“Temper is basically the fight-or-flight response, getting us pumped,” says Bonior. “When we feel threatened, our entire body becomes more tense, and our actions more impulsive: It’s the opposite of relaxation and deliberate thought. We’re prone to overreacting to the smallest thing, because our body is primed for it.” Whose fault is it that we get like this? Good news: You can blame your parents. “We learn a lot from our parents about how to handle difficult situations, and what to do with anger when it comes,” says Bonior. “If we witnessed our parents constantly lashing out, we’re less likely to be able to handle it in healthy ways as an adult.”
If you do have angry parents, maybe don’t tell them that last bit. Instead, take comfort in these rational ways to control your temper:
1. “First, acknowledge it,” suggests Bonior. “Acknowledging your feelings isn’t the same as making bad choices because of them. You don’t have to act on your anger.”
2. “Secondly, take notice of your body. Tension in your chest? Clenched jaw that wants to scream? Fists that want to punch? The more you notice, the better you can counteract it.”
3. “Thirdly, slow down your breath and try to relax the parts of your body most affected by the anger.”
4. “Work toward a solution. Say to yourself, ‘I’m angry about this, but lashing out won’t solve anything. I’m going to slow down for a moment and make a plan about how to go forward without doing something I regret.’”
Phew. We feel calmer already.
Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., writes The Washington Post’s “Baggage Check” advice column and hosts its weekly live chat.