How Anger Management Therapy Works

Anger is a natural emotion, and when managed well, it can even be healthy and productive. But when anger escalates to the point that it causes harm to yourself and others, it's time to make some changes. Anger management refers to a set of skills used to handle and express anger in healthy ways.

Read on to learn more about anger management counseling and why it's important.

Young man, alcoholic, talking to female therapist about his problems, on therapy session

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What Is Anger Management?

People use a number of conscious and unconscious processes to handle their anger. Common approaches include:

  • Expressing
  • Suppressing
  • Calming

While anger may be a normal and healthy emotion, how we respond to it makes a big impact. Anger management involves responding to anger in healthy, constructive ways. People who struggle with anger responses may need professional help to learn how to manage their anger.

What Is Anger?

Anger is a natural emotion that is subjective and adaptive. It can vary in intensity, from subtle irritation to intense rage.

It has different components:

  • Experiential: Emotional experiences accompanied by physiological responses
  • Expressional: Behaviors used to deal with anger feelings

How It Works

Anger management therapy helps a person gain insight into what triggers their anger as well as identify their anger responses. Using certain exercises, the person develops skills that help them manage their anger in healthy and productive ways.

Anger treatment programs typically aim to modify:

  • Physiological arousal
  • Cognitive processes
  • Behavior/social interaction

Types

Psychotherapists use three basic strategies in anger management treatment:

  • Relaxation: Learning to calm the body
  • Cognitive therapy: Learning healthy thinking patterns
  • Skill development: Learning new behaviors

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a commonly-used, effective treatment for anger management.

CBT for anger targets thought patterns and behaviors associated with problematic anger management. Once these are identified, they can be replaced over time with realistic, productive responses to feeling angry.

These responses are achieved through exercises, such as reframing the way you think about a problem and how you respond to it. CBT can identify anger cues and triggers and implement practices and techniques to stop anger from escalating.

Variations on CBT may be used, such as:

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): Combines cognitive therapy, meditation, and mindfulness
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT): An action-oriented approach that addresses irrational beliefs and develops skills to manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in more productive, healthier ways

Who Needs It?

Everyone can benefit from learning effective anger management strategies, but anger management treatment may be especially helpful for people in certain circumstances.

Working People

Any job can be stress-inducing, but some jobs can make anger management especially necessary.

For example, nursing has been shown to involve many factors that can trigger anger responses.

Drivers

Expressing anger (such as using offensive hand gestures) has been shown to increase safety risks while driving. Incorporating anger management techniques into driver training classes could help make roads safer.

People Who Are or Are at Risk of Being Incarcerated

Studies have shown anger management can be effective in reducing the risk of reoffending, particularly violent reoffending.

A 2015 meta-analysis explored the effects of CBT-based anger management interventions among adult men who were incarcerated. After treatment completion, the overall risk of reoffending showed a 42% reduction, while violent reoffending showed a 56% reduction.

People With Substance Use Disorder and Other Mental Health Conditions

Anger and aggression are associated with substance abuse. Difficulty managing anger and aggression can be a significant barrier to treatment for substance use.

Problems with anger management are also known to be caused by and aggravate many other mental health conditions.

Athletes

While it's a common belief that anger "fuels" athletes, there is evidence to show that anger might be dysfunctional, if not managed correctly, particularly in sports that require selective attention and fine-tuned motor skills.

Research suggests that CBT programs can help athletes understand and control this anger response.

Children and Adolescents

Children and adolescents who struggle with anger management can be at increased risk for difficulties in school and in social interactions. If it continues into later adolescence and adulthood, they are at risk for problems with employment and potential legal troubles.

Teaching anger management skills to children and adolescents reduces these risks and other negative outcomes associated with anger issues. Starting this training before they internalize unhealthy behaviors is especially beneficial.

CBT combined with mindfulness techniques, implemented by trained CBT practitioners, have been shown to be effective for anger management with children.

Abuse Is More Than an Anger Issue

Domestic violence and abuse involves a deliberate control over another person, not necessarily a loss of control or temper. Abuse requires specialized treatment, not standard anger management classes.

If you or a loved one are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Benefits

Poor anger management is associated with a number of negative effects on physical, mental, and social health, including cardiovascular diseases, low self-esteem, and interpersonal problems.

Proper anger management habits are part of taking care of overall health for everyone.

Techniques

There are ways to practice anger management skills outside of formal therapy. In fact, if you are in professional treatment for anger management, you will be encouraged to practice skills outside of class.

Relaxation

Relaxation techniques can be practiced as needed and regularly as part of your daily routine. Tools might include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Relaxing imagery
  • Yoga
  • Meditation and mindfulness exercises

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring involves changing the way you think about situations, taking the overly dramatic or exaggerated thinking that tends to come with anger and trying to be more logical and realistic, even when the anger is justified.

