Anger management: Pacifying the fury
Anger is a normal human emotion which everyone experiences. Does it cause problems for you? Anger tends to be problematic when it lasts for too long, is too frequent, too intense, or leads to aggression. Aren't anger and aggression the same thing, you may wonder. Although people commonly think of them as being the same, they aren't. Anger is an emotional reaction to an experience, whilst aggression is one of the (less helpful) ways a person may respond to anger. It is possible to be angry, but to behave in an assertive way (more on this later). Anger, in and of itself, can be a helpful emotion. It can give us the energy and resolve to make positive changes, overcome obstacles and/or communicate to or influence other people.
So, if anger is a helpful emotion, why might we want to learn to manage it? First of all, it is important to understand that anger management does not mean suppressing anger. Rather it is about regulating levels of it so that it helps, rather than hinders, you. Consider how anger affects you and the prices you pay for it. Try to spend some time thinking about, and preferably writing down, the costs and benefits of dealing with anger as you currently do. Is there any way to still obtain the benefits of anger without the costs? Learning to better manage anger can assist you to do this.
Firstly, in learning to manage anger, you need recognise the triggers for your anger. A common trigger for experiencing anger is when something happens that we believe shouldn't have. It can also occur when we feel hurt or lose something important to us (including status or respect), are criticised, insulted or threatened, or do not have things turn out how we wanted. Try to keep a record of those situations in which you become angry and what it was about each of those situations that most affected you.
Next, start to recognise the early warning signs that you are becoming annoyed or irritated. What changes do you notice in yourself? Common physical changes that people notice when include increases in perspiration, heart and breathing rates, aches in the head, stomach, back or other muscles. Common behavioural responses to anger include speaking rapidly or loudly, swearing, arguing, being violent or becoming silent and withdrawing. Try to recognise that anger is not an all-or-nothing experience – you might feel just slightly irritated at times rather than full of rage. Consider creating an “anger thermometer”, writing down how you can tell you are at each point between 0 and 10 (0 = totally calm and 10 = most anger you could ever imagine experiencing). It is easier to manage less intense levels of anger than those that are more intense, and the strategies that are most helpful will differ depending upon your level of anger. For example, if your anger is at 4, a helpful response might be to take a few deep breaths and respond assertively to the situation. However, when you are at 9 on your anger thermometer, the most helpful response is likely to be your taking some time-out, leaving the situation until you feel more calm. When doing the latter, it is important that you try to arrange an alternative time to discuss the problem. Ignoring the problem may not be helpful.
Try to learn to manage the physical components of anger. The physical changes mentioned above, such as increased perspiration, muscle tension and heart and breathing rates, may sound familiar to those of you who have read some of the previous articles on anxiety management. This is because they are all part of the fight or flight response, which is a healthy and normal physiological response to perceptions of danger. We as humans are designed to fight or flee from dangerous situations and the physical changes that occur are designed to assist you to do that. For example, the increased perspiration is designed to assist you to remain cool whilst running away or fighting someone. Another change that occurs as part of the fight or flight response is attention becoming very focused. This occurs as, if you are fighting for your life, other considerations, such as what you'll have for dinner, are not very important. Although the fight or flight response is very helpful when we are in physical danger, often it can be unhelpful when it is our self-esteem that is in danger or hurt. Perspiring doesn't help you feel better about yourself, and focused attention can make it more difficult to see the other person's point of view or possible solutions. Thus, it can be helpful either to try to reverse the fight or flight response by practising slow breathing or using other relaxation strategies, or try to expend the energy in a productive fashion (ie, do some exercise!).
Another important part of learning to manage anger is becoming more aware of your thoughts and evaluating their validity and helpfulness. Firstly, ask yourself whether getting angry at this time is helpful or unhelpful. If it is unhelpful, remind yourself of the costs. Next, if you are still feeling angry, consider whether your anger, and the level of it, is justified. Check for any unhelpful thinking styles, such as catastrophising, mindreading, fortune-telling, making mountains out of molehills, or “should” statements. Regarding the latter, we often tell ourselves (and others!) that things “should” be a particular way. However, who says they “should”? Has it been written into the law? Also, does insisting it be a particular way actually make it that way? Or does it just make you miserable? Try to let go of your “shoulds”, instead thinking in terms of preferences. For example, we may think “people should be nice to each other”. In an ideal world they would. However, this is not an ideal world, and our wishing it is that way will not make it so. We cannot always control the behaviour of other people. A more helpful way of thinking may be “I would like it if people were always nice to each other, however I can't force others to behave how I want them to. Demanding that they be nice will not make it happen, so the most helpful thing for me to do is let it go and think about something else.”
As mentioned above, we don't have to respond to anger with aggression. A more helpful way of harnessing the energy and motivation that anger provides for us is to be assertive. This involves expressing your view calmly to the other person and respecting (and empathising with) his or her point of view. Being assertive can be particularly helpful when you consider your anger to be justified and it is possible for the situation to be changed.
Finally, make sure that you reward yourself when you manage to control your anger. Learning to do this can be difficult and challenging, but is worth the effort.