses!). Anyway, immediately a wheel of fire started turning in my mind with exactly what I would say when she came back to finish waiting on us. My heart started to pound. I was so stuck in a tunnel of thinking about the interaction that I almost forgot my husband was sitting there. I can admit, I did not handle it well. Eventually, I had to work with myself on the topic. It had been a very long time since something got under my skin in that way, and I wondered why. It wasn't really THAT big of a deal, it wasn't really important at all. So I went through the 5 questions above and this is how it came out:

1) Are you feeling anything besides anger? Yep!

2) What is it? DISRESPECTED

3) Why does it matter? Because I don't go around treating others like that, it's rude, it's unnecessary, it makes me feel embarrassed and small.

4) Is anger the best way to deal with it? Probably not.

5) Why or why not? Because my anger is not going to substantially change another person's behavior and because another person's behavior cannot take away from my core value as a person.

Now, obviously, I've been practicing work with anger for a long time and have a bit of an advantage as a mental health provider. In pretty short order I could figure out that I was allowing the restaurant interaction to make me feel small and embarrassed - feelings that bring out anxiety and fear.

I'd love for you to try this approach the next time you feel very irritated or annoyed with something, or someone. If you answer "no" to number 1, you'll need to go find a healthy distraction until the anger wanes a little, then you can try again.

Essentially, the goal is to ask yourself enough questions that you get to the truth of what you're experiencing in the moment. Try to see what that thing is telling you about areas where you still need to grow! The goal is not to wipe anger out of your life - you can't. But you can limit the damage it causes!

If you practice this technique and like it, please comment below or send us an email!


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