The physiological (body) and psychological (mind) anger response evolved to help people handle physical threats. However in today’s world there are not many places where physical aggression is an appropriate response. Anger is a normal human response to the experience of unfair treatment, injustice, frustration and criticism. However some people get angry without provocation, others react excessively to minor adversity, and others experience inappropriately intense or prolonged anger to legitimate triggers. Individuals who cannot get a grip on their anger risk serious social problems, including loss of employment, loss of family, and even incarceration. Excessively angry people also risk serious health problems and premature death.
Heart Disease, Heart Attack and Stroke
A study at Harvard found that the angriest men are three times more likely to develop heart disease than the most placid men. Another Harvard study found that intense anger more than doubles the risk of heart attack within the next two hours. Similarly, a study in Israel found that an experience of intense anger was linked to a 14-fold increase in the risk of stroke within the next two hours. Many other studies confirm that excessively angry people risk serious bodily harm to themselves.
Like other forms of stress, anger triggers a surge in adrenaline, the stress hormone that boosts the blood pressure and pulse rate, increasing the heart’s workload and multiplying its need for oxygen. Adrenaline can also provoke abnormal heart rhythms, including potentially lethal ventricular arrhythmias. In addition, the hormone activates platelets, the tiny blood cells that trigger blood clots that can block arteries narrowed by the cholesterol-laden plaques of atherosclerosis. High levels of anger can even provoke spasm in a coronary artery, which results in the additional narrowing of a partially blocked blood vessel.
A Measure of Anger
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory anger scale evaluates long-term tendency toward hostility. Answer true or false to each of these questions:
- At times I feel like swearing.
- At times I feel like smashing things.
- Often I can’t understand why I’ve been so irritable and grouchy.
- At times I feel like picking a fistfight with someone.
- I easily become impatient with people.
- I am often said to be hot-headed.
- I am often so annoyed when someone tries to get ahead of me in a line of people that I speak to the person about it.
- I have at times had to be rough with people who were rude or annoying.
- I am often sorry because I am so irritable and grouchy.
- It makes me angry to have people hurry me.
- I am very stubborn.
- Sometimes I get so angry and upset, I don’t know what comes over me.
- I have gotten angry and broken furniture or dishes when I was drinking.
- I have become so angry with someone that I have felt as if I would explode.
- I’ve been so angry at times that I’ve hurt someone in a physical fight.
- I almost never lose self-control.
For questions 1–15, each “true” scores 1 point; for question 16 “false” scores 1 point. The higher your total, the higher your anger level.
The Psychological Process
When we get angry a subtle chain of observable events occurs. We may think that sometimes we just ‘snap’, but that is not the case. The chain includes an external trigger (something happening), our interpretation of that trigger, the thoughts or mental statements that we make to ourselves, and our increased level of physical arousal. Anger management is largely about recognizing and altering this chain of events.
This involves the following stages:
1. Recognize the external triggers that are likely to increase your anger. For example, hunger, tiredness, being in traffic, being in a crowd, being ignored, etc. What is it about these situations that you find so upsetting?
2. Ask yourself what thoughts or self-statements you make to yourself in those situations. We all ‘talk’ to ourselves consciously or unconsciously. This process starts in childhood where children initially talk out loud about what they are going to do. Between the ages of four and six years this self-instruction tends to become covert or internal. Find out what you are saying to yourself and then attempt to alter those statements. Work out a list of helpful self-statements such as:
- This is going to be upsetting but I can deal with it.
- If I find myself getting upset I know what to do.
- Stay calm, continue to relax – take a few deep breaths.
- Don’t take it personally.
- I’m not going to let this person get to me.
- This is a challenge – relax those muscles.
- Congratulations – you handled that well.
3. Recognize the physical signs of tension in your body, e.g. clenched fists, tightening biceps, rapid shallow breathing, accelerated heart rate. Then try to relax. Practice muscle relaxation exercises and slow controlled breathing. Say to yourself a soothing word such as CALM or imagine a peaceful scene, or try something that distracts you such as counting backwards.
4. Manage your background stress levels. Anger is usually a symptom of being over-stressed and feeling unable to cope. If you are feeling very stressed, look at ways of changing your lifestyle. Talk about your worries.
5. Express and explore your feelings. Aim to improve your assertiveness skills. Increase your level of physical activity.
Following is detailed information on anger management from an article by Harry Mills, Ph.D.
Edited version of an article by Harry Mills, Ph.D.
