Anger 101 Part II: Making an ‘Anger Plan’

Therapists have many wonderful tools and techniques that we use to help clients with their anger—indeed, this article will focus on just some of the many, many different ways that therapists can help. As you will see, some of these are common ideas that you may have heard of and even used yourself.

Before I share these ideas with the clients I work with, I ask them about all of the current ways, both positive and not, that they deal with their anger. I also like to examine what they have observed from family and friends, as we tend to react in much the same way as those around us. Even with management attempts that may not have been successful, it is still valuable to evaluate why the tool did not work, and to perhaps adjust to work better in different situations. Having more tools at one’s disposal enhances potential success.

Eventually, my clients will develop an actual “anger plan.” We start with whatever tools they can think of. They may have difficulty generating positive ways to address their anger, so, as homework, I ask them to check with family, friends, and co-workers to learn what tools other people use to help them more effectively cope with their anger.

First, I want my client to get all these ideas down on paper. More important is the reality check that this process shows: how others have perhaps struggled with their anger, as well as that fact that there are so many different ways to deal with anger. It reinforces that we can pick and choose what best works for us, knowing that there are many different tools at our disposal.

Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a wonderful way to help us manage our stress and emotions before they escalate. You want to take a slow, deep breathe in through your nose, calmly. Hold it for a second or two, before slowly pushing it out through your mouth. Take a few minutes throughout the day to practice, as you want to do this daily, and not just when you are experiencing anger. This will actually help manage potential outbursts before they arise.

Counting: I am sure we have all heard of counting to 10 before we act. This is not just something many of us tell our children, as we can all benefit from such wisdom. By slowly counting and focusing away from the stressful situation around us, we get those few pivotal seconds we need to sidetrack us from potential emotional danger.

Use those key seconds to remind yourself that you can choose a different path with your anger. If you can, close your eyes and take a deep breathe with each number you count. Keeping focus on your breathing will calm your body’s flooding chemicals as it helps slow the racing thoughts. No one but you decides how long counting will take, so keep in control.

Meditation: This is a word that tends to be foreign to many people. Meditation is not about standing or sitting in a certain position or pose; it is about sitting comfortably and relaxing in a calm and quiet area. You can meditate any way you feel comfortable. For me, it is emptying my mind of the daily stress, taking some deep breaths, and even imagining being at a special place, like laying out on the beach. Feel your surroundings: the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, and recognize what is happening in your body. This is a wonderful time to use positive self-talk to enhance the experience.

Self-talk: With everything going on in our lives and everything we need to get to, it is too easy to fail to stop and smell the roses. We need to acknowledge and appreciate our strengths and accomplishments—especially under stress, when that doubt may creep up. Reflecting on yourself and all the wonderful things about you, even saying them aloud, can help see you through. Thinking things in your mind is one thing. When you say it aloud, though, you take things into your brains in a different and powerful way. We all need to hear positives, and it starts with you.

When I might be wondering about a stressful situation, I can remind myself of how well I have responded to past ones. “I know I can handle it,” I might say. If any doubt comes up I say, “Ah, that was then. This time, I am going to do ________ instead,” and fill in the blank with new ideas or other things I have successfully used before.

Taking a walk or exercising: We all know the medical benefits of exercise, but there is so much more to it: exercise means giving your body more appropriate ways to get out energy that may get trapped in your mind and body.

Thought-stopping: Use this tool to undermine the negative, catastrophic, automatic thoughts that fuel our anger. As someone who practices cognitive behavioral therapy, I know how thoughts lead to certain feelings. If I can change the thought, I will indeed change the accompanying feeling.

Say, for example, the weather is starting to warm-up. If you wake up missing the cooler weather and think, “It’s going to get too warm for a jog or to be out in the garden,” you might feel discouraged. Conversely, if you wake up to this same weather and say, “It is so nice out. I’m looking forward to soaking in some sun,” you might feel excited, yearning to start the day. In this example, the situation didn’t change, only our thoughts about the day and subsequent feelings did. What this tells us is that the mind is a powerful thing, and how much control I actually have over how my day will go. So, if I tell myself, “If I get angry, I will be able to control it,” I am more hopeful and will probably have more success.

