Cool it, hothead!

Exploding over everyday irritations can harm your health, relationships and career. Here are 10 steps to disarming the bomb.

At a party with your boyfriend, you’re stationed by the buffet table and debating whether these bite-sized treats really are worth the jumbo helping of kilojoules they contain. He disappeared 10 minutes earlier in search of fresh drinks, and now that you’ve gobbled up three mini quiches, two mushroom vol-au-vents and a huge scoop of guacamole dip, you wonder where he is.

Looking around, you spot him tucked away in a corner, smiling and laughing, with a tall, gorgeous blonde. “That pig!” you roar to yourself. “He’s coming on to her!” Rage swells inside you, and your mind races with accusatory thoughts: “Look at how he’s flirting! How can he do this to me?” Heart pounding, you rush over and wedge yourself between him and Blondie.

“We’re going home!” you announce. Confused, he asks why, but you’re already stalking off. He follows you to the car, where you have a huge argument.

You say he was trying to pick her up; he claims he was catching up with a former co-worker. He’s not trustworthy, you say; you’re too suspicious, he counters. And on it goes. When you see your boyfriend flirting, when your boss says you’re not getting the promotion you know you deserve, or when another driver cuts you off in traffic, you feel a surge of red-hot anger. And, despite what you may think, it’s a healthy and natural emotion.

“There’s nothing wrong with anger,” says Shelton Kartun, director of The Anger & Stress Management Centre of South Africa. However, trouble ensues when you let anger get out of control and push you to do things you’ll later regret, he explains. If you tend to be a hothead, there’s good news: you can change. Angry reactions feel reflexive, but it’s possible to control them by using strategies that give you time to think before you react.

10 keep cool strategies:
Of course, they won’t all work in every situation, but try them out to see what cools you down best.

1. Analyse your anger
Breaking out into a rage about the attention your boyfriend is paying another woman may have a deeper meaning than you think. Perhaps you’re growing tired of the relationship and are looking for a way out. Talking to a friend can help you figure out why you’re so angry; so can writing a letter to the person you’re angry with. (Decide later whether to send it or not.)

2. Recognise the difference between emotion and action
“Anger does not imply that you’re violent,” says Kartun. “Many individuals think they don’t need anger management because they’re not violent.”

Just because the anger isn’t expressed in aggressive actions doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Yes, it’s not healthy to suppress anger, because the emotion can teach you about yourself and help you realize what you want out of life. But it is good to suppress aggression. To stay in control, you don’t have to bury your feelings; you simply need to find a positive way to express them. Go for a run, or even throw ice cubes at a brick wall for that glass-shattering kind of gratification.

3. Don't let it fester
Rather than acting on their anger when they feel it, many women hold their rage in for days, weeks, even years. “You may be someone who bottles up your emotions and resorts to silence,” says Kartun. Then, after a long build-up, you explode and say hurtful things. Keeping rage in also causes chronic stress and is linked to frequent headaches. You can learn to release anger quickly by honouring it; so talk about your anger rather than burying it.

4. Holt your physical response in its path
When you’re angry, your blood pressure rises, heart rate and breathing speed up, and your body unleashes a surge of hormones that prepare it for physical aggression. Arrest these unhealthy reactions by taking a time-out to relax and clear your head. Write in a journal or watch something light-hearted on TV. Choose calming, solitary activities, and avoid competitive ones. If you boil over easily, doing something aggressive will just make you angrier. Most important: don’t reach for booze. Although having a drink may feel calming, a 2003 study found that alcohol makes angry people more likely to become physically aggressive.

5. Get out of your head
When you start to see red, try to physically remove yourself from the situation. Of course, sometimes you can’t say you’re stuck in a meeting you can’t leave. Then, step back emotionally, and try to view the event as an observer. Shift your focus from what is angering you to the colour of the walls or shape of your chair.

“The moment you move away, you start to cool down,” says Ozlem Ayduk, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, whose research found that focusing on the non-emotional aspects of an event or even switching to an unrelated, distracting activity can temper those hot impulses.

6. Think before you talk
Weigh your thoughts carefully before putting them into words. Make sure that when you speak it’s you speaking and not that crazy demon you can become when enraged. Once you say something hurtful, you can’t take it back.

7. Respond with composure
It’s fine to stand up for yourself when you feel angry, but you’re more likely to get what you want and preserve a relationship if you speak rather than scream. Calmly state your case using “I” statements and not accusatory “you” statements. For example: “I get frustrated when you say you’re going to take out the garbage and then don’t.” And not: “You always say you’re going to take out the garbage, but never do.”

8. Verify your assumptions
We all know how easy it is to jump to the wrong conclusions. Before you allow yourself to go full-throttle, make sure you’re not misinterpreting things. If your boss fails to respond to an important e-mail, don’t fume - she just may be super-busy.

9. Anticipate "triggers"
Certain things might make you see red: lateness, or events that bring back painful childhood memories. If you know exactly what sets you off, you can be mindful of it and react more placidly.

10. Get help when you need it
People whose heated reactions continually lead them into hot water often benefit from therapy or classes. You can learn to slow down your response, examine it, decide whether it’s appropriate and then choose how to react. Many angry reactions are emotional habits, and someone who’s trained in anger management can help you react purposefully rather than emotionally.

For more information call The Anger & Stress Management Centre of SA on 021-554-3661, or go to

10-second cool downs

  • Slow down your body’s physiological response to anger by breathing deeply. Visualize your anger departing when you breathe out, and calmness entering when you breathe in.
  • If you can’t walk away from an anger-inducing situation, taking just a single step can help. For example, step to your right and imagine that you’ve left your anger behind you.
  • Immediately and decisively choose to channel your anger into a positive task that will move you forward, rather than a reaction that will hold you back.
  • Think of three good things that could come from whatever has angered you.
  • Set aside some “anger time” for later, when you’ll be better able to handle your feelings. Source: Good Karma in a Box by Karen Salmansohn (Sourcebooks).

For more great stories from Shape, go to

Related articles:
Flirting and your relationship
How to stop road rage
Anger management

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
33% - 9328 votes
67% - 18819 votes