Today, you’re going to learn all about CBT For Anger and how to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises for anger management.
Anger is the emotion we feel when we experience an injustice or have our goals blocked.
Anger has an unnecessarily bad reputation, mainly, because it is often associated it with violence (lashing out physically or verbally)
But emotions are distinctly separate from behaviors.
You may want to express your anger by lashing out, but you don’t have to. There are other healthier ways to express anger.
In the same way, just because you feel scared, doesn’t mean you have to avoid the thing you are scared of.
In other words,
- Anger is a normal and healthy response to many situations.
- Anger can be managed and used in a way that is healthy and effective.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach.
CBT helps effectively treat a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, anger issues, and other mental illnesses.
CBT is based on the following principle: “Psychological problems are based, in part, on unhelpful ways of thinking and learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.”
Therefore, people can relieve their symptoms by changing their thoughts and behaviors. (source)
Anger: A Misunderstood Emotion
Anger can be a major contributing factor in destroying relationships, property damage, substance abuse, legal troubles, and other negative consequences.
But the problem isn’t anger itself, but what you do with that anger.
Can Anger Be Used In A Positive Way?
Anger serves a purpose. It can motivate people to solve problems, confront injustice, and create meaningful social change.
Three benefits of anger
Anger alerts you to injustice or someone or something blocking your goals.
Anger motivates you to confront injustice.
Anger communicates your status to others.
When Anger Becomes A Problem?
Anger becomes counter-productive when it doesn’t inspire you to take effective action.
For example, sitting in a car in a traffic jam day in and day out without taking action to change that situation (take another route, leave home earlier, change working hours, using the time to listen to an audiobook, etc) can negatively impact your physical, psychological, and emotional well-being.
Anger becomes a problem also when:
- You regularly express it in unhelpful or destructive ways
- It affects your physical and psychological well-being
- Prevents you from communicating effectively with other people
Why Getting Angry Less Often Isn’t The Solution?
Looking at the consequences of “acting” on anger, many people assume that the solution to maladaptive or problematic anger would be to get angry less often.
You might have been told that, “Life’s too short to be angry,” or, “You just need to relax,” which could be true for some people.
But for many people, the problem isn’t about getting angry less, but how to handle their anger and make different decisions about how they express anger.
Anger Management: It’s More Than Deep Breathing
Most people view anger management as staying in control and working your way out of it through deep breathing.
Whilestart with the tips anger management does include calming exercises, it can also include much more than that.
Components of Anger
Every emotion is made up of three different components: physical, cognitive, and behavioral.
Becoming mindful of each component can help you recognize anger earlier and manage it more effectively. (*)
What does anger feel like in your body? The following are some common physical sensations that may apply for you:
- Racing heart
- Shallow breathing
- Tightness in the chest
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Clenched teeth
- Feeling flushed in the face
- Increased perspiration or sweating
- Clenched fists
- Tunnel vision
What kind of thoughts and interpretations do you have while experiencing feelings of anger? The following are some common thoughts:
- This isn’t fair.
- He shouldn’t have done that.
- This shouldn’t have happened.
- What a jerk!
- This is wrong.
- Everyone is against me.
What types of things do you tend to say or do when you feel anger? The following are some common action urges:
- Standing up for yourself
- Asserting your needs
- Confronting someone
- Picking a fight
- Raising your voice
- Throwing something
- Punching or hitting something
- Hurting yourself
Top 14 CBT Exercise For Anger Management
#1. Reinforce Your Decision to Change
At times it might seem like other people are the problem. If they could just stop being so annoying, you wouldn’t be so angry.
Resisting change is the rule, not the exception.
That’s why you need to reinforce your decision to change by considering all of the reasons why your life would be better if you could free yourself from anger.
Practical Exercise – Consider the Pros and Cons of Anger-Related Behavior
1. Identify the pros and cons of how you currently manage anger, how you express it, and how it affects your life.
Pros: It makes me feel powerful
Cons: It is hurting my relationships
If you tend to experience a lot of angry outbursts, consider the impact of these on your health and relationships.
If you don’t act out in anger, but feel angry most of the time, consider the impact that chronic anger has on your life.
