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Anger Can Spread Like a Virus: How to Avoid Being Infected

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistNovember 11, 2020

As we’ve all probably noticed in recent years, anger can spread like a virus. While some people seem immune to it, others become filled with anger once exposed. They might spew it back violently with their words or actions. Or they could spread it in a less obvious way, such as putting on a falsely agreeable face that hides underlying hostile feelings. Though you can try to avoid exposure, that’s becoming increasingly difficult as this virus continues to infect more people and to fill social media. To be clear, not all anger is bad -- some anger is justified and, if expressed constructively, can act as sort of fuel for positive change.

Still, responding to someone else’s anger -- whatever its source and purpose -- in a healthy way can be difficult. Let’s talk about some strategies you can use to keep yourself calmer when faced with anger.

When someone is directing anger at others or at a situation, choose to focus on being there for them as they struggle with anger. Listen. Do your best to truly understand their experience. Then validate their feelings. Afterward, they might be open to considering what they ultimately want -- to continue being angry, to find acceptance with what is making them angry, or to do what they can to change the situation. If they can shift from just venting to responding constructively, you will have helped them. But whether or not that happens, by remaining an observer of their anger -- instead of getting sucked in by it -- you will at least have helped prevent yourself from succumbing to your own destructive rage. (Already caught up in your own anger? Learn to calm it by watching this brief video.)

This becomes much more difficult when the anger is directed at you, personally. However, there are ways to protect yourself even then. To be clear, this is not easy and may feel impossible in some circumstances. If that’s the case, your best action may be to remove yourself from the situation and regroup, deciding how you want to respond after you feel safe and are able to think more clearly (and certainly do remove yourself if you sense that the anger could escalate into violence). But if you feel up to it, consider doing the following to respond to someone expressing their anger with you:

If you feel afraid or defensive, it can help to focus briefly on your breathing. Ground yourself in your body, letting yourself know that you are safe despite the verbal attack. (Of course, that assumes that you are safe. If you are not, then your first priority is to find safety.)

Try to understand their perspective. Reflect back the complaint, including the situation and their feelings. Even if you think you get it, ask if you fully understand. This gives them a chance to clarify what you may be missing or not fully appreciating. If necessary, ask them to explain it again.

Validate their feelings. Importantly, you do not need to agree with them. The object is to understand how, given their perspective, they feel as they do. Expressing this understanding can often greatly reduce the intensity of their anger.

If appropriate, apologize. If they are open to honest communication, they will likely be working with you at this point. So if you think that you did something wrong, acknowledging it and apologizing can help ease the tension. That does not mean that everything is forgiven, but it does mean that you might be able to move forward in a constructive way.

If you think that the way they took your words or actions is not what you intended, it can be helpful to acknowledge this. An honestly stated, “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you,” can go along way. Importantly, this is very different from a flippant, “I’m sorry if what I said offended you.”

After they feel heard, consider expressing your thoughts and feelings to them.

In the end, by focusing on managing the situation, you can direct your own feelings -- including your anger -- in a constructive way, preventing it from infecting and overtaking you. 


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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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