How To Control Your Anger

Using simple techniques, you can outsmart anger and control rage before it's too late.


Anger photo via Shutterstock

It’s easy and understandable for people to get angry when horrific events happen. So we asked Joseph Shrand, a Harvard psychiatry professor and author of the book Outsmarting Anger, how to cope and understand anger before it turns scary.

Why do people react to tragedies with anger? 
The way to understand this is to understand a particular definition of anger. Anger is an emotion designed to change the behavior of someone else. We get angry when we want somebody to do something different, start doing something, or stop doing something. I think with that definition, you can see quite clearly how an event like this can stir anger. We don’t want something like this to happen. It’s an affront to our sense of safety and security, to our sense of morality and ethics, and what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s why we activate anger—to approach something to get it to change. But it’s very important to remember that there’s a difference between anger and aggression.

What is that difference? 

Aggression is the enactment of anger. There’s nothing wrong with anger; anger is a perfectly normal part of being human. Anger has never hurt anyone. It’s what you do with your anger that can really hurt someone, and that’s enact aggression. Anger is an emotion, and emotions live in this ancient part of our brain called the limbic system. This part of our brain has been around for a long time, and is part of our survival. If we didn’t have anger, if we didn’t have anxiety, if we didn’t have the fight/flight response, we would never have survived. When anger takes over, and your limbic system takes control, the prefrontal cortex is shutting down. And the prefrontal cortex is responsible for solving problems, for executing a plan, and for anticipating the consequence of that behavior. When you’re limbic, you’re not really thinking about the consequences. You just want some thing to change, you want it to change now, and you don’t care what you’re going to do to get that done. That’s why one of the things that I like to say is, “Keep it frontal, don’t go limbic.”

How can someone do that and control their anger?

It’s channeling your anger, which is a little bit different than controlling it. We’re not going to be able to control it. We’re going to feel what we’re going to feel; it’s what do we do with it? The real key to this really comes down to respect and how you begin to use that, because it’s not my anger that gets in the way of my success, it’s usually somebody else’s anger that gets in the way of my success. Somebody else’s anger and aggression got in the way of many, many people’s success [Monday]. So how do we modulate that anger? There are seven steps:

  • Recognize rage. You have to recognize that you’re angry. As soon as you do that, you’re shifting your brain from the limbic system to your prefrontal cortex. When you recognize it, you can begin to think, “Okay, I know anger is an emotion designed to change the behavior of somebody else. What do I want to see different?” Ways to do that include writing an anger scale, all the words you would use for anger, all the different ranges.
  • Envision envy. Human beings, we are basically animals that want the same thing as any animal. I want to have food, shelter, and the ability to reproduce. In the book I talk about the three Rs: resources, residence, and relationships. Envy is when I think somebody is at an advantage over me in any one of those three domains.
  • Sense suspicion. If I’m envious of you, you will become suscipious of me. You will sense suspicion if I sense somebody is going to take my resources, residence, and relationships. We all have basically evolved the same brain, so if I’m doing this, everyone’s doing this. So now the fourth step is to begin shifting so that we can being to outsmart and modulate somebody’s anger.
  • Project peace. When I project peace, I’m actually sending a message into another person’s brain, I’m activating parts of their brain called mirror neurons. These are brain cells that mirror what other people do. If I see that you are afraid, I may begin to feel afraid as well because you’re afraid for a reason. And if I see that you are angry, I may be getting angry as well. By projecting peace, you’re sending a message very quickly to another person: “Listen, relax.”
  • Engage empathy. Empathy is our ability to appreciate what other people think or feel. By engaging empathy, you are sending a message to another person that you are interested in them. In our heart of hearts, a human being simply wants to be valued by another human being. If you’re valuable, you’re part of a group. You’re not going to be kicked out. Respect leads to value, and value leads to trust, and trust is a whole different chemical in the brain called oxytocin. Through the eyes of someone else, you see yourself as valuable. And if you’re valuable, you can stay in the group, you can trust people, and you’re going to be okay.
  • Communicate clearly. By communicating clearly, we’re sending a message. I recognize you’re angry, are you envious of me or suspicious? I’m peaceful, I’m projecting peace. I’m interested, I’m engaging empathy. You’re telling someone they’re valuable. Respect leads to value, value leads to trust.
  • Trade thanks. Ninety percent of the time in our culture, when someone says thank you, what do you say? You’re welcome. These are not insignificant words. Gratitude is the most amazing thing, because what we do is we’re actually activating altruism. When I thank you, I’m acknowledging you as a benefactor. Benefactors are incredibly valued in our group, so they feel much safer because they’re not getting kicked out.

So how to these steps outsmart anger?

You will activate mirror neurons. You are basically changing someone’s brain, because it’s very, very difficult to be angry with someone who you really believe is treating you with respect. They see you as valuable; why would you want to change that? So that’s how you outsmart it.

How can we apply this to the marathon?

What we saw yesterday was such an act of aggression against innocent people that we are outraged. The problem is, unlike Newtown, unlike the World Trade Center, unlike some other places, we don’t know who or why this happened [yet]. The most difficult feeling for humans to tolerate is uncertainty. We get very anxious with uncertainty. But the one thing we can be certain of is if we come together, when we come together, we will be able to manage this together. We have to very cautious with what we do with our anger so it does not become aggression. We are going to be able to manage this, but this is not a sprint—this is a marathon.