Exercise

Exercise is great for physical and mental health. It's also been shown to have a positive effect on anger reduction and stress control.

Realistic Problem-Solving

Instead of reacting with frustration, you can tackle your issue by:

  • Evaluating the problem
  • Identifying your options for a response
  • Considering the likely consequences of each potential solution

It's also important to recognize that problems will arise that do not have a perfect solution, or may be out of your control. In situations like these, focus on what you can control in the situation, and what behaviors will leave you feeling the best about yourself over time.

If your sincere attempts to solve the problem are not successful at first, be easy on yourself, try to be patient, practice your anger management techniques, and avoid all-or-nothing thinking.

Thought Stopping

If you feel your angry thoughts building, counter them with commands to stop the pattern of angry thoughts before the anger escalates.

Communication and Clarification

When angry feelings arise, stop, think, and ask yourself where the anger is coming from. Sometimes anger can be a smoke screen for other feelings, like fear or anxiety. Talking about your feelings, with others or even out loud to yourself, can help.

Stop, slow down, and think when heated discussions arise. Listen carefully to the other person, and carefully consider what you are going to say before you respond.

Try employing the Conflict Resolution Model:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Identify the feelings associated with the conflict
  3. Identify the impact of the problem
  4. Decide whether to resolve the conflict
  5. Work towards resolution of the conflict, including if a compromise is needed

Humor

It can be difficult, but trying to see the humor in situations—even frustrating ones—can help take the fire out of an angry response.

"Time Out"

"Time outs" aren't just for children; they can be a way for you to take a minute to calm down and deescalate your anger.

A "time out" could include:

  1. Leave the situation
  2. Count to 10
  3. Repeat calming phrases
  4. Breathe deeply
  5. Shift to a more pleasant thought
  6. Bring yourself back into focus

It can also be helpful to schedule regular personal time for periods of the day you know will be stressful, such as claiming the first 15 minutes after you get home from work as uninterrupted "me time."

Avoiding Triggers

Identify the things that tend to trigger your anger and try to avoid them.

For example, if you tend to get frustrated with something at night, try doing it at a different time of day. If your child's messy room angers you, close their door. If driving to work sets you off, look into taking the bus or train.

What Is The Psychology Behind Anger Management?

When anger happens, anger-related scripts, schemas, and motor impulses automatically activate. If these responses are unhealthy, negative behavior, such as aggression, is likely to occur.

Thankfully, the way we respond to anger is largely learned behavior and not fixed. Learning effective anger management skills and practicing them changes the response to anger. With enough practice, these healthy responses can became the default.

Things to Consider

Not only is it impossible to completely eliminate anger, it's not even the goal. Anger serves a purpose. The goal is learning to manage it. Learning to control anger takes practice and isn't easy. It's an ongoing process for everyone.

Some people can learn to manage their anger on their own or with minimal professional help. But anger can be very complex, have deeply embedded roots, and be a symptom of a bigger problem, such as a mental health condition. In these cases, treatment can take longer and require more intensive professional help.

Finding a Therapist

When looking for a therapist, look for one with experience in anger management. Approaches to anger management can be different than other forms of therapy.

The American Psychological Association has an online search tool to help you find a psychologist in your area.

Summary

Anger management skills are learned. People who have difficulty managing their anger can learn productive ways to handle their emotions.

Professional treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, is effective at treating anger management issues. Practicing anger management skill-building exercises at home and putting them into practice helps solidify good anger management habits.

A Word From Verywell

Feeling out of control with anger can be overwhelming and scary, for yourself and those around you. It takes time and practice to learn and develop healthy anger management skills. Fortunately, resources are available to help you learn these skills. Consider an anger management counseling program or seeking out a mental health professional for treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long are anger management classes?

    The length of the individual classes and the course of treatment depends on which program or intervention is being administered, and how the person responds to it. One example of a CBT anger management course involves 12, 90-minute weekly sessions.

  • What is the best therapy for anger management?

    CBT is the most common program used for anger management treatment, but it is often combined with other strategies, such as mindfulness. The key is trying different strategies and finding what works for you.

  • How do you work on anger management on your own?

    Researching anger management techniques, such as cognitive restructuring and other tools, can provide you with some strategies to start with. If you find you need more help, look for a mental health professional with experience in anger management.

  • How much does counseling cost?

    The cost of counseling varies depending on the provider, length of treatment, and other considerations.

  • What is the difference between counseling and therapy?

    The terms are often used interchangeably, but there are differences. In general, counseling tends to focus on finding solutions to specific problems or issues. It is generally short-term. Psychotherapy tends to be longer and addresses mental health concerns more deeply.

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