Most people decide to make changes in the way they deal with anger only after experiencing serious personal, social or occupational consequences of their anger. Deciding to learn control of your anger represents a big change in how you will live your life and it is an ongoing task. It will require you to rethink your automatic responses toward people and take more responsibility for your thoughts and actions than you may have in the past, which requires discipline and a plan.
Stages of Change
People go through predictable stages when working through life-changes.
Awareness. Awareness begins as the angry person seeks information about anger management; what anger is, how anger affects health and relationships, and how anger can be controlled. It involves no commitment to change.
Preparation. This stage begins with your decision to actually make a change in the way you express anger. Preparation involves self-study and planning. It may be useful for you to keep an anger management journal where you keep a record of the things that make you angry, how you react when you are angry, and the consequences of your reactions. Your anger journal will help you identify and become aware of your anger triggers and may help give you some insight into how proportional your angry outbursts are to the various situations that provoke them (more on this later). The more you learn about your personal anger triggers, the better your chances of success in changing how you express anger.
Action. Now you start making real changes. You may decide to take a professional anger management course or to purchase workbooks, tapes, or videos. You may also design a personal program for anger management. Any of these approaches might help you to develop greater control over your anger. However, none of them will work if you do not apply yourself to them with dedication and persistence.
Maintaining Gains. Maintenance of change never ends. During this stage, you learn to accept that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes and act inappropriately, and that you can recover from lapses in your behaviour when they do occur. Achieving sustained behaviour change is a project. It may take multiple attempts and multiple failures before you will achieve this goal. Each time you do lapse into old behaviour, you can use the tools and strategies you have learned along the way to help you pick yourself up and recover.
It is particularly difficult for many people with anger problems to work up the motivation to seriously want to work an anger management program. Because anger has a seductive, self-justifying quality to it, people are not typically drawn to anger management on their own. Many times, people need to suffer serious negative consequences of their anger before they realize that they need help in controlling their outbursts. Even then, motivation for continuing an anger management program can wax and wane. It is fairly common for angry people to stop attending an anger management program before finishing it, or for people to never actually apply or use the techniques they learn in their program. People often need to repeat anger programs a number of times before they truly understand the message and incorporate the training into their own lives.
Recognizing Anger Signs
Before you learn the techniques to manage your emotions, you first need to recognize your anger. You need to answer questions like:
- “How do I know when I am angry?”
- “What events/people/places/things make me angry?”
- “How do I react when I’m angry?”
- “How does my angry reaction affect others?”
Answering these questions takes a while. It is likely you can rattle off several things that make you angry. You might even be able to identify several signs that you exhibit when you are angry (e.g. clenched fists, etc.). These quick answers are only the beginning, the low hanging fruit. You will want to continually ask yourself these questions for a period of time before you can be satisfied that you are fully knowledgeable about your personal anger.
Some angry people see their emotions as a black or white state — they are either raging mad or they are calm. In reality, anger is not black and white, but rather quite gray. Anger occurs on a continuum between rage and calm where most of the time people experience some gradation of anger between these two extremes.
People who tend to see anger in terms of extremes sometimes have difficulty recognizing when they are experiencing intermediate anger states. Most people experience physical, emotional and behavioural cues that they can use to know when they are becoming upset.
- Clenching jaws or grinding teeth
- Stomach ache
- Increased and rapid heart rate
- Sweating, especially palms
- Feeling hot in the neck/face
- Shaking or trembling
- Want to get away from the situation
- Sad or depressed
- Feel like striking out verbally or physically
- Rubbing your head
- Cupping your fist with your other hand
- Getting sarcastic
- Losing your sense of humour
- Acting in an abusive or abrasive manner
- Craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
- Raising your voice
- Beginning to yell, scream, or cry
Another way you can learn how your anger manifests is to measure your anger. Picture a thermometer that measures the amount of anger you are feeling. Imagine that when you are slightly irritated or frustrated, the mercury begins to rise out of the bulb of the thermometer. When you feel the anger building but are still able to control it, the mercury rises about halfway up the thermometer. When you get really upset and your anger is boiling, imagine the mercury rising to the top of the thermometer. Rate your anger on that thermometer from 0 to 100 where zero means you are completely calm, and 100 means you are in a complete rage.
Use your anger thermometer to practice making anger ratings. Start by thinking back on recent past situations in which you were angry, and then use the anger thermometer to rate how angry you were during each situation.
