Anger Management: Coping With Distressing Emotions

Based on laboratory studies and field research with many cultures around the world, the anthropologist Paul Eckman determined that there are six primary human emotions, which are hard-wired and available from birth: Anger, Fear, Sadness, Joy, Surprise and Disgust.

In addition to the six primary emotions, humans also experience what have been called “social” emotions, necessary for meeting social demands and expectations.  The major social emotions are:  shame, guilt, jealousy, embarrassment and pride.  Still others, which may also be regarded as states of mind rather than pure emotions, include being Disrespected, Ignored, Betrayed,  Unimportant, Inadequate, Disappointed, Hurt, Lonely, Worried, Confused, and Helpless.

Emotions not only make life more interesting and meaningful, but are necessary for survival and getting one’s needs met.  Think of your emotions, like your senses, as a means by which you get information from the world.  When they are working the way they should, emotions provide further information about the environment and your relationship to it.  For example, anger warns you of a possible threat and prepares you to take action against that threat.  Fear also warns you about a threat, but prepares you to flee.  When you are sad, it means that there is something missing from your life, and you are drawn to others to comfort you.  When you are generally happy around a particular individual, you probably will want to spend more time with them, knowing that your love and belonging needs are being met. Denying or ignoring one’s emotions is as foolish as deliberately blinding oneself or puncturing your ear drums.

Unfortunately, because they are generated by your thoughts, and your thoughts are not always rational, emotions cannot always be trusted. Not only are many of them irrational, but they are automatic and contained within your head.  Unless you share them with someone who can give you a more objective perspective, you are likely to believe your thoughts and act on them.


It is easy to look at people and events in the environment and decide that they are causing you to feel in a
particular way (for example, “She makes me angry;” This job is depressing.”).  However, events and situations don’t cause emotions.  Rather, your “self-talk” (what you tell yourself in your head about those events) causes those emotions.  If your self-talk happens to accurately reflects what is actually going on in the world, then your emotions – no matter how strong – will be appropriate to the situation. For example, if after suddenly becoming homeless you think to yourself “this is horrible” and felt very sad, that self-talk and the emotion that goes with it would be appropriate to the situation.  However, feeling angry because you are telling yourself that it is “horrible and terrible” that your partner prefers not to go out to dinner with you would be an example of distorted self-talk.

Having more control over your emotions requires that you be able to identify your distorted thinking.  It is best to do this with pen and paper.  Next time you experience a distressing event, write down:  (1) the situation you were in; (2) the distressing emotions you were feeling; and (3) the self-talk in your head.  Then, using the chart below to guide you, see if you can identify any distorted self-talk, and challenge it.

Types of distorted self-talk

Challenging your thinking


“He’s trying to mess with me”
“He doesn’t really love me”

“How do I know?”
“I can’t read minds”

(others or ourselves)

“Jerk,” “Bitch,” “Lazy,” “Idiot,” etc.

“Everyone has a good side. What is it about their behavior that I don’t like?”


“She is never going to change”
“I’ll never get another job”

“I am not a psychic.”


“This is horrible, terrible”
“The weekend’s ruined”

“How bad is this, compared to a real tragedy – like the death of a loved one?”


“He can’t talk to me like that”
“This has to change”

“He can, but I don’t have to like it.”
“Nothing has to change. I can try my best.”

Arbitrary inferences

“She is working late again – must be having an affair”

“People do things for many reasons.”

Black and White Thinking

“They are either with me or against me.”

“They disagree with me in some ways and agree in others ways.”


“Things never go my way”
“Women are just impossible”

“Sometimes they go my way, sometimes not.”
“Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Or I need to make better choices.”


Distressing emotions are also caused by irrational beliefs.  Look at the list below, from the psychologist Albert Ellis.  Ask yourself what types of behaviors people engage in who have the belief.  For example, one who believes that it is “an absolute necessity” to have love and approval would have a tendency to overly please others, resulting in anxiety, loneliness, or anger.  See if you relate to any of these beliefs.  Then re-write them by taking out the distortions (e.g., magnification and absolutes.  This will give you a more realistic way of looking at things (e.g., “I would like to have love and approval”).

  • It is an absolute necessity that I have love and approval from peers, family and friends.
  • I must be unfailingly competent and almost perfect in all I undertake.
  • It is horrible when people and things are not the way I would like them to be.
  • People are fragile and should never be hurt.
  • I am helpless and have no control over what I experience or feel.
  • If I don’t go to great lengths to please others, they will abandon or reject me .
  • When people disapprove of me, it means I am wrong or bad.
  • Happiness and fulfillment can only occur in the presence of others, and being alone is horrible.
  • I shouldn’t have to feel pain – I am entitled to a good life.
  • My worth as a person depends on how much I achieve and produce.
  • There is a perfect love, and a perfect relationship.



