Whenever I tell others that as a therapist I teach anger management, the response is often similar. They usually range from “really, you teach anger management?” to the sarcastic, “yeah, that’s appropriate” followed by some laughter. Once in a while I get a more enlightened response suggesting I look like I used to have an anger management problem. I have to admit, I’m not the stereotypical anger management facilitator. For one, I probably don’t have the look expected. But more importantly, I am a passionate individual. I raise my voice when excited, and have been known to joke about “choking the life” out of some types of drivers. Of course I would never do this, and can’t even remember the last time I gave someone the finger in anger. But haven’t we all had thoughts that we aren’t proud of?
Now when I say I am passionate, I mean in every aspect of my life. I enjoy life completely. I may react emotionally initially, but my reactions have not resulted in any real difficulty in some time. Besides, aren’t we all human? Is it necessarily so bad to react a little? I always tell my clients the goal of therapy is not to make them robots devoid of emotion. But when it comes to anger management, the general public seems to want a Dalai Lama clone to facilitate.
This isn’t to say they aren’t great facilitators. Even I, with my eastern philosophical beliefs, strive for more peace and tranquility. But some people begin life with more tranquil temperaments, or their environment enhances this type of persona. I believe one of my strengths is that clients relate to me as I seem more like a regular guy, with thoughts and reactions similar to theirs.
Moving onto to anger management skills now, there are many techniques that can assist one in managing their anger. I would like to use the rest of the article to discuss helping individuals manage their anger. As with any set of techniques for any behavioral change, it will take practicing the technique to make the change effective. So let’s start with some definitions related to anger.
First, it’s important to understand that anger is a normal emotion, everyone has it, and it can range from irritation to rage. Some of the other related definitions include: Aggression- a behavior intended to cause harm or intimidate, hostility-an attitude which seems to radiate from the individual, and Rage- the loss of control of the anger, usually resulting in behavior leading to remorse.
Anger is considered a problem when it is felt too intensely, too frequently, or expressed inappropriately. Anger can contribute to violence, medical issues as a result of the bodily response (fight or flight syndrome), and damage to relationships. Consequences from anger can be experienced whether the anger is expressed or not.
Anger is usually seen as a problem when it is expressed inappropriately. But even the inappropriate expression of anger has a payoff. One reward is the release of tension. There is generally a sense of release following a blow-up. The angry individual often experiences a sense of relief and even calm. One of the other payoffs of the inappropriate expression of anger is the control of others. Often the exploding individual gets what they want. Others may continue to placate the aggressive individual to avoid conflict or another explosion. This in itself can be very damaging to relationships. Because of the payoffs, inappropriate expression may be reinforced, resulting in the continuation of its use.
People have different anger triggers. A trigger is any event that typically leads to anger. There are three types of triggers that it is helpful to identify. Everyday event triggers include any common event that is irritating or a pet peeve. Examples include driving, traffic, waiting in line, or being put on hold. It is important to identify personal everyday and common triggers.
Another type of trigger is Red Flags (Sensitive areas). Examples of these include being called a name that personally triggers anger, trouble with authority as a result of an authoritarian parent, or anything that personally triggers a sensitive area for the individual. A personal example is when I was young my father used the word punk in the most degrading way. Having heard this term used over and over in a negative fashion led to a very negative association for me. Later, when someone would call me a punk, my anger would instantly rise to rage.
The final type of an anger trigger is Resentment. These triggers are identifiable because one is able to sit alone and get angry about a prior infraction. It differs from a red flag as no one else (or their action) is needed to trigger the anger.
One way to think of anger is in relation to a scale, going from one to ten. One through three could be considered irritation through frustration. Four through six can be considered moderate anger. And seven through 10 could be the range of rage. I usually instruct clients in my anger management workshop to identify what they are experiencing physically, what their thoughts are, and what they are doing behaviorally at three different numbers on the scale. These numbers should be at the low range (irritation to frustration, when they start to feel angry, and what they experience before they move into rage. This provides a starting point for exploration, and assists in identifying the escalation process and identifying where steps can be taken to de-escalate.
Next I discuss de-escalation techniques. One easily used de-escalation technique is a Time out or break from the conflict. I consider there to be two types of breaks: an official break is an agreement with a party frequently in conflict with the person learning to manage their anger (parent, partner, family member). It is agreed between the two that when escalation begins the individual can take a time out to calm down before resolving the issue. The break is not to exceed 24 hours unless absolutely necessary. And when it is necessary, a note should be provided suggesting the appropriate time to hold the discussion (Thich Nhat Hanh). I often encourage the clients in my workshop to attempt to make these arrangements with the person or persons they often get in conflict with.
When an official timeout can not be utilized, an unofficial timeout can be utilized. This is when the escalating party simply leaves the situation to calm down, but will return to the topic when able to discuss it appropriately. Of course I often hear stories of how the escalating individual is prevented from leaving by the other party. This is a difficult situation, and when this is the case a break from the disagreement might not work. But one final suggestion in this regard: it can be discussed with cool heads how a timeout or break can be effective, and arrangements made to be sure the other party understands they will be heard after the individual takes a time out.
