How to Manage Unproductive Anger

angry man in trafficIf you ask the average person on the street to list “Primal emotions,” anger will be one of the first examples they offer. You understand why: It’s raw. It’s overpowering. It feels like it comes from deep down below, from somewhere instinctual. To most people, anger is the realest emotion of all because it’s so sure of itself. There’s no mistaking anger.

Though anger has a negative connotation these days, it’s there for a reason. All emotions have a purpose. If they didn’t, emotions as a physiological category wouldn’t have arisen and survived millions of years of evolution. An emotion is an adaptation to an environmental condition. Anger exists because it promotes—or promoted—a survival advantage. Those animals who felt something approximating anger outcompeted those who didn’t. That’s what it comes down to.

On the surface, anger is a self-protective adaptation. By showing anger, we display a capacity for aggressive action to those who would threaten us or our tribe—and most socially astute, reasonable people (and even many animal predators) will retreat in the majority of situations. Anger, in this way, is part of the “checks and balances” system inherent to our social contracts. It gives the other party pause to consider whether it’s really worth the trouble to encroach.

But like other emotions, anger is also an internal messenger. When we feel the rush of anger overtake us, that’s an internal signal that a line has been crossed. Maybe someone has threatened or harmed a loved one. Perhaps you’ve become aware of an injustice. And when a line has been crossed, anger is your signal to act: to defend yourself, your family, your integrity, your home, or your ideals.

Unfortunately, the line isn’t always worth defending. Sometimes we mess up and feel angry over something silly. A line has been crossed, but it was a ridiculous line that doesn’t objectively deserve the response. That’s what we need to figure out and manage: why are we angry and what can we do about it?

You certainly can’t just ignore it. The visceral energy of anger is remarkably durable. Because it’s a fact. It exists. It will come up. Lines will be breached. Most of us no longer live in the same ancestral environment where raw unfiltered anger makes obvious sense, but arise it will all the same. We kid ourselves if we think we’re immune to its inherent human force. How can we keep it reined in enough to not thwart our own well-being or run afoul of the law? How can we control or manage it—even channel it? In short, how can we have and express well-deserved anger without getting burned by it?

Tips for Managing Anger (So It Doesn’t Manage You):

Practice mindfulness, and bring that deep awareness to anger when it rises.

This isn’t about leaving society. It’s simply about being cognizant of what you’re feeling and how those feelings unfold in you. To do this, we learn to stop identifying with our feelings and come to observe them instead. Mindfulness practices can be essential here. And it doesn’t have to be as involved as an hour long meditation. Alternatives exist. The “count to ten and breathe deeply” stuff you tell kids trying to handle their anger works on adults, too.

Get back in your body while you’re at it.

Use the awareness to feel yourself become flushed in the face. Notice the blood retreat from your extremities. Sense the emotional force rising in our abdomens or pulsating in your forehead. Then breathe into those sensations, disarming each before they take off into uncontrolled rage. With practice, we can nip anger (when we deem it unproductive) in the bud by not trying to manipulate ourselves emotionally but by putting our full focus on physical “symptoms” and addressing those.

Ask if it’s really worth getting angry.

Taking a step back in the heat of the moment—or better yet before the anger actually erupts—to objectively assess the merits of your anger can make a big difference. Long commute? Sure, that’s annoying, but is it worth it to get angry? Who is it helping? What adaptive effect is the anger producing? Remember: anger is suppose to be beneficial. It’s supposed to trigger positive results, actions.

Keep going.

Follow the thread of your anger to determine who or what you’re really angry about. If you’re angry at your long commute, are you angry at the traffic? The other drivers? Your boss? Probably not. Maybe you’re actually angry at yourself for getting yourself into this position. See? Now we’re getting somewhere.

Or maybe you’re angry at something you saw on the news. Some politician said something, and now your day is ruined. What’s that about? What the hell are you doing to yourself? How can you avoid this kind of anger in the future? Politicians are always going to say and do infuriating stuff. What if—stay with me now—you stopped listening?

Fortify your line.

