A Psychologist's 5 Tips For Processing Anger & Frustration

By Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Psychologist & NY Times bestseller
Rick Hanson, PhD, is a psychologist, senior fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times bestselling author.
Psychologist & NY Times bestseller

Like millions of others, my life has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. During a time like this, it's natural to feel stressed, threatened, frustrated—and varying degrees of angry.

For example, I've felt everything from irritated by the small daily hassles (wash this, don't touch that, etc.) to outraged about what is being shown on the news. I'm reminded of this parable: In each person's heart are two wolves, one of love and one of hate. Which one grows stronger? The one we feed each day.

Metaphorically speaking, the wolf of hate—the capacity for resentment, contempt, violence, vengeance, and war—is part of our human nature. We cannot remove it, and fighting with it just feeds it. Besides, this part of ourselves can be useful sometimes: For example, anger can shine a bright spotlight on mistreatment and injustice.

Still, if we feed our anger each day, it can get so strong that it does more harm than good. Anger can also hide deeper issues that need tending, such as feeling disappointed, alarmed, or hurt. So, what are some ways we can cope with anger and its underlying causes during these challenging times? Here are five strategies to start with:

1. Calm the body and mind with breathwork.

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Simple breathwork routines can help calm the body and settle the mind. To start, take a breath and make the exhalation longer than the inhalation. This will engage the soothing, centering parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which slows the heart rate. Take a couple of more breaths in this way, and you'll notice an immediate difference. Once you've calmed your body with the breath, bring to mind a time you kept on going when it was hard. Let it remind you that you've been through tough times before. You can get through this one, too.

2. Take appropriate actions.

Now is an important time to home in on your expertise, get clear on your priorities, and decide for yourself how to spend your time. Action lessens anxiety and relieves frustration, thus easing anger.

3. Let yourself feel cared about.

While being physically distanced from many others, we can still recognize their interest, camaraderie, and good wishes—whether it's a comment on Facebook or a smile from 6 feet away. Letting ourselves feel genuinely cared for can cause increased oxytocin activity in the brain, which quiets its alarm bell, the amygdala, thus soothing stress and reducing anger.

4. Expand your "compassion circle" by remembering that everyone is scared.

Especially when we're under pressure, it's easy to shrink the circle of "us" while leaving "them" outside. Instead, with a little empathy and a little practice, you can see every person—including those you disagree with—as "like me" in some way: "Like me, you feel pain; like me, you have hopes; like me, you will face death one day." Try this with someone across the street or someone you're arguing with across a dinner table and notice the remarkable effects. Remember that your sense of the circle of "us" can include all of humanity and, in fact, all of life on the one precious planet we share.

5. Take heart in the good that is real.

Amid all the loss and sorrow, all the suffering and harm, there is also kindness, dignity, and endurance. Right now as you read this, all over the world children are laughing, the wind is singing through trees, people are working long hours to get a grip on this pandemic, families are sharing a meal, artists are painting and dancers are dancing, and someone is helping a stranger. All the while inside you, there exists your sincere efforts, your courage and capabilities—and your love in all its forms.

If there is one lesson of this time, it is this: We depend upon each other, we need each other, and if we are to survive and even thrive, we must do so together.

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