Sometimes you feel terrible event though there is nothing stressful happening in the environment.  You just feel that way, due to the automatic thoughts that pop into your head and feed upon one another. But blaming yourself or obsessing over your feelings will not make them go away, nor the thoughts that accompany them. Worrying about your feelings or trying desperately to control your irrational thoughts only leads to more distress.

When you wind up feeling anxious about your anxiety, angry about your loneliness, etc., you are producing more unpleasant emotions, which you attempt to alleviate by doing things that wind up making things worse.  This includes drinking excessively, acting out with aggression, or withdrawing into yourself and therefore missing experiences that you might otherwise learn from. An example of the latter would be avoiding people after a relationship break-up, causing you to feel even more depressed, leading to further isolation.  In your mind, the isolation “proves” that you are “hopeless.”  Obviously, this is a type of problem that you cannot think your way out of.  Trying to control your thoughts is like fighting in quicksand:  the more you struggle, the deeper you sink.

No matter how well you challenge your irrational thoughts and beliefs you can expect them to persist, at least on some level, because they are wired in your brain.  Once your irrational thoughts and beliefs lead you to experience intense emotions, your decision-making capabilities are further undermined.  This is partly due to the way that memories are stored in the brain.  When you experience intense, distressing emotions, the parts of your brain that process those emotions, located largely in the amygdala, naturally link-up with memories of similarly distressing emotions that have no sense of time and space.  So, for example, when your partner criticizes you about something, it feels like they “always” criticize you, because your brain is linking together experiences of being criticized all at once.  You are then at risk for either acting-out with aggression, feeling greater levels of anxiety, or withdrawing into a sinking depression.

The good news is that your thoughts and feelings, no matter how distressing, have far less power over you when you remember that they are not real entities, but rather neural activity and body sensations. Some of them are useful, and some are not, but it is important that you know that you are not your thoughts and feelings. The thoughts in your head may seem confusing and often in conflict, like pieces on a chessboard.  But you are neither the black pieces or white pieces; you are, rather, the chessboard that holds them. This is a useful metaphor for helping you detach from your thoughts and emotions, so you are not controlled by them.  The following grounding exercise is also useful.

Close your eyes and sit quietly in a comfortable chair.  There is nothing more that you have to do, other than to be aware of the experience. After 5-10 minutes, answer the following questions:

  1. How did you experience this meditation? What were you aware of externally – e.g., sounds, temperature in the room, feeling of your body against the chair or couch?
  1. What were you aware of internally? Current thoughts, memories, speculation about the future?  Or feelings – e.g, bored, excited, annoyed, happy?

After a few hours, or later in the week, do this exercise again, preferably at the same time and location.  What did you experience in the external environment?  Did you experience the same sounds and sensations as before, and exactly the same way, or differently?  What did you experience within yourself?  Did you notice how your thoughts and feelings changed?

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do this meditation.  Its purpose is to help you get grounded, so that you can develop a capacity for self-observation and detachment, crucial in coping with stress and intense feelings.  Remember this: Your thoughts and feelings, and even sensations of the outside environment, are always changing, sometimes from second to second.  However, the part of you that is aware of these fleeting thoughts, feelings and sensations, which psychologists call the “self” or “observing ego,” does not change.


Identifying distorted thoughts can help you act less impulsively and make better short-term decisions, and learning to detach from those thoughts and their accompanying emotions will keep them from ruling your life.  Ultimately, however, achieving good mental health and having a fulfilling life requires that you take action.  What is it that you actually have control over?  As the figure below indicates, you have the most control over your behavior


  • your behavior
  • your thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  • other people’s behavior
  • other people’s thoughts, feelings, and desires.


You cannot wait until you feel better about yourself before you make changes in your life.  You can determine for yourself what those changes ought to be by setting goals that are consistent with your core values, using the chart below as a guide.

Area of life


Long term goals

Short term goals


(deepest, most meaningful relationships – including children, partner, parents, close friends and relatives)


(paid work, studying/ education/ and

unpaid work such as volunteering, or domestic duties)


(rest and relaxation, hobbies, creativity, sport, all forms of leisure, recreation and entertainment)


(physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual health and well-being.)

Working towards your goals does much more than giving you a sense of purpose and direction.  Because of the actions you have taken, you start to view yourself in a more positive way.  As you build confidence, your motivation to change increases, resulting in more positive action.  Meanwhile, your brain itself is slowly being re-wired.  In time your thoughts and emotions themselves change.