Week 04

Week 05

Week 06

Managing anger with opposite action


The last skill looked at changing your thoughts to manage your anger, whereas this skill will teach you how to change your behaviour to achieve the same goal. As we have discussed in earlier weeks, our reactions to anger can often keep the anger going or worsen it. For example, many people have the urge to attack or become aggressive when they feel angry. When we act on that urge, it adds fuel to the anger fire and risks escalating the situation further (e.g., the other person fights back). Have you ever noticed yourself feeling even angrier after lashing out?

There are many reasons why acting on our emotions makes them hang around. For example, by acting aggressively when you’re angry, you keep your nervous system in a heightened state of arousal (the ‘fight’ response). The same goes for other emotions; withdrawing when we are depressed just keeps us feeling down, avoiding when we are anxious just increases our nerves. The aftereffects of anger are also unpleasant and may involve other emotions like guilt, shame, and regret. To avoid getting stuck in this loop, you can use opposite action. 

The opposite action skill involves acting the opposite to what your anger is telling you to do. As we explored in week one, there are many unhelpful ways in which people react to their anger. These include things like physical aggression, verbal slander, withdrawal, and other threatening types of behaviour. Anger generally tells us to approach and attack in one way or another. The opposite action for anger is therefore to avoid (perhaps retreat) and act with kindness. Using this skill will help you to regulate and change your anger, however, it should only be used when acting on your anger is going to be unhelpful or harmful in some way.

How to use opposite action

Step 1. Notice and name your anger when it shows up.

Step 2. Decide whether acting on your anger will be helpful. Use the Wise Mind and “Check the Facts’ skills to help you do this. As a general rule, if acting on your anger has the potential to cause harm, make things worse, or take you further from your goals, it is likely to be unhelpful. When anger motivates you to make positive changes, however, acting on it might be helpful, and you do not need to take the opposite action.   

Step 3. Notice and name your anger urges. This involves identifying any impulses, desires, or compulsions to act in a particular way. Ask yourself what your mind is telling you to do, what you want to say, and how you feel like responding. This is an important step – you need to know what your anger urges are before you can take an opposite action. 

Step 4. Consider your options for opposite action and choose one. Consider what your anger urges are telling you to do and think about ways that you could act differently. If you’re already responding to your anger somehow, think about how you can do the opposite (e.g., relaxing your muscles and softening your facial expression/body posture). The more specific and planned you can be with this step, the better.

Step 5. Take the opposite action and watch your anger. Notice if and how your anger changes as you engage with the opposite action. You need to stick with the opposite action long enough to send your brain the message that the anger is no longer needed at the initial intensity. With time, your anger should start to lessen. If not, you might need to review your approach and try a different opposite action.

Although people’s plans for opposite action will differ depending on their circumstances, there are some common opposite actions that will work well for anger across most situations. Instead of acting on your anger by attacking, you could: 

  • Leave the situation quietly
  • Stop engaging with the trigger (e.g., put your phone down, switch off the radio)
  • Change the topic of conversation
  • Distract yourself by focussing on something else
  • Use a soft voice, gentle tone, and open body posture
  • Slow things down, pause, take a few deep breaths, and relax your muscles 
  • Validate the other person, be compassionate, and consider their perspective.
An example of opposite action in use

Dana would become angry whenever she rode as a passenger in her mother’s car. She found her mother’s driving infuriating and, as a result, would tense up, make critical comments, or tell her mother to drive faster. When she used opposite action, Dana consciously relaxed her shoulder and facial muscles. She chose to speak to her mother softly about neutral topics during the car ride. This helped to distract Dana from her mother’s driving. 

Simply taking the opposite action helped Dana to feel less angry and more able to enjoy spending time with her mother. Of course, she would still at times become frustrated, however, anger outbursts towards her mother became far less frequent.

Opposite action for other emotions

As we have discussed, anger is followed by a period of having to deal with the aftereffects of this emotion. This often includes facing the consequences of our actions when we were angry (e.g., saying something hurtful we later regret) and the emotions that come along with this (e.g., shame, guilt, embarrassment, sadness etc.). Opposite action can also help us deal with these types of emotions in a healthy way so that we are not then carried away by them too. 

Here are some examples of opposite action for other emotions

Shame. Instead of punishing ourselves or emotionally withdrawing, we can face whatever we did, learn from it, make amends, and practice forgiveness.

Anxiety. Instead of ruminating on your worries and avoiding situations, approach whatever it is that gives you anxiety. Repeatedly expose yourself to what you are afraid of.

Sadness. Instead of shutting down, slumping, and being passive, we can pursue connection with others, approach things that make us feel good, and keep busy.