2. Identify the pros and cons of working on your anger
Pros: I would feel better about myself
Cons: It is a lot of work and practice
After writing down the list of pros and cons, rate each item on a scale from 1 to 5 based on its effect on your life and compare totals.
Keep the lists where you can see them regularly.
#2. Making a Commitment to Change
When you commit to change, you consciously choose to take action that is in line with your values and goals, despite having destructive urges.
There are different ways to increase your commitment:
1. Take action steps
Action steps might involve searching for techniques you can apply to manage your anger, making an appointment with a therapist or counselor, talking about it with your partner, or a friend, keeping track of your anger (behavior, triggers, etc).
2. Talk about your commitment
Studies (Lokhorst et al. 2013) have found that people are much more likely to sustain public commitments than private commitments.
Committing publicly can involve talking with a close friend or loved one about the steps you’re willing to take, committing to your therapist to do anger-management homework, make specific commitments with someone else who is also working on anger.
Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention to what you are experiencing at the present moment.
Many people believe that mindfulness means meditation or is related to a religion or spiritual practice. But that’s not true.
You don’t need to sit and meditate for hours to benefit from mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about being aware of what is happening in the moment.
Mindfulness can help you recognize the first signs of anger and help you control it before it becomes overwhelming.
Practical Exercise – Mindfully Attending to Your Anger
Find a comfortable and quiet place where you can sit or lie down.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Notice what it feels like to breathe in and out and which parts of your body move as you breathe.
Think about an experience that triggered your anger recently. Choose an experience of a moderate level, when your anger was around a 4 or 5 on a scale from 0 to 10.
As you focus on the experience, pay close attention to your body sensations.
Once you have finished scanning your body, focus your attention on the parts of your body where you feel anger.
If you find yourself judging the situation, notice that judgment and bring your attention back to noticing the sensations as just sensations.
Focus on noticing any urges your anger triggers and keep focusing on the different components of your emotion without trying to escape or avoid, change, or push them away.
Do this for about ten to fifteen minutes, or until the emotion subsides and you no longer feel angry.
#4. Recognize Your Role
Facing your emotions and asking yourself “What might I have done to contribute to this?” requires a level of self-reflection and honesty that is difficult for many people.
Anger is a social emotion that we usually feel in the context of an interaction with another person. So it’s important to consider how something we said or did (even unintentionally) may have influenced the situation.
This is what’s called “evocation”: the act of unintentionally triggering predictable reactions in others.
For example, someone who approaches people expecting them to be rude, will be rude first, and unintentionally elicit rudeness in response.
This suggests that oftentimes, we unintentionally contribute to the social situations that we find ourselves in.
You might think, “Wouldn’t considering how I’m partly responsible make me feel worse?”
While it’s true that feelings of guilt may emerge, recognizing your role in these situations can be empowering – it’s one thing you can control.
Practical Exercise – Reflecting on an Angry Incident
Revisit an angry incident you had recently and try to answer the following questions:
1. What injustice did you experience that your anger was alerting you to? Were you treated poorly, unfairly, or otherwise wronged?
2. If you didn’t experience injustice, was someone or something blocking your goals?
3. What was the experience of anger like in your body? Did these physical sensations help or hurt you in responding to the injustice?
4. How did you express that anger both verbally and nonverbally (posture, facial expressions, tone of voice)?
5. What might you have done to contribute to this situation?
#5. Prevent Triggering States
Perhaps you recognize that you tend to become anxious under stress, or snap when you’re tired or hungry.
Identifying what triggers your anger can help you prevent unwanted anger.
Reminding yourself that “This feels worse because I am tired,” can help you calm down much more quickly.
Some of these states might seem obvious. Most people are more likely to get angry when they’re sleep-deprived, under stress, tired, running late, experiencing physical pain, or hungry.
But there are other situations specific to you that can make you more likely to get angry, such as specific memories, specific people or actions.
Practical Exercise – Manage Pre-Anger States
Come up with a list of states that tend to exacerbate anger. This list could involve:
Take steps to prevent these situations.
For example, if you’re going to have a busy day at work, make sure you get enough sleep the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and leave the house earlier.
#6. Identifying the Cues for Your Anger
Triggering states aren’t the only factor in experiencing anger.