Time-out: As children, we may have heard this word and thought that taking a time-out meant we were in trouble. However, removing oneself from a potentially heated situation allows us to control what will happen next. We will not get into that next conflict, because we are essentially stopping it in its tracks. I have told my own boys, “Dad needs a time-out too, sometimes,” heading to my room to calm down. We need to create time and distance to allow ourselves even a few seconds to reflect: on what happened, and to examine the potential consequences of our anger had we continued the conflict. Sometimes, all we need is just a little distraction to take our focus off the negative, racing thoughts, like, “I can’t believe she’s saying this again,” or “Why does he always blame me?” which only reinforce more discouraging and problematic thoughts.

© Copyright 2010 by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Abby

    May 17th, 2010 at 7:29 PM

    I too have to take time-outs. As a busy mom I just need my own space sometimes to breathe. Why does it seem that all the family want my attention at the very same time? When I’m stressed, I anger easily. I have to escape into a bath to get away from them. I don’t even like baths LOL. I prefer showers. However it’s the only place I can hide for an hour and not have someone saying “Mom…”

  • Jeremy

    May 17th, 2010 at 8:48 PM

    Thanks for sharing those tools Stuart. Some are easier to do than others. If you get angry at work for example you can’t just get up and walk out or start meditating. I work in a high pressured sales office that’s bombarded with calls all day. We must answer those calls or we miss our targets which means no bonuses. Do you have any suggestions what to do if you’re tied to your desk and feel the anger rising?

  • MM

    May 18th, 2010 at 12:13 AM

    My mom taught me to count whenever I was angry,because I used to be a very angry kid….her reassurance and love helped me get over my anger and am now a much more relaxed person.Counting really works for me!

  • Amy

    May 18th, 2010 at 2:36 AM

    Taking a time out has been a good way for me to deal with my anger. Before I say something that I will not mean later I simply walk away and take a little time out for myself. After that I am usually in a much better position to finish the discussion and to make more rational decisions.

  • MLD

    May 18th, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    It is a good idea to teach and help your children learn how to control anger and to inform them about anger not only being something negative but can also be utilized in a positive manner…why,everything around us can be made use of in both, a positive and a negative manner!

  • Robyn

    May 18th, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    I’m like a time bomb when I’m getting angry. I seethe inside, letting resentments build and build and build until one day I lose it over something very small and inconsequential like spilling my coffee or a dirty dish in the sink when I’ve just cleaned up. How can I stop that? I’m screeching like a madwoman when I eventually snap. I can never be just a little bit angry…

  • Amelia

    May 18th, 2010 at 2:30 PM

    I’m a blurter. When I’m angry I blurt it all out and nothing makes sense. I’m incapable of speaking sensibly. Then I get mad at myself for that which makes things worse and the other person gets annoyed because they have no clue what I’m ranting about. Why can’t I explain my anger in a reasoned fashion? I try but it lasts seconds.

  • Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT

    May 18th, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    Great feedback all. I think when we keep so much in, we are bound to blurt it out on occasion, as the energy is “fighting” to get out — it does not want to be contained any longer. Give yourself permission to be angry – appropriately though. Lean on a good friend, family member, etc to vent a bit and then (when appropriate) discuss your feelings with the person impacting you in a this not so positive way. Stuart

  • Sharon Johnson

    May 27th, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    I find it interesting that you don’t suggest a punchbag or hitting a pillow in venting it out – there seem to be conflicting views on this. When I was working as a volunteer counsellor in the police we put up the punchbag when one psychologist came to give us supervision but took it down when the other came because they had conflicting views. Sometimes an elderly person who felt helpless in a robbery would enjoy hitting that punch bag, letting out all the anger felt during the robbery when he/she was helpless. We also use the punch bag a lot with kids in impoverished communities who need to let it out. I would be interested in your views as a punch bag is not listed on your anger plan!

  • Stuart Kaplowitz, MFT

    June 2nd, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    Thank you Sharon! There are indeed so many more tools to try; perhaps I will continue in the list. Many times, I have suggested a punching-bag (or one of the inflatable ones I had as a child). This can indeed be a wonderful way of expressing the more physical energy that can get stuck in us. There have also been some I have worked with that I would definitely not suggest this tool to due to the level of their impulse control issues. Personally, I worried that they would not be able to resist the urge to be physical outside of the gym (or wherever they used the punching-bag)

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