Certain emotions are easy to manage, like joy, excitement and contentment. But others, like anger, are tougher. Still, feelings of anger are a necessary part of a healthy emotional constitution, therapists say.
“Anger is a helpful emotion. It alerts us that something is wrong or a boundary is crossed — it lets us know that some kind of action needs to be taken,” said Dani Marrufo, a marriage and family therapist in California.
And anger differs from many other emotional states because of one thing. “Being mad is an interesting feeling, because it’s something that everyone can relate to versus happiness,” said Sadaf Siddiqi, a psychotherapist and mental health consultant in New York City. “I think [fewer] people really have an understanding of happiness … A lot of people don’t know what happiness is, they’re always seeking it, but almost everyone knows what it feels like to be mad.”
Being angry can feel overwhelming, but there’s a smart way to handle it (and then a few actions you can do after). Here’s what therapists do when they’re really mad:
The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel angry.
“I let myself be mad and acknowledge that I’m… angry, I’m upset, and I kind of have to ride the wave,” said Taisha Caldwell-Harvey, a psychologist and the founder and CEO of The Black Girl Doctor, an online therapy and wellness platform.
In that moment, she does what she needs to do to acknowledge the feeling, whether that’s venting, yelling or something else entirely.
“I’ve done a lot of work to be able to just know that what I’m feeling is valid… and so I need to give myself space to be angry and be in that emotion,” Caldwell-Harvey explained.
When you don’t let yourself feel your anger, bigger issues can develop.
“There’s all sorts of bad things that happen to our bodies internally and emotionally when we suppress our anger,” Caldwell-Harvey noted. This can include ulcers, an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and more.
Letting yourself feel your anger doesn’t necessarily mean you just have to sit with it, though. Marrufo said she likes to exert the energy that comes with being mad. “Anger for me can feel really big and intense and sometimes overwhelming,” she said.
Lifting heavy weights, going to the batting cages or scream-singing in her car are all ways Marrufo gets out her anger. “It feels like the energy that I’m holding… gets to go somewhere else,” she said.
Anger needs an outlet, or it can turn into something more. For Marrufo, keeping those feelings inside can mean that “maybe later I’ll feel anxious, or later I’ll still feel so angry.”
There are other ways to address your anger once you’ve sat with it. Start by reflecting on what triggered it.
Once you’ve acknowledged that you’re mad, you can take action.
“I deal with the experience of being mad in two steps that work well with each other. One step focuses on the short term, and the other focuses on the long term,” Siddiqi said. “The first step is all about soothing myself in the moment to get my body to be in a less intense state — I do this by pausing to give my brain a chance to see that I’m not actually in danger and I don’t have to be on the defense.”
During this pause, Siddiqi said she’ll drink some water, have a cup of tea or take a few deep breaths. “What all of these steps are doing is allowing more oxygen to reach my brain and also helping me to be more present in the moment,” she said. This also shifts the body into a calmer state.
After a few minutes or hours, Siddiqi moves on to the next step. “This is where I will process my experience by reflecting on ‘Hey, what actually triggered me?’ or ‘What could I have done differently in the future?’” she said.
She journals, meditates or talks with a trusted loved one to reflect on these thoughts. “This step is really, really important because it’s where growth really happens,” Siddiqi explained.
You can also try an “adult time-out.”
Just as it can help children cool off, it can be a good idea to put yourself in an “adult time-out” and spend time alone when you’re feeling really heated, said McCrae Carroll, a therapist in South Carolina.
Carroll said you can take 20 or 30 minutes to go for a walk or take a few breaths before diving into a conversation that could become tense.
After that time-out, “come back and see if [you] can continue the conversation and see if it’s actually getting anywhere,” he said. It’s always a good idea to have big conversations once you’re in a calmer, more level place.
Addyson Tucker, a psychologist based in Rhode Island, said they’re likely to set boundaries when they’re mad, which can affirm how they’re feeling.
“I am allowed to be angry about this,” they said. “What you’re saying and doing is not OK.”
These boundaries could involve setting limits about which topics you’re willing to discuss, or even establishing physical boundaries between you and a loved one — like not allowing your mom to drop in unannounced.
Tucker noted that often, being angry isn’t enough to get a particular need met, and a boundary can be what’s necessary.
Try to stay off social media.
“I try really hard to not use social media,” Tucker said.
People may turn to social media in situations where they can’t directly express their anger, Tucker noted. Sometimes people end up making passive-aggressive posts as a reaction to pain, and this can make things even worse.
We “use social media or email to kind of passively express that we’re upset before we’re ready to actually talk about it,” Tucker said.
And avoid making big decisions.
It’s no secret that when you’re mad, you don’t think clearly. Siddiqi said she avoids making decisions when she’s in an angry state, especially decisions that carry major consequences.
In other words, don’t turn down an invitation to a family vacation because of a tiff with your mom, or send an email to a co-worker confronting them about a behavior that bothered you. It’s easy to feel like decisions need to be made immediately, but for most things, that isn’t really the case.
“In a state of being mad or angry, I will say I don’t have to decide that right that second,” Siddiqi said. You can give yourself a few minutes to calm down and think before diving headfirst into something you may regret.
In the end, do what feels right for you.
“Know that everything we feel does have a purpose, and it’s kind of up to us to respond appropriately,” Carroll said.
So, just because a HIIT workout might be right for one person when they’re mad, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing for you.
Tucker said they never tell someone that their coping tool is wrong. Instead, they try to understand the purpose of the coping mechanism. For certain people, anger is not straightforward ― just think of the stereotypes of the “spicy Latina” or the “angry Black woman.”
“For people who are not allowed to express anger and rage, right, there might be coping strategies that help them to mask or code-switch in a way that is really not good for them,” Tucker said. “It isn’t good for their bodies, but might actually be a way for them to survive.”
So, don’t shame yourself if your coping mechanism is not on this list. And know that what you’re feeling may be more deeply rooted, and indicative of a much greater challenge. “Particularly for folks that are marginalized — people of color, Black people — there’s a lot of anger that we have that sometimes is not understood,” Caldwell-Harvey said.
This goes for historic trauma, which can show up as rage, or the anger that’s felt when injustices happen over and over, Caldwell-Harvey said. It’s not as easy to just get over these things.
And understand that anger is necessary.
“Emotions aren’t good or bad, and we shouldn’t look at them as good or bad,” Caldwell-Harvey said. “We have this broad range of emotions and that’s for a reason, and living a full life means that you experience all of them.”
While you can try to regulate your emotions, don’t be discouraged if your anger gets the best of you from time to time. “I would say practice makes progress, and when it comes to managing your emotions, your progress will never be linear,” Siddiqi said. “And that’s normal and OK.”
Messing up from time to time is part of being human, so if you find yourself relying on coping mechanisms you’d like to stop using, be kind to yourself.