The goal in rating your anger is to recognize that anger operates on a continuum; that it moves smoothly up and down between calmness on the one hand and rage on the other. People with anger problems sometimes don’t get the continuum nature of anger because they experience their anger as an either/or thing; things seem to be either “fine” or “furious”. Even though anger appears to be an ‘on’ or ‘off’ sort of thing for these people, this is generally because they are only counting the times when they are the most angry as episodes of anger; everything else is lumped into the ‘fine’ category. With sufficient practice, these people can distinguish ever finer shades of anger and calmness.
Anger ratings are important because they provide feedback about how likely you are to lose control or explode at any given moment. By training yourself to recognize when you are getting increasingly angry but are not yet out of control, you improve your chances of being able to maintain control by taking steps to reverse the upward trend of your anger.
Anger Management Plan
To defuse your anger before it gets out of control, you’ll need a plan listing activities you can do to calm down.
Examples of a Plan
- Take a ‘time-out’ when you start getting upset — temporarily remove yourself from the situation that is provoking you to get space in which to calm down.
- Move the conversation away from the upsetting topic toward a more neutral topic.
There are many ways to defuse an angry situation once you start thinking about it. The best of them help you stay calm without damaging your pride. As each person has unique strengths and weaknesses, each person’s list of strategies for defusing anger will be slightly different.
Being able to predict situations that provoke you is a tremendous aid to controlling your temper. You can choose to avoid provoking situations entirely, or, if that is not possible, you can prepare to cope in ways that minimize the risk of you losing control prior to entering your dangerous situations.
An anger diary or journal can be a useful tool to track your experiences with anger. Make daily entries into your diary that document the situations you encounter that provoked you. This is the type of information to record for each provoking event:
- What happened that gave you pain or made you feel stressed?
- What was provocative about the situation?
- What thoughts were going through your mind?
- On a scale of 0-100 how angry did you feel? (Rage Rating)
- What was the effect of your behaviour on you, on others?
- Were you already nervous, tense, and pressured about something else? If so, what?
- How did your body respond? Did you notice your heart racing, your palms sweating?
- Did your head hurt?
- Did you want to flee from the pressure or perhaps throw something?
- Did you feel like screaming or did you notice that you were slamming doors or becoming sarcastic?
- What did you actually do?
- How did you feel immediately after the episode?
- Did you feel differently later in the day or the next day?
- What were the consequences of the incident?
After recording this information for a week or so, review your diary and look for reoccurring themes or “triggers” that make you angry. Triggers often fall into one of several categories, including:
- Other people doing or not doing what you expect them to do
- Events that get in your way, e.g. traffic jams, computer problems, ringing telephones
- People taking advantage of you
- Being angry and disappointed in yourself
- A combination of any of the above
Look for anger-triggering thoughts that reoccur again and again. You can recognize these particular thoughts because they will generally involve one or more of the following themes:
- The perception that you have been victimized or harmed.
- The belief that the person who provoked you meant you deliberately harm.
- The belief that the OTHER person was wrong, that they should have behaved differently, that they were evil or stupid to harm you.
Use your anger diary to identify instances when you felt harm was done to you, why you thought the act was done deliberately, and why you thought it was wrong. Tracking your thought patterns will help you begin to see the common themes in your experiences. Here are examples of trigger thoughts to get you started:
- People do not pay enough attention to your needs; they do not care about you
- People demand/expect too much of you
- People are rude or inconsiderate
- People take advantage or use you
- People are selfish; they think only of themselves
- People criticize, shame, or disrespect you
- People are cruel or mean
- People are incompetent or stupid
- People are thoughtless and irresponsible
- People do not help you
- People are lazy and refuse to do their share
- People try to control or manipulate you
- People cause you to have to wait
And here is a list of situations where these themes are likely to occur:
- When stating a difference of opinion
- While receiving and expressing negative feelings
- While dealing with someone who refuses to cooperate
- While speaking about something that annoys you
- While protesting a rip-off
- When saying “No”
- While responding to undeserved criticism
- When asking for cooperation
- While proposing an idea
At the base of all trigger thoughts is the notion that people are not behaving properly and that you have every right to be angry with them. Most people find a few thoughts that frequently trigger their anger. Look for instances of situations that trigger your anger and see if you can identify the particular set of triggering thoughts that really do it for you.