Remember how anger is an emotional reaction to a perceived breach of your line?

Our lines are porous these days. Whereas most ancient humans did meaningful work, had plenty of leisure time, slept when it got dark, ate whole natural foods, and knew nothing of what transpired the next village over, the standard baseline setting for the modern human is tons of chronic stress, not enough sleep, poor diets, too much news consumption, unfulfilling jobs, and a disrupted, discordant way of life. In many ways, our lives are harder and we are more susceptible to anger than ever before. We know more things and thus have more to be angry about, and when we get angry we are less equipped to deal with it.

Your family being threatened is one thing. That always deserves anger. There’s no getting around that. But if you find yourself blowing up over silly things on a regular basis, or everything, you need to fortify your line. Keeping your micronutrient intake up, getting regular physical activity, sleeping enough, managing your stress, taking care of business in general, limiting your news intake, finding a higher purpose or power toward which to strive—these are the baseline anti-anger interventions.

Find healthy outlets for aggression.

Modern life can keep us peaceful—or subdued, depending on how you look at it. Some folks do well with this, while others just don’t. Your quick temper might be a sign you’re not getting your thrills from the physical risk and adventure you inherently crave. It’s not wrong to feel aggression, but it should be directed in a healthy direction. Instead of picking fights with strangers in the parking lot, try martial arts, boxing lessons, or competitive sports.

Transmute your anger.

Anger is energy, unfulfilled. Directionless energy that has to go somewhere, has to express itself. If there are things in your life you aren’t taking care of, that frustration can explode outward as anger—often in response to something otherwise inconsequential or minor. Direct the simmering energy within toward a productive outlet.

Thanks for reading, everyone. How have you learned to manage your anger? What role does it play in how you operate day to day? 

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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9 thoughts on “How to Manage Unproductive Anger”

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  1. Thanks for fixing the RSS feed. I missed your articles in my reader for so long.

  2. Anger is best managed through stepping back and calming down.

    However, there are those moments where it’s the entirely appropriate response. No matter how careful one is, there is no way to live a life securely away from violence without significantly altering that life to avoid violence.

    Learn to fight. Every pioneer in the ancestral health movement, from Georges Hebert to Erwin Le Corre, has advocated for this. Knowing how to fight isn’t the same as wanting to fight, and is instrumental in avoiding such.

  3. Very interesting! I’ve noticed that sometimes I let anger invade my whole body, losing my breath and my inner balance. Sometimes that signal is needed in order to take action but other times my “line” – as you said- is crossed by something as simple as a different opinion. In those moments I try to take deep breaths come back to my body and remember myself not to take things personal. I agree that our frustrations over not being able to control certain aspects of our life show up as anger a lot of times and I also think that the overstimulation game modern life makes us think about way more things than we should. Finding activities that connect you to the present moment is key to avoid overthinking and being more content with what it is and this definitely helps to have a more flexible and realistic “line”.
    Thank you for sharing this article!

  4. It as been said that the actions of others that make us the most angry are the traits in ourselves that we don’t want to see and the anger, although directed at another, is really our being notifying us to deal with this in ourselves.
    Takes a lot of work, but if we transform the root of these feelings in ourselves to something more positive then we find that we are not getting as angry at others, we no longer “see” it in them, because it’s no longer in us.
    I think it was the book “Feelings Buried Alive Never Die” that helped me see that the most. Helped me to transform what I wasn’t seeing in myself that I didn’t like.

  5. I loved this point – information excess or too much news consumption. It’s nothing but useless stuff – for which we are under tremendous stress. Good point Mark.

  6. I use what I learned from Bruce Lipton. When I catch myself with a negative thought I say to myself, “Wayne, don’t you have anything better to do than to listen to this crap?” That makes me chuckle and lightens my mood allowing me to think more clearly.

  7. Spot on as always Mark. I hate the feelings of guilt and shame after getting mad. Try as i will to be a stoic, I think I’m up against to many generations of fiery Scotish tempers,it’s a hereditary thing. Anyway, thanks for the food for thought.