So many times, my first exchange with a mom struggling with anger involves her telling me some version of “I need help controlling my anger.” I don’t stop her right away, because I’m curious. Why does she need to do this? Who told her that she did? Was it something she came to on her own, or did someone else say something? And what exactly does she mean by “control?” Once we explore all of these questions, I give her my assessment of the situation: you actually don’t need to control your anger.
At this point, if I’m sitting with her in-person, I generally see a flash of panic spread across her face. She came to me because I’m the maternal anger therapist, and I’m clearly not getting it. It took so much effort to make the appointment, and even more effort to show up today. And I’m not getting it. I quickly step in to let her know that I do, in fact, get it. I get it quite well. Because I’ve been the mom struggling with anger, rage, anxiety, hopelessness, wondering how in the world she was going to find her way out of this mess. But the fact remains: you don’t need to control your anger. You need to figure out how to work with it. Because for as long as it remains a thing to be controlled, you will respond to it as a thing to be ashamed of. And that shame will make the anger scream louder. It will seep into even more areas of your life. It will wrap itself around you even tighter.
If instead, we can turn anger into something to be worked with, not against, we get back in the driver’s seat. We tune into the deep well of information and wisdom the anger holds. And we learn a whole lot about what else is going on with us. Because the secret is that you don’t need to control the anger; it will diminish on its own once you find out what’s beneath it.
All of this said, anger in its raw form, when it first shows up, isn’t in a form that can tell you everything it needs to tell you. That powerful emotional expression can’t be unlocked. This is what I mean when I say we must learn to work with it. We must find ways to transform it into something that can be approached and sat with. Something that allows us to ask ourselves, what is my anger telling me? What does my anger need me to know? When we can work with our anger to bring it from its raw form into this form, we are onto something powerful. We need something to turn the volume down a notch on our anger.
I want to make sure we’re clear on an important distinction in this discussion: turning the volume down a notch on your anger is NOT the same thing as controlling it. The difference is all in the intention. Controlling your anger is driven by a desire to make it stop, make it go away, and get it out of your awareness. Turning the volume down is driven by a desire to welcome the anger, be able to listen to it, and make meaning of it.
So how do we do turn down the volume? We turn to our bodies. Your body is the key transformer because it works quickly and powerfully to calm the system in a way nothing else can. When you are in the midst of an anger attack, no amount of thinking or self-talk will break through the noise. But if you can get your body to respond, you can work your way into the anger and turn the volume down a notch. Body-based techniques are also very straightforward and with practice are very easy to implement. This is important because in the moment when you reach for a technique to de-escalate the anger, you don’t have a lot of resources available to implement something complex or remember too many steps.
My favorite go-to technique is 4-7-8-4 breathing. Essentially, you take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of four, hold it for seven, exhale through your mouth for eight, and do that a total of four times. This simple, discreet (seriously, you could do it in a group and no one would notice) technique works in a few ways. The slow, deep breathing, with a period of holding your breath before the exhale, powerfully slows your heart rate and improves oxygenation. This counteracts the rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing we typically experience in moments of intense anger. It also provides a great distraction in the moment. By focusing your attention on counting your inhale, hold, and exhale, you move your attention away from whatever triggered the anger. This momentary shift in attention is often all that is needed to interrupt the anger attack. The combination of calming your body and turning your attention effectively turns down the volume on your anger.
Once you’ve turned the volume down a bit through your breath, you may find that you’re still too activated. If that’s the case, I like to move onto a sensory-based grounding technique in which you find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Again, a lot of this is about shifting attention. As you work to identify and notice each of these things, your thoughts are drawn away from the anger trigger. It helps bring you out of your head and back down to your physical surroundings and body. You can repeat the 4-7-8-4 breathing again at this point if needed.
This should leave you in a state where you feel you can sit with the residual experience of anger and start examining it. What triggered it? What other emotions are swirling around with the anger? This is the beginning of uncovering all of the information and wisdom contained in your anger.
If you’d like a convenient overview of this process, I’ve created a free one-page guide to de-escalating your anger. You can download it here:
So yes, at the end of the process, working with your anger can look a lot like “controlling” it, because it will leave you less actively angry. But it’s really about transforming your anger from something that pushes you away to something that can be examined and used as a tool for growth and healing.