Some situations or experiences may bring up anger for you, too.
When identifying the cues for your anger, make sure you describe them objectively without labeling or judging them.
For example, when someone says something hurtful to you, instead of saying “He is a jerk,” you’d say, “My dad told me he doesn’t approve of my job.”
Evaluations and judgments would only add fuel to the fire. When you objectively describe the situation your anger reaction can subside.
Practical Exercise – Identifying Your Cues for Anger
Knowing the types of situations and experiences that tend to trigger your anger is an important first step in learning to manage your anger – It’s easier to manage what’s predictable.
Write down a list of cues that trigger your anger.
Think about times you experienced anger recently and what situation or experience that brought up anger for you.
The following are some common cues for anger:
- Being told no
- Driving in traffic
- Waiting in line
- Having someone disagree with you
- Being insulted
- Not having your opinions or wishes taken into account
- Observing people mistreating animals or children
#7. Identify Your Appraisal Tendencies
This will help you manage your anger better, but also understand more about yourself, how you might have fueled your anger, and how you can prevent that.
Appraisal tendencies include the following thinking patterns:
- Catastrophizing (“This is going to suck”),
- Inflammatory labeling (“How stupid can someone be?”),
- Overgeneralizing (“Why do these things always happen to me?”).
- Fortune-Telling (“I have so much to do. I’m going to be behind in my work”)
These cognitive distortions can fuel your anger and even cause it in the first place.
Practical Exercise – Identify Your Core Values and Beliefs That Drive Your Anger
1. Identify the different types of situations that trigger your anger. Try to come up with some specific examples of situations and for persistent a pattern there.
2. Identify your interpretations you tend to have during these situations (catastrophizing, inflammatory labeling, fortune-telling, overgeneralizing, etc)
3. Reflect on what this appraisal tendency says about you? (If you tend to labeling people negatively, does that reflect a general attitude of contempt?)
4. Consider your appraisal tendency when examining future incidents.
5. Practice positive reappraisal by reinterpreting the same event in a more positive light.
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#8. Avoid or Change Anger-Provoking Situations
Oftentimes, we can choose what provocations we experience. We make choices about who we interact with and how we interact with them. And these choices influence how we feel.
For example, someone who participates in political debates on social media and gets angry arguing with other people is making a choice to do that.
That isn’t to say that we should avoid any conversation that will make us angry or uncomfortable. There are conversations we need to have, people we need to interact with and avoiding these will negatively impact our lives and limit them.
The key here is to weigh the pros and cons.
Practical Exercise – Manage Provocations
Each time you’re about to get into a situation or a conversation that you know will trigger your anger, ask yourself,
“Is it worth it?”
“Will this conversation solve a problem or enrich my life in any way?”
If you decide that the situation isn’t worth it, come up with a plan for avoiding it or limiting your exposure to it.
For example, if driving in heavy traffic tends to make you angry, think of ways you can avoid heavy traffic.
- Can you take a less congested route to work?
- Can you change your work schedule so you don’t have to drive during rush hour?
- Can you take public transportation instead?
#9. Increase Self-Efficacy
One of the functions of anger is to provide a sense of control. So the more life feels out of control, the more likely you are to get angry.
Therefore, doing things that make you feel competent and incontrol helps you feel good about yourself and makes you less reactive to everyday hassles, thus reducing your vulnerability to intense anger.
- So make a to-do list and start crossing things off your list.
- Do something you’ve been avoiding and that will move you toward your goals
- Do something you are good at
#10. Crisis Survival Skills
One of the biggest problems with anger is that it is often accompanied by the destructive urges.
Crisis survival skills are designed to help you avoid acting on these urges. These skills include:
- Leaving the situation
- Distracting yourself
- Getting your mind busy
- Creating strong sensations
- Releasing the energy related to anger
- Thinking Through The Disadvantages Of Acting On Angry Impulses
1. Leave the Situation
Leaving the situation can be the easiest way to avoid making things worse and calm yourself down.
This could mean walking away from the situation.
However, when another person is involved, how you leave will depend on your relationship with the person and how much they know about your struggles with anger.
If the person is a close friend or family member who is aware that you’re working on your anger, you can let them now that you need some space.
