We’re used to hearing that anger is an emotion that’s harmful, childish, and something we should avoid.
But in the world around us, there are horrible things happening, which can leave you feeling angry at:
- the media
- harmful beliefs and attitudes which people around us hold.
Even worse, it can often feel like despite our best efforts, nothing seems to change. This might be because others feel powerless too, or perhaps because the people with the most power aren’t open to change. It can seem like these events are doomed to repeat themselves over and over again before our eyes.
If that makes you feel frustrated, you’re not alone, and you’re not wrong to feel this way. Thankfully, while we might not be able to get rid of our angry emotions, there are ways we can manage them and use them in helpful ways.
Why it's okay to be angry
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a leading type of therapy used by mental health professionals around the world, it’s understood that you can’t get rid of emotions like anger completely. In fact, if you try and stop yourself from being angry you might end up even angrier.
For example, if you’re frustrated about something, and someone tells you to ‘calm down’, it can end up making us feel even more frustrated.
Instead of denying your emotions or acting out in negative ways, what you can do is understand and accept them for what they are. If you do that, you'll be less likely to have harmful reactions as a result of your anger.
If you’re good at managing anger, not only will you be able to understand why you’re angry, but you might be able to use your anger to motivate you to do meaningful things that make you feel less helpless about the world. Here are four steps that can help you do that:
Step 1. Acknowledge your feelings
One common response to anger is to act out in harmful ways. This includes:
- blaming people who didn’t do anything wrong
- feeling physically tense
- losing your patience.
Another common response you might have to anger is to repress it, by:
- denying that you’re angry
- distracting yourself with other thoughts or activities
- ‘thinking positive thoughts’ instead of acknowledging your anger.
To be clear, ‘positive thinking’ done right can be super helpful. But if you’re using positivity to avoid your anger, you might be doing more harm than good.
For example, when tragic events are taking place in the world, and you’re told to ‘look on the bright side’ it’s not helpful. It ends up making us feel even more frustrated because it’s often a distraction from the problem and the people who are responsible for it.
The best response in both cases is to acknowledge your feelings. This might feel silly at first, but if you’re feeling angry, it can really help to stop and think to yourself:
“I’m feeling angry about ___ and that’s okay.”
If you only do this, it probably won’t solve your problem. But you can’t fix your problems until you acknowledge that they exist.
... if you’re using positivity to avoid your anger, you might be doing more harm than good.
Step 2. Understand why you might be having those feelings
There are lots of different reasons why people get frustrated about issues going on in the world. Sometimes you might feel angry for reasons you don't even realise.
That’s why it might help to get a pen and paper and write out a list of all the reasons why you’re feeling this way. Those reasons might include:
- fear of even worse events to come
- being overwhelmed with how complex the world’s problems are
- empathy with victims who have done nothing wrong
- disappointment that people who do horrible things often escape justice
- a sense of helplessness, that nothing will ever actually change
- a reminder of issues in our own lives like discrimination or uncertainty.
It's important to realise all the reasons you're feeling this way because different issues have different solutions.
For example, if you’re angry that innocent people are suffering, you might want to take actions to help those people, like volunteering. But if you’re angry at how overwhelming the situation is overall, it might help you to take some time off the news and social media.
Step 3. Work out what you can and can't control
So now that you’ve acknowledged your anger and had a think about why you’re feeling that way, you can start to channel some of that emotion for good! To do that, you’ll need to figure out what you can actually control, and what you can’t. First, write up a table with two columns.
The first column – things that are out of your control
In the first, write down all the things you can’t control about the situation. These might be things like:
- the government’s response
- media reporting
- the environment
- the thoughts and beliefs of people around yourself.
While we might be able to influence the things in this column, at the end of the day, we can’t control them. For example, you might be able to have constructive conversations with your family, but if they end up thinking harmful things, that’s out of your control.
The second column – things you can control
In the second, write down things you can control. These might be things like:
- your actions
- your level of understanding
- your time.
The truth is, while the things in the first column (like current events) deserve your attention, we can only impact them by changing things in this second column.
In step 4, we’ll talk about all the ways to change the things you can control– either by being part of movements that are bigger than yourself, by helping others in your community, or by improving your own life.
... you might be able to have constructive conversations with your family, but if they end up thinking harmful things, that’s out of your control.
Step 4. Commit to meaningful action
If you’re able to commit to doing meaningful things to help the problem you’re focused on, that will help you manage your sense of anger about the situation. Even though that problem might continue to exist in the future, you’ll be able to know that you’re having a significant and positive impact on the world around you.
Here are a few examples of actions you can commit to:
- volunteering your time to a local organisation or charity
- having constructive conversations with friends and family about what’s going on
- listening to and supporting people who are impacted by the problem and who are working to solve it.
Other ways to channel your anger
There are a few reasons why creating change in the world might not be helpful or practical for you. In that case, here are a few ways you can ‘vent’ your frustration in the short term, but they’re also ways to create meaningful change for yourself in the long term:
- creating a regular exercise routine around your favourite form of exercise, whether it’s running, cycling, or swimming
- developing whatever form of artistic expression you enjoy most, whether it’s drawing, journaling, or music
- getting closer to people in your life who you care about.
It’s never easy reading about tragic events happening around the world, but by working on these strategies, you’ll start to manage those feelings of helplessness and feel more in control.
What can I do now?
- When saddening things are happening in the world, sometimes the news and social media can be a bit too much to bear. Here are our tips for switching off– if you need to.
- Read our piece about what to do if you’re experiencing grief because of events that are happening in the world.
- If you’d like to start volunteering your time, govolunteer.com.au is a great way to find opportunities near you.