HSPs, Here’s How to Deal With That Angry Person in Your Life

An HSP reacting in frustration to an angry person

There’s a specific set of steps HSPs can use to handle angry people — without getting emotionally wiped out.

Anger is often viewed as a negative emotion, one that we’re often brought up to fear. That’s certainly my experience. Just thinking about writing this article caused my blood pressure to rise! I’m intuitive enough to recognise that this means it’s exactly the article I need to write. 

I don’t deal with conflict well and anger is such a vibrant emotion that steals the energy from a room. Before I learned I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), I thought I was just weak for struggling to deal with the arguments and conflicts in my friendship group and family. 

Let’s look at why HSPs can struggle to deal with angry people.

Why Is Dealing with Angry People So Hard for HSPs?

No one loves getting yelled at, but anger hits a lot harder for highly sensitive people — the 30 percent of the population who are wired to think deeply and feel emotions strongly. Because of our sensitivity, we have a much harder time dealing with even quiet anger, and we may feel like we fall apart when someone gets loud, nasty, or aggressive. 

Our response to angry people is complicated by three factors: sensory overwhelm, emotional contagion, and our unique conflict style. 

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Sensory Overwhelm 

For highly sensitive people, anger presents more than just an emotional challenge. That’s because conflict between two people can quickly escalate, and what starts out as a mildly discomforting conflict can quickly lead to yelling, slamming doors, or personal attacks. It’s well documented that highly sensitive people are more easily overwhelmed, and research suggests we are prone to sensory overstimulation. Few things are more overstimulating than angry people, and an HSP’s sensitive nervous system may interpret the situation as overwhelming. 

The emotions linked to overwhelm are also felt inside the body and can cause physical reactions such as a rapid heartbeat or the stress hormone cortisol to be released. Too much of this can lead to a shutdown, the HSP becomes too overwhelmed to respond to the anger.

I’ve experienced this personally. When I was in my early twenties, someone I knew directed their misplaced anger at me intensely. I found myself shutting down and unable to argue back or express my feelings; it was like I became helpless.  

Emotional Contagion

HSPs have a greater capacity for empathy and, whether we like it or not, we easily absorb the emotions of others — an effect that researchers refer to as emotional contagion. Because HSPs are more easily “infected” by other people’s emotions, we feel the intensity of a person’s anger whether it is directed at us or at another person. 

HSPs experience the emotions we absorb from others right alongside our own response to the anger, all of which can feel very intense very quickly. It’s not just that we find the emotions to be a challenge; they really affect us and can show up in our body as physical symptoms like stomach aches and tension — or even pain — especially if our experience with the person’s anger is prolonged. 

Conflict Style

Many people cope well with conflict, but I’m not one of them! I was brought up in a conflict-avoidant household, and I simply don’t know how to deal with it. It’s only by observing others and building coping mechanisms that I’ve found ways to respond to people’s anger.

Many HSPs are similar — because conflict is overwhelming to us, we try to avoid it (even when doing so is not healthy).

One way to shift this pattern is to knowing your conflict management style. According to conflict researcher Barbara Benoliel, there are five unique conflict styles (you can see them here), and knowing yours can help you identify your triggers and plan for conflict. The term is often used in workplaces, but the principles can be applied in other areas of your life. I’ve found this extremely useful for taking my emotion out of the equation and reviewing what I can control in these uncomfortable situations. 

5 Ways to Deal with Angry People

Avoiding conflict altogether isn’t a practical option. That’s why it’s more realistic to have a few tools in your armory to help you deal with angry people. Here are five tools I use that work especially well for HSPs. Which tool to use will vary depending on the situation, and whether the anger is directed at you or another person. 

1. Identify what you can do in the situation

You do not have to stay in front of the angry person. Whatever the situation, you can choose to postpone the conversation, leave or stay and resolve it. It’s not always your responsibility to fix everything. Ask yourself is there anything you can do about this right now? What is expected of you? Knowing this and expectations can direct your focus. And no response is still a response!