If you don’t know the person well, you may say that you need to use the restroom or take a phone call.
Sometimes it might be better to leave a situation abruptly than to act on urges to do something destructive.
Leaving the situation is only the first step. What you do after leaving the situation is just as important.
2. Distract Yourself
Focusing your attention on something else will keep you from retriggering your anger by ruminating on it and give it time to subside.
Do something. You can choose almost any activity as long as it is stimulating.
Choose an outdoor activity. When you’re outdoors, you’re surrounded by all kinds of things that can capture your attention, (temperature and feel of the air, sounds you hear, sights around you, things you smell).
3. Get your mind busy
Give your mind something else to focus on.
Make your mind work. Count backwards, starting at zero and keep adding seven until you exceed one hundred, do a word game, play a challenging game on your phone, try to come up with the name of an animal or a city that starts with each letter of the alphabet, etc.
Think about something else. A positive experience you’ve had, something that made you laugh, your pet, or someone you love, what you need to do in the coming week, etc.
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4. Create Strong Sensations
Create a sensation that is so powerful or strong that you can’t help but focus on it.
Taste. Suck on a lemon, suck on candy with a very strong flavor, bite into a raw jalapeño pepper, etc.
Smell. Spray strongly scented perfume, open a bottle of vinegar and breathe deeply. Some people find that unpleasant smells are more distracting than pleasant ones.
Touch. Hold a piece of ice in your hand until it melts, take a cold shower.
Sound. Listen to loud music that is upbeat or happy, blow a whistle.
Sight. Focus on an image that really captures your attention with vibrant colors and strong lines.
5. Release The Energy Related To Anger
Activities that are physically demanding, such as aerobics, hiking, or swimming, help burn off some of the energy that goes along with feelings of anger.
6. Think Through The Disadvantages Of Acting On Angry Impulses
Controlling angry impulses can be so difficult for many people because expressing anger can be satisfying and provide a sense of release in the moment.
That’s why focusing on the long-term, destructive effect of reacting out of anger can help you better manage your anger.
These consequences might include:
- Increased conflict and damaged relationships
- Hurting other people’s feelings
- Increased feelings of guilt and shame
- Loss of a job or loss of a promotion or raise
#11. Reducing Physical Sensations Associated With Anger
Anger is made up of three different components (physical, cognitive, behavioral).
Modifying one of these components can change the experience of your anger.
Reducing physical sensations that come along with anger, such as shallow breathing, muscle tension, hot flushes, and rapid heart rate can help your anger subside as well.
1. Deep Breathing
Deep breathing helps you control your anger by reducing several of the physical sensations associated with anger, such as shallow breathing, muscle tension, and rapid heart rate.
A great thing about learning this skill is that you can use it any time or any place.
So how do you know if you’re breathing properly?
Take a few minutes to notice the parts of your body that move as you breathe.
If your belly is expanding when you breathe in and contract when you breathe out, then you are breathing properly.
If, on the other hand, your shoulders move up and down as you breathe, you might not be breathing properly. Using our chest and shoulders to breathe doesn’t allow enough room for the lungs to expand, which results in short and shallow breaths.
Practical Exercise – Learning How to Breathe Deeply
1. Sit up in a chair with your back straight.
2. Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
3. Take a breath in and deliberately push your belly out and let your belly fall when you breathe out.
4. Continue to breathe in and out counting to five each time, then try to lengthen your breaths.
5. Keep practicing this breathing exercise until it becomes a habit.
2. Slowing Your Breathing
This is similar to deep breathing, but instead of focusing on your belly and breathing more deeply, this skill focuses on breathing out more slowly than you breathe in and then gradually lengthening your out-breath.
An added benefit of this skill is that counting the length of each out-breath can distract you from whatever triggered your anger.
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) involves tensing and then relaxing your body’s muscles.
This can help reduce the muscle tension that goes along with anger.
The reason why this skill involves tensing your muscles before relaxing them, is that relaxing muscles on command doesn’t tend to work.
But if you deliberately tense your muscles first, relaxing them can be much easier.