The purpose of your diary is to help you identify patterns of behaviour and specific recurring elements that really “push your buttons.” The more accurately you observe your feelings and behaviours and the more detailed your anger diary, the more likely you are to identify anger triggers and how you react to them. Understanding the ways in which you experience anger can help you plan strategies to cope with your emotions in more productive ways.
Once you have identified some of your triggers and understand some of your trigger themes, you can work more constructively to control your response to those triggers. Anger-triggering thoughts occur automatically and almost instantaneously, so it will take some work to identify them and substitute something more helpful.
For example, imagine you have just been cut off while driving on the freeway. Take notice of the physiological anger signs that tell you you’re upset. Take a deep breath, and try to look at the situation rationally instead of going with your first impulse to attack. Instead of automatically assuming the driver that cut you off did it deliberately (which might be your first thought), consider the possibility that the person did not see you. If you can consider that the provoking action was not aimed at you personally or was a mistake, it will be easier to tolerate.
When you feel justified in your anger, you are giving yourself permission to feel angry, whether or not it makes sense for you to feel that way. The faster you stop justifying your anger, the sooner it will recede.
These techniques will not produce results if you only use them casually — you must use and practice them before they have any chance of positively affecting your life.
Controlled Deep Breathing and Muscle Relaxation
Set aside at least 15 minutes in which to do this exercise. Less time than this will not likely be beneficial.
Take several slow and deep breaths in a row, each time taking care to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Count slowly to four as you breathe in, and then breathe out slowly as you count to eight. As you do this, notice where the air in your lungs is going. Open your lungs and breath deeply across the lung’s full range. Your breath should enter your belly first, then your chest, and finally your upper chest just below your shoulders. Feel your ribs expand as your lungs expand. Pay attention to how your ribs return to their original location as you exhale completely. Continue this breathing pattern for several minutes, returning immediately to normal breathing if you feel odd or out of breath.
Slowly and GENTLY roll your head toward one shoulder and then toward the other. Coordinate your head role with your breathing. Roll your head gently to one side as you exhale, back to the center as you inhale and to the other side as you exhale again. Carefully repeat this technique several times until you feel the muscles in your neck relax a little.
You can work out shoulder tension by carefully shrugging your shoulders and releasing them several times. Shoulder rolls backward and forward can also help. Using these techniques together will help you to relax.
As your face, neck, and shoulders become more relaxed, see if you can identify tension in other parts of your body (your anger diary can help you identify areas to focus on). If relaxation techniques alone don’t work, try the opposite – tighten and tense the stressed muscles for a slow count of ten and then release them. Be sure to release your tightened muscles immediately if you feel any pain! Move from one muscle group to the next until you have treated each section of your body to a cycle of tension and release. With practice, you can work your way down your entire body in a few minutes. Tensing and then relaxing muscles can sometimes achieve a better quality relaxation than relaxation alone.
You should give yourself 20 to 30 minutes to calm down. Keep your breathing very deep and very regular during this time. Tell yourself that you are calming yourself down and soon you will be feeling much calmer.
You have a much better chance of controlling your anger if you do not focus on your hurt and/or angry feelings but instead focus on understanding the situation. Ask yourself what the anger is telling you and what you can learn from it. What about this particular situation is making you angry? How can you improve the situation and improve your anger at the same time? Then, use your relaxation techniques to reduce your arousal.
Most situations are flexible enough for you to take time to compose yourself, calm down and really think about the situation before you act. You might even take time to talk a troubling situation over with trusted advisers. The more you can approach a troubling situation in a prepared and relaxed manner, the greater your chances of getting what you want from that situation.
When an accused criminal goes to trial there is an assumption that he or she is innocent until proven guilty. Angry people do not make this assumption and presume that people they are upset with are simply guilty. Angry people blame others (or themselves) for things that went wrong. They presume that the target of their anger caused things to go wrong. But this is not always the case! Sometimes the target is an innocent bystander who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To better manage anger, it is important to slow down, not act on the first aggressive impulse, and do reality testing.
Give up the assumption that your first impression of a situation is always accurate. It is hard to know the objective truth of situations. Reality is often more complex than our senses are capable of appreciating.
To illustrate, for thousands of years educated and intelligent people thought the world was flat. They believed that if you sailed too far from land you could fall over the edge of the world and be destroyed. The world still looks quite flat today but we know it is round because we’ve sailed around it and returned to our starting place and we’ve been into space and looked down on it from above. Our senses deceived us and we only knew the truth of the situation after further investigation.
