Those who study these things tell us anger is the mood we are worst at controlling. Perhaps part of the reason lies in the fact that anger is energizing. It can feel powerful, even invigorating. So much so, that for some, this power is frightening. These are the people who try to prevent their anger entirely.
"He was always such a quiet, shy child", the tearful mother told the reporters. "When the other kids teased him, he never talked back. He just walked away". She would never understand how her passive son had ended up being the young man behind bars. But when his neighbor blasted his stereo yet one more time, the years of denied rage finally erupted.
Brooding fuels anger's flames. The longer we dwell on what has made us angry, the more we justify our rage and the more intense our images of the event become. So should we all turn into New York City cabbies, routinely yelling obscenities at anyone who gets in our way?
At the immediate moment, it might feel good. And there are some specific conditions when direct and strong expressions of anger do work. When we express it directly, clearly, succinctly, and at the time of injustice. When we need to get someone to change a dangerous or self-destructive behavior. When we need to restore order to a chaotic situation.
But otherwise, we end up more, not less, angry. At the first moment of anger, our brain releases chemicals, generating a rush of energy. This surge lasts only a few minutes. Unless, that is, we prolong it be rerunning the images through our mind. Or unless we are unfortunate enough to be subjected to a second insult while our chemicals are still flowing.
This period of continuing chemical arousal explains why we're much more vulnerable to rage if we've already been provoked by something else. Our threshold is already lower. Follow a mother in the grocery store and watch how her reactions to her six-year-old's demands escalate with each aisle. By the time she's in the checkout line, she's twice as vulnerable to an inappropriate expression of anger than when she entered the store.
So if it doesn't help to suppress anger, and venting it only leads to increasing our arousal, what's a person to do? There are two options, and both seem to work well.
Mentally, we must very quickly evaluate the situation. By waiting too long, the arousing chemicals kick in and it's much harder. We can short-circuit our rage by challenging our interpretation of events, aiming to reduce our perceived threat. Our job is to find some understanding, even compassion in the situation.
This works well up to medium levels of anger. At high levels, we may be "cognitively incapacitated" and reframing our thoughts won't work. Then we need physical action to cool down. We have to wait out the adrenaline surge in a setting where there aren't likely to be further triggers.
Going for a long walk. Exercising. Using techniques like abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation work by changing our physiology.
But a cooling down period won't work if we keep thinking angry thoughts. We have to distract ourselves. TV, music, and reading can work, but indulgences such as shopping or eating don't have much effect. And alcohol too often escalates anger into violence.
So don't automatically "let it out". Stop to evaluate your thoughts, take a breather, and let your chemicals calm down. You'll have a much better chance of successfully handling the situation.