Anger expert Howard Kassinove advises using a different approach for dealing with anger from strangers (such someone at a store) versus anger from a family member. A person’s response in each of these situations will be different because one involves transient interactions and the other involves ongoing interactions. For example, you may be on the receiving end of an angry store assistant and because you may never see this person again, you might choose to ignore the annoying behavior or choose a different store next time. 

When it comes to ongoing interactions with a family member or a neighbor, your response to an angry encounter will be different on account of the ongoing presence of that person in your life. Howard suggests using a range of strategies to deal with this source of anger, including avoidance and escape. 

Howard acknowledges that directly facing all problems may not be the best solution. Sometimes, avoiding an interaction that is likely to lead to anger is best. For example, I often avoid my partner after they’ve been stuck in meetings all day at work because I know they’ll be feeling short-tempered following their stressful day. I’ve learned to let them have their space when they return home from work to process their day. 

2. Protect yourself

As a highly sensitive person, however you decide to react to an individual’s anger, make sure you protect your emotional wellbeing when faced with such strong emotions. You know what you need and what is best for you. If that means postponing a fraught conversation, or leaving the room, then that’s what you must do. 

Kassinove offers a simple relaxation technique for dealing with anger which can help relieve tension in your body: “Find a comfortable chair that will support your arms and legs, and a quiet time. Take deep breaths and focus on allowing the muscles to voluntarily relax. Become aware that muscular relaxation is learned through practice.”

Sometimes, I need a deeper relaxation technique to diffuse the stress in my body following an encounter with an angry person. In these cases, I turn to yoga nidra for a reliable way to calm my frayed nervous system. Yoga nidra is a really accessible form of meditation which is done lying down as opposed to sitting like standard meditation. Yoga nidra benefits the autonomic nervous system, which regulates processes in the body such as heart rate, digestion and blood flow, all of which are affected by feelings of stress. Give it a try by following this 20 minute video from yoga instructor Ally Boothroyd, or follow the body scan meditation audio from medical researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

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3. Use cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique to change the way you think, and is especially helpful for replacing stress-causing thoughts with accurate, calm ones — which means it’s excellent at changing your response to anger. Kassinove agrees, saying, “Anger experiences are often associated with cognitive distortions, such as misappraisals about the importance of the event or about the capacity to cope.” Cognitive restructuring gets rid of those distortions. 

Likewise, angry people are prone to overgeneralizations about the meaning of your behavior. They may use either/or thinking, such as, “Either he’s my friend or not. It’s simple!”

Using cognitive restructuring to deconstruct unhelpful thoughts can help both the angry person and the person dealing with an angry person. One restructuring technique I find especially helpful it to scribble down my thoughts to gather evidence on the situation. It helps me organize my jumbled brain and untangle some of my distorted thoughts.  

4. De-escalate anger

One of the best skills an HSP can learn is how to recognize when someone’s anger is escalating and how to de-escalate that anger. According to the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute offers an analogy: view the person’s anger as a representation of Anger Mountain, a simple visual of the route anger takes. I found this concept really helpful, not least because if anger rises like a mountain, it can also descend and reduce. 

And it’s reassuring to note there are many routes to climb down from a mountain as there are different ways to face an angry person. For example, it helps to pay attention to your own body language so that you avoid pouring gasoline on the already smoking fire. Another approach, and the one I find most useful, is asking the angry person to tell you more about how they’re feeling. By using this strategy you’re not adding to the conflict, you’re demonstrating an openness which can have a disarming effect on the person displaying anger. 

5. Know when to walk away

Ryan Martin, sometimes known as “The Anger Professor” author of How to Deal With Angry People, says “Sometimes, maybe even often, choosing not to respond is a viable option.”

Remember that another person’s anger is not your anger. It is not your reaction. You can walk away and not apologize for doing so. It is not your responsibility to solve another person’s anger, or be responsible for the reactions of others. 

We can’t go through life avoiding all conflict, but it’s important to recognize that these experiences might always be difficult for us HSPs, whatever coping strategies we put in place. We might always need more time to decompress following an argument, or we might need extra self care, or we might have to walk away. And that’s OK too. 

I realize I won’t ever be completely comfortable around angry people, but I know that by using these tools, I can minimize the impact on my own wellbeing. 

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