Similarly, angry people need to stop and gather more evidence before passing judgment if they want to manage their anger better.
Feedback from Others
Your partners, friends and trusted associates can often recognize when you are getting angry better than you can, so it is a good idea to include them in your anger plan, if possible. Agree on a signal that friends can give you when they see you start sliding into old aggressive patterns. Once you receive the signal, you will know you need to change your behaviour to avoid escalating your anger. You may want to take a time-out or agree to postpone your argument until you can speak about it more calmly and rationally.
Black and White Thinking
Recognizing complexity is difficult for angry people in the habit of seeing the world in “Black” or “White” terms. Many angry people insist that things must “always” be a certain way, or that people should “never” behave in a particular way. They may concentrate on the negative sides of things instead of acknowledging the positive aspects that may also be present. They may rapidly jump to conclusions without bothering to verify whether or not their understanding is correct. These black and white thought habits need to be broken down so that shades of grey are recognized in order for there to be lasting progress in anger management.
Talking About It
One of the best ways to reality test is to talk with other people who witnessed the angering event. What do they think happened? How do they think the problem was caused? If you believe that a particular person has damaged you, for example, and other people strongly tend to see the situation the same way you do, then you are more justified in feeling angry at that person than you would be if other people saw the situation very differently to you. Other people’s input can help you appreciate more of the complexity of the situation than you can know on your own.
The Benefit Of The Doubt
A quick reality testing method is the venerable “Count to 10 before you act” rule, otherwise known as giving the target of your anger the benefit of the doubt. As your angry reaction rises to meet a situation, put the breaks on it for a while. Do what you can to calm yourself. Then look for alternative explanations that might account for the situation you’re upset about. Take for example a situation where someone is driving slowly in front of you on the freeway, blocking you from getting where you need to go in an efficient manner. Your first impulse might be to scream at the slow driver for being incompetent. By counting to 10 before you scream, you give yourself time to consider alternative possibilities that might account for the situation. Perhaps the slow driver has faulty breaks or some other mechanical problem with his car and needs to drive slowly so as to maintain control while on his way to the repair shop. Perhaps the slow driver has had several tickets recently and is driving at exactly the speed limit so as to avoid losing his license. If either of these alternative explanations turn out to be true, it would be harder to stay angry at the slow driver, even though it would still be frustrating to be stuck behind him.
Believable Reasons for Staying Cool
Even if you are justified in feeling angry about a situation, it is not okay to simply attack the target of your anger. There are too many ways in which you can and will be punished for inappropriate and unrestrained aggression. In today’s world violent outbursts and threats are not well tolerated. If you physically attack someone there is a good chance that you will be arrested. If you attack your boss, a co-worker or a customer, there is a good chance you will lose your job. If you attack your child, you may well find that child removed from your custody. Even if you don’t lose custody, you will have taught your child that it is acceptable to behave violently toward children (it is not). If you attack friends and family, you seriously reduce the chances that they will want to help you in the future when you might need their support.
It is a good idea to develop a list of personal reasons why you want to stay calm and cool in certain situations, and to read over these reasons frequently so that they stay fixed and clear in your mind. The reasons you generate should be informed by the realistic consequences that might befall you should you allow yourself to get out of control. The following example reasons might help you get started:
- I need to stay calm so I will not lose my job.
- I need to stay calm so my children can learn that it is not good to act violently.
- I need to stay cool so I do not end up in hospital or jail.
- I need to stay calm so my spouse will not divorce me.
- I need to stay calm so I will not break things or knock holes in the wall, either of which will take money and time to repair
- I need to stay calm so I will not alienate a close friend.
Angry people tend to have distinct communication postures that they habitually take up when communicating with others. Psychologists have described four of these communication postures, each possessing its own motto:
- The Aggressive communication posture says: “I count but you don’t count.”
- The Passive communication posture says: “I don’t count.”
- The Passive-Aggressive communication posture says: “I count. You don’t count but I’m not going to tell you about it.”
- The Assertive communication posture says: “I count and you do too.”
Angry people use the Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive postures often. However Aggressive communicators are more likely to start an argument than they are to get the results they want. Being passive in your communication is also a mistake, as it communicates weakness and tends to invite further aggression. The Assertive communication posture is the most useful and balanced of all the postures as it is the only posture that communicates respect for all parties. Communicating assertively is the most likely way to ensure that everyone involved gets their needs taken care of. Learning how to become assertive rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive is an important step in discovering how to communicate appropriately with others.
