How You Can Express Your Anger—And Then Let Go Of It
Why Is It So Hard To Let Go Of Anger?
There’s a blurry photo in my parent’s storage, taken in a moment of chaos when a family discussion blew up into an argument. One parent sits in a plastic chair, arms crossed and tears streaming, while the other consoles them. I’m behind the lens, out of sight. I remember wanting to capture that photo as a “memory of how we acted” as we lashed out.
I decided then that expressing anger would be different for me. Though I had many outbursts as a hormonal teen (I’m so sorry, Mom), as I got older, the act of yelling felt worse and worse. The stress of screaming would eat away at me, then I’d be consumed by guilt for doing it to a loved one. And I felt even less heard; the pain I was feeling was ironically drowned out by my own voice.
Long term, I realized that the popular quote often attributed to Buddha, “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”, may not be so far off. Ruminating on anger can cause lasting damage, including destroyed areas of the brain dealing with judgement and short-term memory, and a weakened immune system, including higher instances of chronic pain, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, and stroke.
Nowadays I express my anger calmly, without raising my voice. I don’t curse, I don’t walk away, and I take a momentary pause before speaking aloud. Whenever someone around me speaks loudly though, even just out of passion, it’s a visceral trigger to those past moments and how I’d hold on to that rage.
But how can we safely express our feelings and acknowledge them enough to let go? Or even really know when we’re angry, when it’s so often confused for or caught up with frustration, resentment, or disappointment?
Fight-Or-Flight & The Need To Step Away
You know the feeling when it hits you: a tightened jaw, clenched hands, a flushed face. That’s our body’s way of preparing to “fight,” and it’s the crucial moment where you can recognize whether anger may be getting the best of you. It is directly related to our fight-or-flight response; anger prepares us for combat while fear prepares us to flee or freeze.
Anger is intimately connected to our psychology and physiology: In our brains is a small but mighty structure called the amygdala, responsible for our emotions. If something we see or hear incenses us or is perceived as a threat, the amygdala will send a distress signal to our hypothalamus which works with our nervous system.
Our blood pressure and heart rate increase, our hormones and adrenaline shoot up and our pupils dilate to sharpen our vision. If you’ve ever been cut off while driving or in a heated argument with a partner, you probably identify with this experience.
Simply being aware of anger will not make it dissipate, though. Awareness is only the first step in actively calming ourselves. This is why 100 percent of the mental health and relationship professionals I spoke with recommended stepping away from a conversation or catalyst to decompress.
Meagan Prost, a licensed counselor with the Center for Heart Intelligence, recommends proposing a 20-30 minute break when the onset of rage begins and clearly communicating by saying something like, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and I need to take a break. Can we try talking about this again after dinner?”
Be sure that you re-initiate the conversation if you said you would; it will help set a boundary on your needs while also respectfully letting them know what to expect. But in that time, try deep breathing or meditation, go for a walk, or do a journal prompt on how you’re feeling, whatever will help give you a sense of grounding and perspective.
Processing Your Emotions & Response
If we don’t work to calm ourselves, the rage can become overwhelming. We become so focused on how we’re feeling and potential threats that we can’t see outside ourselves or think rationally. Psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman coined this as “amygdala hijacking,” when “everything is seen through the lens of threat. It’s very hard in that context to focus on the better side of other people’s behavior, which is what helps you to calm your own emotions.”
And more often than not, when we’re upset, anger is masking a secondary emotion like hurt or shame. Amanda Griffith-Atkins, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago, puts it this way: “Anger never walks alone. If you can slow down and connect to what you’re really feeling, oftentimes it’s not just anger but another emotion under it.”
You might be misplacing blame or confusing anger for frustration. For example, maybe you’re irritated by a situation at work but accidentally take it out on your partner when you get home, or maybe you’ve hit the pandemic wall (valid) and cry out of frustration. In this case, you could express your anger at someone or something but not feel any better, because the actual cause remains unaddressed.
To identify these secondary feelings, try “affect labeling” by saying the emotions you feel outloud to yourself. What might start as “I am livid” can be supplemented by other sentiments like “I’m feeling unheard” or “I was deeply disrespected.” By digging deeper, you can discover the root of your feelings and how to thoughtfully communicate about them.
However, it’s worth the reminder that anger is a protective tool ingrained in our brain and bodies. It’s not necessarily a “bad” emotion to feel (though women are conditioned to think otherwise), especially when it can lead to better outcomes or much-needed justice, though there may be secondary feelings to dissect.
How To Express Anger
There are typically three ways anger is shared: suppressing, calming, and expressing. Suppression often leads to passive aggressive behavior, and calming lets your feelings subside, but they can easily be stoked again if unaddressed. Expressing anger can range from a thoughtful discussion to an intense screaming match, but in the best case scenario, we’re looking for constructive expression that’s reasonable and clear without excessive blame or irrational behaviors.
For a healthier way to express anger, focus on “I” statements. Talk about how you personally feel without blanket accusations or placing direct blame on others. Stay away from “always” and “never.” Joanne Ketch, an LMFT and counselor, shares that this can be “hyperbolic and unproductive.” Use specifics instead, with examples or recurring patterns you may have noticed. (Be sure to keep the discussion on-topic, though.)
It’s also helpful to understand how you’d ultimately feel better. Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT and Founder of Take Root Therapy, suggests explicitly naming what you wish was different, or how the situation can ultimately be resolved; for example, you can ask for long-term change like, “When I share with you, I wish you’d show me body language that you’re actively listening.”
Be compassionate and curious here, too. Ask the other person to share their perspective and thoughtfully respond. This way, both you and the other person feel seen and heard. You can also develop a deeper understanding or why they behaved a certain way.
How To Let Go
Realizing that we’re still holding onto the anger post-conversation is the first step to healing, but we’re actually predisposed to remember bad events as opposed to good ones. It’s called “negativity bias” which evolved over time to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes or end up in similar situations again.
So letting go of anger, instead of ruminating, is typically easier said than done. In my own life, I can still remember remnants of the argument that led to that photo and how certain behaviors continued afterwards, though it hasn’t served me to linger on these memories.
Once you’ve stepped away or reconciled and you can see the experience for what it is, look at the lessons learned or the new boundaries you’ve set. You can also choose to honor it as an important experience or memory then release the associated emotions.
Since anger is such a visceral feeling, consider going for a brisk walk or run, trying yoga, or even skipping rope to help physically decompress. If visualizations help, you can even write down how you’re feeling to then rip it up.
If you are unable to constructively express or let go of anger, it may be worthwhile to look into individual (or couples) therapy or support groups. Meredith Prescott, a psychotherapist in New York City, highlights therapists as neutral third parties who will provide you with insights and coping methods, rather than ruminating with you, so you can move forward.
Self-reflection can be extremely helpful, too, if you begin noticing recurring patterns. Look at previous circumstances and learn what triggers you (i.e., is it a specific behavior like smugness or habit like leaving the bed undone?). Prost also recommends asking yourself questions like, “What are my top three ways to self-soothe? How might I handle this better in the future if this arises again? What helps diffuse my physical reactions to anger?”
The next time you’re feeling angry, turn to self-soothing and clear communication. You may even find that forgiveness and letting go can be easier than you think.
Have you found effective ways to communicate when you’re upset? Share them below!
Henah Velez (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She holds a Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship and is a proud Rutgers grad. Originally from NJ, Henah’s now in Santa Barbara, CA, where she loves shopping small, hanging with her pets, or traveling. Say hi on Instagram!