We all get angry. Sometimes it’s just a little sense of irritation, sometimes we feel full-blown rage. Psychiatry professor and anger management expert Mitch Abrams, PhD at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University puts it this way: “Anger itself is neither good nor bad.” He feels that low to moderate anger can even be beneficial, prompting you to right wrongs and make improvements.
But he points out that when you get angry, your body kicks into overdrive and your natural defenses come into play. This is the old flight or fight response we’ve all heard so much about. Your heart rate goes up, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure rises all in preparation for running away from that bear (as we did in cave days).
Anger is defined as extreme or passionate displeasure. But in reality, it can vary drastically from one person to the next. What I believe is significant is how we behave when angry.
Many people express their anger immediately, not holding anything in check but just letting it all out. The problem with this approach is that they don’t filter what they are feeling or take time to examine it to see if it is realistic or perhaps out-of-proportion to the situation. This often results in serious problems with people who feel attacked or threatened by the outburst. This can lead to everything from badly hurt feelings on the part of a friend or partner, to losing one’s job when bad behavior at the workplace has resulted.
Statistics tell us that most people get angry a couple times a week. Howard Kassinove, PhD, director of Hofstra University’s Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression says he views anger by degrees. There is annoyance, anger, and rage. Being able to control or direct your anger is essential to good mental and physical health.
Dr. Kassinove, who co-wrote “Anger Management for Everyone: Seven Proven Ways to control Anger and Live a Happier Life” says that becoming angry every day is not healthy. If one holds onto anger for too long it is a sign of a problem. People are often still angry at parents or family members who died years ago.
This kind of hanging on can cause people to want to avoid you, to distance themselves form you. Your negative feelings start to permeate everything you do and this leads to unhappiness. People in this situation often don’t recognize how they are behaving or how they come across to others. They usually blame others for their anger…it’s the fault of the driver in front of them or as in the case of a committed relationship it’s the fault of the partner.
Kassinove says, “the first step is understanding that anger is caused by how you interpret an event. No one can force you to be angry. Once you recognize that, you are in charge of your own anger.”
One way to start to change your behavior is to change the internal messages you give yourself in a situation.
Don’t say, “this is awful or terrible” but say “this is unpleasant”.
I suggest to clients in relationships where anger comes into play often that they start by remembering that they cannot control their partner. They can make requests and suggestions and explain how they feel about certain behaviors and treatment, but they cannot force change. They can, however, change their responses to that behavior. If a spouse or partner constantly yells and speaks in a belittling way, you can say that you don’t like it, and that if it continues, you will leave. You can then walk out of a room or a restaurant and wait until the other person calms down. Usually, if you do this a couple times, the person will be so embarrassed by being left alone in the middle of a yelling session that he or she will start to change.
If you are the one feeling the anger, it is good to practice breathing slowly and deliberately when you feel a strong burst of anger coming on. Focusing on your breath will help to deflect the anger. “That can stop your body’s fight or flight reaction that makes anger worse,” Abrams says.
Think about someplace relaxing and peaceful. Picture yourself on a secluded beach, the sun warm on your back and the breeze gentle. Match your breathing to the waves, rushing in, washing out.
Music also is helpful, especially sounds that replicate nature. Abrams say, “know what makes you mad, and plan your reaction. The earlier you intervene in the anger process, the better. The key is to calm yourself down before you explode.”
Remember that we all feel angry. You can’t stop anger, but you can learn to control it.
I often work with couples who come in and tell me they are so upset at something their partner has done they want to scream. What often happens is that they wait until they are together, and having let their anger build up all day or all week, they then end up in a very unproductive discussion that often escalates into one or both people yelling and banging doors. Rather than resolving anything, their so-called communication efforts only turned into a blame session and caused feelings of more anger and defensiveness.
Here’s a better approach:
This is a technique I put together years ago using a tried and true communication technique called the
Two Chairs and adding something of my own.
Find a time when you can be alone for at least a couple hours.
Take two chairs, and place them facing each other at a good distance for talking. Get a bed pillow and place it in one chair, standing upright, the long way. Take a picture of your partner or boyfriend/girlfriend, or spouse, and tape it to the top of the pillow where a face would be if a real person were sitting there.
Then sit down and tell your partner all about your anger. Don’t worry about using good communication techniques, or being kind, just let that anger rip! If you need to cry, or scream, or even punch the pillow, go ahead. Just try and spend at least fifteen minutes to be sure you are really letting all your anger out. If you do this right, you will feel exhausted when you are done.
It is best if you wait to plan a time to actually sit down with your real partner till at least the next day. This gives you a chance to gain a little perspective on whatever made you so angry. You should then be able to have a discussion that is much more productive and interactive without blame and the need to vent since you will already have gotten rid of most of your anger.
Give it a try …I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.