Habitually aggressive people tend to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be assertive. They confuse assertiveness with aggression and think they are acting assertively when in fact they are aggressive. Both aggressive and assertive communications postures can involve fierce and persuasive communication but they are fundamentally different. Aggressive communication tends to go on the offense – it attacks and berates the other – while assertive communication uses anger and fierceness only in defense. Assertive people stand up for themselves and their rights and do not take crap from others. However they manage to do this without crossing the line into aggressiveness; they do not attack the person they are communicating with unnecessarily. Assertiveness is “anger in self-defense” whereas aggressiveness is “anger because I feel like it”.
People who have difficulty being assertive often also have difficulty making requests. Angry people can be particularly bad at making effective requests. As they feel entitled to being treated in a particular way, they may never make requests in the first place, instead assuming (falsely) that others around them should know what to do and how and when to do it. When angry people do make requests, they may make them in the form of demands, which provoke angry feelings in others and are not likely to be happily carried out.
An effective request should have the following qualities:
Clarity. A well formed request should state clearly what it is that you want. Requests that lack clarity are difficult to meet and can provoke stress, frustration, and anger. This is especially true when requests are interpreted as demands. An effective request needs to be stated explicitly, and must provide clear answers to three questions:
- Who? – To whom is the request being made?
- What? – What must be done to fulfill the request?
- When? – When should it be done?
Respectfulness. A well formed request should be respectful. The reason for this is simple: If people feel respected, they are more likely to want to comply, and you are more likely to get what you want. Respectful requests begin with phrases such as:
- “Would you be so kind as to…”
- “If it is not too much trouble, could you…”
- “I would very much appreciate it if you would …”
Emotional Transparency. Consider the following angry request:
“You insensitive bastard! You stupid forgetful idiot! What’s wrong with you?! Why did you forget the milk I asked for?!” How does it feel to read that request? You likely feel a little defensive while reading that request, which is less a request and more of an accusation or demand. Such an angry, judgmental request is unlikely to get a sympathetic audience.
The example request above fails in part because it lacks in emotional transparency. To be emotionally transparent is to be willing to share real feelings. The speaker in the example request doesn’t share feelings at all – he or she simply makes accusations. If we try to put ourselves into the speaker’s state of mind, however, we can guess at what his or her real feelings are. The speaker likely feels neglected or forgotten, and hurt.
Requests that are emotionally transparent – that share with the listener the true reasons for the request – are more likely to motivate the listener to act than accusatory requests. Consider this variation on the example request, rephrased so that it is more emotionally transparent.
“I feel like you don’t care about me when you forget to purchase the milk. Please remember me next time!” Making the fact that your feelings have been hurt clear in your request does two good things. First, it makes your motivation for making your request clear, and second, it doesn’t put your listener on the defensive. Requests that are emotionally transparent, clear, and respectful in tone are most likely to be taken to heart.
An Assertive Request Formula
Crafting clear, respectful and transparent requests doesn’t have to be difficult. Try filling in this simple formula to get started:
“I feel ……. when you ……….. because ……………………”
Only discuss how you feel about yourself when filling in the “I feel” part of the formula. If you say “I feel that you are a jerk!” the formula won’t work, because you have created an aggressive and attacking statement that is not at all transparent, and which says nothing explicit about what you are feeling. If you instead talk about how you feel about yourself, you’ll get better results because you won’t be on the attack. For example:
“I feel like you don’t care about me when you don’t call to let me know that you are going to be late because I end up worried and upset and I feel abandoned.”
Putting The Techniques Together
Individual techniques can be practised by themselves or groups of them can be combined to work multiple angles at once.
When facing a situation that provokes anger, learn to stop and reflect before responding. Follow these steps:
Immediately stop how you are thinking and acting at the first sign you are getting angry. If imagery helps you, imagine a big red stop sign.
Practice deep breathing and/or repeat a relaxation cue (e.g. repeat the word calm or cool ) to yourself if you have the opportunity.
Reflect and try to identify the emotional trigger that has set you off. Ask yourself:
- What thoughts are going through my head?
- How am I feeling?
- What is my body doing?
- Am I responding to a real problem or to an incomplete first impression?
- What do I want from the situation I’m faced with? (If your answer is “revenge”, then ask yourself if the situation is really worth getting worked up about)
- What would the likely consequences be if I act in an aggressive, angry way?
- In what ways could I respond to this situation to help resolve it rather than make it worse?
