Kids get upset a lot. Adults do too. In fact, miserable feelings are a gift from G‑d, a signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. For instance, G‑d has given us feelings of fear to keep us safe. If we didn’t panic at the edge of a cliff, perhaps we’d just walk off it!

Feelings of sadness prompt us to attend to a loss. These feelings arise out of attachments we have to significant people, places, things, and even ideas. Sadness urges us to replace whatever is now missing. For instance, the pain of missing home prompts us to rebuild our home wherever we are, and the pain won’t dissipate until we do.

And anger—the emotion we’re exploring here—prompts us to act, set boundaries, fight for what we want. Kids get upset a lot. Adults do too.For instance, a feeling of anger might arise when someone is taking advantage of us, crossing a line or betraying our trust. In these cases, our anger motivates us to stand up and set things right. It helps us adjust situations in order to create healthier outcomes. If we were to feel absolutely no irritation when someone repeatedly mistreated us, we might perpetuate a highly dysfunctional relationship indefinitely.

Feeling Angry

Anger is like a timer on an oven. When the timer goes off, it makes a loud piercing sound. We turn off the timer, then turn off the oven, then take out the cake. Like the timer, anger is a signal. As soon as we’ve heard the signal, we need to turn it off, turn the temperature down (calm ourselves) and begin to deal with the issue at hand.

It is essential that we turn anger off promptly. Our sages tell us that letting it run causes all sorts of spiritual harm. With anger, they say, the soul departs, leaving a vacuum that is filled by dark energies. We look, sound, feel and are inhabited by negativity.

Keep in mind that there is always the potential for anger. Think of it as a small pile of kindling wood sitting in the vicinity of our heart. If someone throws a match there (triggers us), that pile can burst into flame. But what happens to that fire depends on what we do next.

We can throw more logs onto the fire by thinking inflammatory thoughts: “How dare he!” (log number one); “How COULD he?!” (log number two); “He ALWAYS DOES THIS!” (log number three), and so on. Each thought releases a fresh batch of adrenaline (fight-or-flight chemistry) into the bloodstream, causing the fire of anger to grow bigger and bigger.

But we also have another option. Once we feel ourselves starting to burn with anger, we can quickly put out the fire. We can take actions that signal to our body that the emergency is over: we can sit down (no one sits when there is a fire), drink or eat (no one drinks or eats when there is a house on fire), breathe slowly and calmly, keep our body still (during a fire we’d be running around flapping our arms), and either stop talking completely or talk very slowly, in a whisper (during a fire people would be screaming). By engaging in all of these non-emergency activities and behaviors, we are signaling our bodies to stop sending emergency hormones into the bloodstream, and we start to calm down.

Choosing Our Response

Our anger is most often triggered by a loved one. (At least, he or she was a loved one before triggering our anger!) Acting as a signal to correct a situation, once we have turned off the anger signal, we can begin to think of an appropriate plan for dealing with the situation. Until the anger has been turned off, we don’t respond to the situation at all, because while the emergency chemistry is running, our cortex—the logical, thinking and planning part of the brain—is offline. We are temporarily out of commission, in no shape to handle any kind of situation properly.

One way to deal with the anger signal effectively is to assess where we are on the 10-point anger scale. If we are between 8 and 10 (experiencing rage or outrage), we need to turn off the signal and then take some time to see what is so triggering about the event. Sure, a child didn’t listen, but why is that a 9 for us? Taking time to work with the anger can help reduce future vulnerability to it. Exploring feelings from the past, current feelings of inadequacy or other issues can help make us more trigger-proof. Use an effective intervention, like EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), journaling, focusing, or any strategy you’ve learned for working with your emotions.

If you find yourself between 4 and 7 on this scale, you aren’t ready to deal with whoever threw a match in your direction. You are too emotionally aroused. Go do something else, and take the time to calm down completely. This place on the anger scale is vulnerable; you can be too easily triggered into a fresh release of adrenaline.

When you are at 0 to 3 on the anger scale, your brain will be working well enough to make a good plan. Our anger is most often triggered by a loved oneYou can think about an appropriate intervention when you’re at these levels, and you can even carry it out, depending on the amount of anger that the other person is feeling. If the person who triggered you is between 8 and 10 on the anger scale, you should do nothing other than make sure that everyone is safe. Say and do nothing until the storm has passed. If the other person is between 4 and 7, you can name the feelings that you identify. (“I know you don’t think that it is fair. I understand that you are upset with me.”) If the other person is between 0 and 3 on the scale, you can now carry out your intervention.

It is necessary for everyone to learn how to work with the powerful energy of anger. We use fire daily to make our delicious meals, keep us warm, light our homes and run our world. But, unmanaged, fire can destroy physical property and human life. Similarly, unrestrained anger can cause the greatest harm in our lives. And yet, the motivation provided by a tiny, measured dose of anger—just the signal to correct—can help us move forward in healthy ways.