Anger Management: A Comprehensive Approach to Change

Extreme or prolonged anger is a sign that something needs attention, and it provides an opening—a window—to know what’s going on inside of us. When  we over-react with anger, energy and information break through unproductively, and it offers an opportunity to make a change that will have benefits that go far beyond just not getting apoplectic when things don’t seem right to us. This is my goal when working with clients who come in for help with anger issues.

The temptation with anger is to either completely block it, consciously or unconsciously, or completely let it rip, with the idea that it’s justified and getting it off your chest will solve the problem. There is a more satisfying and constructive way to manage anger and I can help you develop it.

There are three main components to better handling your anger:

  1. Learning and practicing practical techniques to stop the immediate reactions.
  2. Understanding where the reactions come from: the interpretations that cause them and the motivations that fuel them.
  3. Understanding where the anger originally wanted to go and finding a better way to use the energy and information that anger provides.

The tendency for some is to try to use just the practical techniques for breaking the immediate response. These techniques in themselves are really only a stopgap and probably won’t solve the problem. I recommend that you not leave it at that. We need to help you understand why you’re reacting as you do, and to help you get to the source of the problem so that you aren’t plagued by the reactions so often in the first place. What it comes down to is that you’ll need to learn to sit with the anger and feel it without reacting to it, understand what caused it and what role it plays for you, and then see if there is anything to be learned from it before you dismiss it.

I’ll explain these in more depth.
1.    Techniques to stop the reactivity.
We’re wired to respond physically. The racing heart, shallow and fast breathing, sweating, and shaking all constitute the “Fight” part of the Flight or Fight response that nature gave us to survive. Because it’s so automatic, you may need to take time to learn how to respond differently.  Your sympathetic nervous system has been running the show impulsively and we need to help you learn to use the parasympathetic nervous system to put on the brakes. Here are some of the techniques that can help you so this:

  • Relaxation techniques.
    • Deep breathing:
      • Breathe deep into your belly rather than shallow breathing into the chest
  • Controlled breathing:
    • In for a count of 3, our for 3, and wait for 3.
  • Systematic muscle relaxation:
    • Tense a specific muscle group such as arms, shoulders, or face, for 5 seconds and then release.
    • Disengage from the physical behaviors that only serve to amp up the anger such as clenching your fist, yelling, or swinging your arms.
    • Prepare in advance a word or phrase to repeat to yourself that you find calming. Such as “I’ll regret it if I get angry.”
    • Measure and label the anger on a 1-10 scale to get some distance from it.
    • In some cases where you can’t use these techniques you may need to use temporary distractions:
      • Focus on something neutral or positive instead.
      • Notice the environment around you.
      • Count backwards from 100 by 7s or simply count to ten.
      • Exercise.
      • Listen to music.
    • Practice going into the fire:
      • Use small annoying episodes as opportunities to practice your techniques before the bigger tests come on.
    • Time out:
      • If you’re in a relationship you may need to take a time out. Tell the other person that you want to work it out and will return to discuss it after 15-30 minutes, or whatever time frame works for you.

Using these techniques interrupts your physiological anger reaction, and the mind usually follows. You’ll need to practice these on your own so that you have the skills ready when you need them. Like learning to throw a baseball or dance a plié in ballet, the more you practice in advance the better you’ll be at using your technique to bring your anger under control when you need to.
2.    Where does it come from?
But just “managing” the anger probably won’t be enough to keep it from bursting out somewhere else when you least expect it, turning it against yourself, or becoming an inspiration for passive-aggressive behavior, getting back at people by not doing what they want you to do. My suggestion is that we figure out why it comes up so frequently or so powerfully.

You’ll need to start by identifying triggers. What are the events that usually lead you to overreact? Create a list, then ask: “How do I interpret these situations?”.  Not everyone would respond to those triggers in the same way. Just as an example: If you interpret what other people do as intended to hurt you, that will make you much more angry than if you realize that they are acting out of their own fear and have no intention of hurting you.

But we’ll also need to go a little deeper and ask “What I am getting out of these reactions?”  I doubt that you misuse anger intentionally, but I am I certain that it’s not random either. Most of us get something out of it that we’re not aware of. It’s probably serving some function and your attempts to simply “manage” it will probably fail if you don’t find out what’s in it for you.

.What function anger plays for you is individual and we’d need to figure that out. But here are some of the usual suspects:

  • It helps you to feel that you are good, strong or right.
  • It helps you to prove that you’ve been treated badly, or that the situation is hopeless, or that people just don’t understand you.
  • It covers over uncomfortable feelings of fear, insecurity, guilt or sadness.

Angry reactions come from our interpretations of situations, and our unconscious motivations to be angry. Both are important to understand if you want to keep anger from being a problem for you.
3.    Where does it want to go?
But there’s still another dimension to the treatment of disruptive anger that I want to add to this which is sometimes left out: we need to see not just where our anger comes from, but also where it wants to go. Where was it trying to lead us before it got off track? Anger isn’t always bad, but it is often badly directed. Your anger should not always be dismissed as neurotic, unreasonable or meaningless. The key is learning to understand what it was originally intended to do before it went off track, and find where to aim it.

Research tells us that two of the most frequent triggers for anger are being delayed or blocked, and being disrespected.

If there is something that is important for you to do or somewhere important for you to go, you’ll need to recommit to that goal and not let anger get in your way. Sometimes anger becomes an excuse not to continue pursuing what we had been committed to.

I’ve also noticed that for many clients it’s been important to recognize that what was being triggered was a profound sense of injustice. It’s ironic, but a lot of the original drive of anger is to make the world a better place, either just safer for the individual, or for everyone else. But without the tools to use anger to make this happen, it gets out of control. The archetypal, instinctual need for justice is hijacked by your personal triggers, infusing it with intense energy, and takes it for a very rough ride. Anger isn’t all bad and we want to help you find a way to use the energy and information rather than having it misuse you. The little things that set you off may actually be about something much bigger that deserves your attention.

We want to help you use anger in a healthy, assertive way by communicating needs and feelings in a way that doesn’t attack the other person, often with “I statements,” which communicate personal needs, rather than “You statements” which attack the other person and cause them to feel defensive.  Sometimes anger needs to be channeled effectively, as Mothers Against Drunk Driving did when they formed MADD. If there is something you’re furious about, use the anger constructively by putting the energy where it belongs. This may be something minor such as telling your partner, “I feel like you make me do all the work,” or something larger such as starting a non-profit organization that fights to ensure justice for the disempowered.

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Comprehensive anger management requires a commitment to take responsibility for the way we respond, a willingness to practice relaxation techniques, and an openness to re-interpret situations and see what secondary gains we may get from angry reactions. This all takes work, but the rewards are far greater than just not getting out of control.