Choose how you want to respond. Work to come up with an assertive response rather than an aggressive one.
Then (and only then) … Respond
Often, in the heat of an angering situation, you can feel that things are happening too fast and that you don’t have time to follow these anger management steps. This perception of pressure may itself be an illusion, supported by the intense arousal you feel as a result of your anger. You may not really have to respond quickly. You may have more time to respond than you realize.
If you find yourself getting too hot you may be able to excuse yourself for a short ‘time out’ during which you go through the anger management steps outlined above. Disengage with a polite statement, such as “I’m upset now. I’ll return in a few minutes and talk with you about what happened.” Time out sessions are wonderful ways of interrupting your anger process. When you return to the situation you’ll be refreshed and better able to approach it with a new mind and an assertive rather than aggressive approach.
If you can’t take a break while under pressure, try these steps:
Make intermittent eye contact with the person you’re confronting. Don’t stare, however. Staring is often perceived as aggressive. An intermediate amount of eye contact will suggest your courage and willingness to stand up for yourself.
Use “I” statements to express your feelings or make a request. The goal is to let the other person know where you stand – not to beat them up or belittle them.
Listen. When you’re listening to what someone else has to say, listen actively. Don’t “yes, but” them. When you “yes, but” someone, you turn the spotlight away from the person you are responding to and back onto yourself.
State your needs and your common goals with the person. This can be difficult when feeling angry and defensive, but it is vital for creating an empathetic mood.
Assess whether or not you’ve been heard. Did the person you’re confronting hear and understand what you were saying? If so, continue your conversation. If he or she is too angry to understand what you were saying, try restating yourself in a different way. Keep in mind that the person you are talking to may also have a problem controlling their anger, and may not be able to use the same control techniques you are using. If it seems that communication is impossible, disengage until another time.
Refuse to be pushed into a premature reaction. If you need more time, buy that time by stalling. If your choice is to either lose control, or leave the situation, then choose to leave the situation. It is better to remain in control.
Practice Makes Perfect
Though you will get plenty of opportunities to practice your anger management techniques in ‘real’ life, you can also practice them through role playing exercises to simulate your anger triggers.
Role playing can be done alone or with a partner (or partners). Make a list of the triggers that set you off and come up with various situations in which you might be faced with those triggers.
If you work alone, stand in front of a mirror and take on the role of yourself talking with someone who has angered you. Standing in front of the mirror allows you to observe your face and body language as you speak. Now, try to really get into the role. Imagine the person you are speaking with in detail, including how that person acts towards you as you say different things to him or her. Say the things you want to say out loud to that imagined person as though he or she is really there. Work your anger management techniques into your imagined interaction so that you get a chance to practice them. You might feel self-conscious doing this at first, but if you get past this initial feeling, you may find the exercise helpful and absorbing.
If you have access to a partner (a friend or a therapist) who can play the role of someone you’re upset with, so much the better. It is easier to get into the role when you have a real person to direct your emotions toward. Explain the scene that pushes your buttons to your partner and then act that scene out between the two of you. Practice your anger management techniques while interacting with your partner. Try to stay in character and maintain control for as long as you can.
Anger Management Programs
Depending on your needs, you may choose to work with a counsellor or counselling group to get control of your anger, or you may be able to do the work on your own using one of the self-study resources available.
Caution. Research shows that it is hard to change habitual behaviour and that it is easier to make sustained real changes in behaviour if you have a good support group. For this reason, if you are really serious about changing the way you handle anger, you are likely to be better off participating in a formal anger management program than taking the self study approach. A formal program provides structure to guide your change process, helps motivate you to continue working when you might otherwise want to quit, and it helps you recognize and be proud of the progress you make.
Following is a brief overview of the types of anger management programs and resources available.
Individual and Group Therapy for Anger Management
For some people, the easiest way to change how they handle anger is to work with a psychologist or other mental health professional in an individual or group therapy setting. A therapist, who can observe and analyze your behaviour from an impartial perspective, can help you with your reality testing. If you participate in an anger management group, the other group members can help you do this too. An anger management therapist will also be expert in all manner of effective anger management strategies, and will be able to help you develop a personalized set of strategies for changing both your thinking and behaviour that will work best for you.