Diaphragmic breathing is an effective technique for anger management. Diaphragmic breathing consists of taking three consecutive slow deep breaths from the diaphragm. I always explain that these types of deep breaths differ from the typical manner by which people usually breathe. First, usually when told to take a deep breath, many people breathe too shallow in the lungs. They puff their chest up while breathing deep. The problem lies in that they aren’t completely filling their lungs. When one does this breathing effectively, their stomach (yes it’s less attractive) fills first, then up to the chest. This breathing lowers the pulse and heart rate, and works because the body cannot be simultaneously relaxed and tense.
Another technique that helps de-escalate anger is social support. This is simply discussing with an objective friend the situation to get feedback. This serves for venting and allowing for feedback from a peer that can help ground the escalating individual. One of the most important aspects of this strategy is that the opinion be objective. You don’t want to use a person who will escalate the individual. For example, if you are angry and escalating with your boss, you don’t want a peer who will suggest telling the boss off providing social support.
An anger de-escalation technique that many of my clients feel is effective is thinking of the consequences. When doing this it is important to utilize this technique early in the process. Once anger reaches the mid to high range, the consequences do not seem to matter. The angry individual won’t care about the potential damage to a relationship, looking like a lunatic, or any other reasonable consequence.
Many people underestimate the power of music, or misuse it. When one is angry calming music can be very soothing. But instead, angry folks often put on angry music. Now I’m not suggesting you throw away all of your angry CDs or that you run out and by Enya Cds either. What is being suggested is that you find calming music you like, and play that when you feel your anger rising. I have several CDs that fit into my musical tastes, which help calm me when I’m getting anxious.
A technique with proven effectiveness for calming is chanting. Now I know this seems foreign to many, but bear with me. An article I read many years ago stated that any chanting can be calming. Whether it is counting, saying “Serenity Now” (Seinfeld) or a short prayer over and over, the act of chanting is calming. Of course, you don’t want to use violent phrases like “kill kill kill. I have heard numerous client’s in addiction treatment discuss how they have used the Serenity Prayer to calm them, and how effective they have found it. So in short, it doesn’t have to be some esoteric chant that you can barely pronounce.
One technique that can be attributed to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is mindful walking. In his book “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames,” he suggests walking while concentrating on your steps, the air around you, your breath, the scenery, the feel of your body, and other moment to moment sensations. In any mindful meditation it is important that when your mind wanders, that you eventually bring it back to the moment. Often focusing on your breathing is a way to bring the “monkey mind” (as it resembles swinging from thought to thought) back to the moment. This exercise can be very centering.
The above discussion of meditation brings me to the topic of maintenance exercises that help to reduce anger. The first is regular meditation. Let’s face it; those who meditate regularly are calmer than those who do not. The act of sitting quietly while focusing seems to have a prolonged affect on stabilizing mood.
A final maintenance strategy is regular exercise. Exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins (natural brain chemicals) that improve mood and provide a sense of well-being. Additionally, exercise helps build self confidence and may lead to one being less affected by others.
One of the things I always teach my clients when anger is an issue, whether in an anger management workshop or during individual sessions, is that anger is a secondary emotion. What I mean by this is that there is always another emotion or emotions lying under the anger. These emotions are often either hurt or fear. Let’s first discuss fear. Think of a time you were driving, and someone nearly hit you. You likely became angry or irate. But the emotion that was first is fear. Fear you might be hurt, fear your car would be damaged, fear.
Hurt is a little more complicated of an emotion, predominately because anger is an easier emotion to deal with. Many people, especially those with anger issues, are much more comfortable with the emotion anger. And even looking for how their feelings might have been hurt is difficult. Let me return to a driving example. You are driving, or rather stuck in traffic, and a person forces their way in the line a few cars ahead of you, when they should have been way back at the end of the line. Now there was no physical threat to you or your car’s well-being, so fear is not present. Yet you get angry at the audacity of this person. I propose your feelings are hurt, and that is what lies beneath your anger.
Simply stated, whenever we use should, ought, or must, we are placing our expectations on another. When others fall short of our expectations, we are hurt. Granted, this is not the same hurt as being dumped by your lover, but it is hurt. The greater the hurt, the greater the potential for anger.
The act of thinking about your feelings, and where they are originating, is another way to slow the anger response. If those with an anger issue can get in the habit of stepping back from their thinking and questioning where the anger is coming from, they will likely manage their anger better. This brings me to the final point about anger. When you can step back, look at the underlying feelings and thoughts, you can then challenge their basis in reality. This is called cognitive challenging. Additionally, a technique called reframing can be equally effective and begins in the same way.
Once you are able to step back and think of what is underlying the anger, fear, hurt, unrealistic expectations of others, or other perceptions, you can look at alternative explanations. Maybe it wasn’t personal. Maybe it was an accident. You can look for the benefit in the situation. You can reframe the situation, and make it less emotional.
I realize that these techniques are easy to discuss, but not so simple to apply. The more of these techniques one is able to implement, the more success one will have in managing anger. Probably one of the most important things is to remember that self improvement of any kind is a process, not a destination. We are all human. Managing your anger, and other emotions, isn’t something I would want anyone to do 100% of the time. That would eliminate spontaneity and some genuine responses to life. But if anger is an issue, these techniques can help reduce the severity and frequency of problem responses.