Practical Exercise – Practicing Progressive Muscle Relaxation
1. Get into a comfortable position.
2. Choose one body part and bring your full attention to that part. You can start with the tips of your toes and work your way to your head.
3. If you choose your forearms, make fists with your hands and squeeze to about 70 percent of your maximum strength for about five to ten seconds and then release and relax your muscles.
4. Repeat this process for the rest of your body parts and notice any differences in sensations between the tense and relaxed muscles.
4. Lower Your Body Temperature
Your body heats up when you experience anger.
Therefore, lowering your body temperature can help reduce your anger and make it more manageable.
There are many ways to lower your body temperature:
- Take a cold shower.
- Hold an ice pack on your cheeks, wrists, or the back of your neck.
- Dunk your face in a bowl of cold water.
#12. Express Your Anger In Healthier Ways
Research found that the catharsis theory of aggression fuels anger rather than decreasing it. (1)
Groups that were encouraged to release their anger through punching bags, or hitting nails with hammers, become angrier. On the other hand, other groups that were encouraged to practice deep breathing or listening to music, became much calmer.
At the same time, anger suppression was found to be correlated with negative health and interpersonal consequences, such as cardiovascular disorders and alienating friends, family, and coworkers. (2)
Express Your Anger Effectively
These things have all been shown to help decrease feelings of anger:
- Practice breathing exercises from your diaphragm
- Try meditation
- Seek social support (Talk through your feelings)
- Use positive self-talk (Repeat mantras like “It’s going to be okay,” or, “Relax,” or, “Take it easy.”)
- Try to gain a different perspective by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes rather than focusing solely on your anger
- Learn to assert yourself, expressing your feelings calmly without becoming defensive or emotionally charged.
- Anger Management Therapy or Counseling: Seek help from a professional therapist to learn how to use assertiveness and anger management skills.
#13. Reality Acceptance Skills
Acknowledging and accepting things as they are can help you reduce suffering.
Anger can serve a purpose: it propels us to take action to change whatever is making us angry.
However, when what’s making you angry cannot be fixed in the moment, fighting your anger can just make it worse.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the feeling or you want it to stay. It just means that you no longer fight it, that you acknowledge it, and can direct your energy and time to think of an effective action to take.
For example, if someone says something hurtful to you, refusing to accept that it happened and ruminating about will likely make you angrier.
On the other hand, when accept that this person said something hurtful, you’re more likely to think clearly about the situation and take effective action.
#14. Anger Communication
1. Identify your goals
When it comes to expressing anger, you need to figure out what exactly do you want the other person to do or say?
You might want the other person to treat you more respectfully, or set emotional boundaries.
2. Plan ahead for difficult conversations
Think about what points you want to make, how you are going to convey them, and how the other person may react.
3. Practice “When X happened, I felt Y” statements
Instead of saying “you made me feel,” try using “I statements” and convey facts.
4. Maintain professionalism
Stay calm. Avoid name-calling and try not to become defensive.
5. Make sure to listen too
Listen and pay attention to what they have to say, too. Try to put yourself in their shoes to gain a different perspective.
6. Take a break if you need one
If you find yourself getting agitated, ask if it’s okay to take a break before you continue the conversation.
Anger is an important emotion.
It can help us protect ourselves, fight injustice, and confront those who are mistreating us.
However, anger can also be incredibly frustrating and a major roadblock, getting in the way of our lives, relationships.
That is why you need to learn how to control it and use it effectively.
1. Is Anger a Mental illness?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (American Psychiatric Association 2013), doesn’t include an “anger disorder.”
However, anger is a feature of many mental disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder), oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and others.
Depression and grief can also be accompanied by feelings of anger.
2. Are Anger and Aggression Related?
A lot of people associate anger with aggression, and while the two can be related, they’re not the same thing.
Aggression involves actions or statements that can harm someone or something.
Anger, on the other hand, is an emotional state.
You can feel very angry, but not act aggressively.
Similarly, people can act aggressively when they’re not even angry, such as protesters who may smash and break windows or insult police, and worse, all while laughing and jumping around.
FREE CBT For Anger Worksheets (PDF)
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change, © 2021 by Ryan Martin. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anger, © 2015 by Alexander L. Chapman and Kim L. Gratz. All rights reserved.