If you go the therapy route, make sure that you select the right kind of therapist! There are multiple schools of therapy out there. Therapists who subscribe to dynamic, psychodynamic, humanistic, or psychospiritual schools of thought may lead clients to get more in touch with their feelings. While this approach is helpful for some emotionally over-controlled people, it is not helpful for people whose main difficulty revolves around not being able to control their emotions (e.g. angry clients)! Instead of exploring your feelings, you want to be learning to control them. A cognitive-behavioural therapist will generally be in the best position to help you do this.
Additionally, the therapist will ideally have been trained in anger management techniques and therapies and/or have specialized their practice for anger management problems.
A typical course of therapy for anger management unfolds more like a class than a traditional therapy session. Participants are helped to become conscious of their emotional, cognitive and physical responses to anger and the different ways they respond to conflict. Depending on your needs, your therapist may work with you on breathing or meditation exercises to reduce anger arousal, safe and appropriate emotional and physical techniques to release anger, communication skills, or ‘cognitive restructuring’ (a method for disputing and changing the thoughts that shape your emotions).
Therapy can take several months to have an effect. On average progress may be visible after 8 or 10 sessions. How much progress you make will in part be determined by how dedicated you are to the process: how regularly you attend, how much you take the lessons to heart, and how often you practice your homework.
Anger Management Classes
Anger management classes may be available through your employer, or through a variety of organizations serving your community. Anger management classes vary in length and quality. While some stretch across multiple weeks and begin to approximate the therapy approach described above, others span a single weekend only. It is better to select a longer class than a shorter one if you have a choice, as longer classes will provide you with more sustained support for your change process. Regardless of their length, anger management classes will often assign you homework projects to complete, and will use quizzes to track your progress through the course.
Think carefully about your specific needs when choosing to participate in an anger management class. Do you need help dealing with your anger in general, or would you benefit more from a class geared toward couples? If most of your issues occur in the workplace, would a seminar about anger management in the workplace be more helpful? Perhaps you have been asked by your employer or mandated by the courts to attend classes. In either of these cases, you will need to make sure you select an approved class that will keep track of your progress and provide you with formal proof of your participation and completion.
You can learn to deal with your anger issues on your own in a number of different ways. Video and audio recordings and online classes allow you to complete programs in your spare time and work at your own speed. Some of these programs offer email or phone support, and online message boards or chat groups.
If you are looking for a more specialized approach to anger management, such as strategies specifically tailored for women or for corporate executives, your local library or book store might be your best resource. There are a great number of books available today that address anger and anger management from a variety of perspectives. Perhaps the best way to learn about and understand your problems with anger may be to do some more research.
Go with the Program
Whether you choose to pursue your anger management program in private (not recommended) or work in the context of a class or program, there will come a day when your planning and preparations are over and you must get started actually changing your anger behaviour. Since pursuing an anger management program is work, it will take commitment to follow it through to the point where you see positive results. You will not benefit from any anger management program if you do not follow the program systematically regardless of the obstacles that will inevitably challenge you along the way.
Advantages of a professionally led program. You will dramatically improve your chances of progress with anger management if you get yourself into a professionally designed and led anger management program. Professionally designed and led anger management programs shield you from having to think about how to design your own program and let you instead focus on the hard work of changing your behaviour. They also provide you with group support from peers and from the program leader which can help you sustain the motivation to continue when the going gets rough. Support can be technical (suggesting effective new ways to manage anger) or emotional (recognizing how difficult it can be to change). You can receive support yourself, and give it to others as well when you are in a group program. Sometimes helping someone else to succeed can provide you with the motivation you need to succeed yourself.
If you can’t locate a program or know that you’re just not a joiner and won’t do well in a formal program, you should still do as much as you can to surround yourself with an already-laid out program structure to follow, and one or more people who can help support you in your efforts. Simply put, having social support and structure for your anger management efforts helps you to succeed.
The Internet offers many opportunities for anger management support. Online communities offer chat and bulletin board forums that allow people working on anger issues to share tips with one another anonymously. If you decide to use these sorts of online support systems, keep in mind that online communities are not always polite places and discussions can become provocative or even anger-provoking.
Recommended Anger Management Reading
The following books and workbooks are recommended for learning more about anger management and related concepts.
McKay, Matthew, Ph.D. & Rogers, Peter, Ph.D. (2000). The Anger Control Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Semmelroth, Carl, Ph.D. & Smith, Donald E.P., Ph.D. (2000). The Anger Habit. Writer’s Showcase Press.
Semmelroth, Carol, Ph.D. (2002). The Anger Habit Workbook. Writer’s Showcase Press.