Well, spring is finally arriving here in Michigan which is good news and a definite mood booster. However, this time of year also brings certain stressors such as spring cleaning, yard work, graduation parties, weddings and .......ugh-taxes. As I wrote my check to Uncle Sam this week I felt irritable and angry, so I thought, “Hmm, time for an article on managing anger.”
There are many steps for managing anger and not all of them will be reported here. To begin the process, the following are important: understanding and recognizing anger, identifying and preparing for anger triggers, pinpointing anger early on and decreasing the reaction, and identifying and changing thoughts that fuel anger. To recognize anger, it is helpful to know the various ways anger can be expressed. Before I review the forms of anger, it is important to note that we often express anger in many ways depending on the situation. For example, we may tend to be sarcastic and passive aggressive with our partner while we withdraw from our co-workers. In addition, a common theory in psychology is that anger can mask other emotions such as anxiety or fear (I will reject you before I lose you), loss and depression (I would rather be mad than sad), humiliation (I feel attacked-I will show you!), guilt (I can’t admit I am wrong, so I will be nasty instead) and feelings of failure (If I put you down, I can feel better about myself).
Generally, there are five ways to express anger. Individuals who are passive-aggressive may withhold praise, attention or affection. They may “forget” to follow through on commitments or engage in actions known to upset others (e.g., being chronically late when their partner prefers punctuality). Sarcasm is another potential vehicle for anger. Individuals may make “humorous” cutting remarks about others (hint: What?! I am just kidding! Get over yourself!). They may reveal embarrassing personal information or cause public humiliation. In some cases the words seem fine, but there is a tone of voice and manner that conveys disgust or disapproval (another hint: think of the last time your teen apologized to you—lots of eye rolls and deep sighs). With cold anger, individuals withdraw for periods of time. They will often refuse to discuss what is wrong, they may even deny they are angry yet they avoid any form of intimacy, eye contact or conversation with the other person. In the case of hostility, individuals are irritable, impatient and show clear signs of frustration and annoyance with others who do not move fast enough or meet their expectations. Aggression is the “red zone” of anger. Here individuals scream, become verbally abusive (cursing, name calling), and can become so enraged that they imagine hurting others. At times, this can escalate further into touching, pushing, blocking exit, or hitting another person.
Keeping an anger journal can help in identifying not only how anger is expressed, but also triggers which are events, experiences, or settings that set us off. Triggers can be environmental, particularly in our fast paced society. Traffic, overcrowding, high rates of unemployment, increasing gas prices, and demands for our attention via phones, pagers, email, texting, etc. are commonly reported. In many cases, we set ourselves up for anger by having unreasonable or unrealistic expectations of others (such as thinking our partner should “just know” what we need, want or meant), overextending ourselves to the point that there is no way we can complete all the tasks we have agreed to without a significant loss of sleep/down time, or through chronic procrastination. Poor time management or unrealistic goals may also be culprits.
Pinpointing anger early is aided by knowing how anger is typically expressed, familiar triggers, and what it feels like physiologically (individual reactions can vary). Once we reflect on episodes of anger, it is not uncommon to begin to recognize subtle changes in the body such as increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension or nausea. These alterations can serve as warning signs that we should take a break and regain composure. To decrease the reaction to anger, consider that anger tends to come over us in a wave-it will ebb away. Wait and see what happens. When the anger surges, don’t say anything; don’t push the feeling away, but rather observe it. Other techniques include: act the opposite-smile instead of frowning or glaring-even if it feels fake; relax your muscles (unclench fists, loosen jaw, sit back, take a deep breath-in fact take 10 deep breaths); lower your voice, try to make it lower than the person you are communicating with; talk slowly; move away from the person or leave the situation if necessary; say, “I need some time to think about this…”; try and be empathetic, even if you don’t feel it, you might be surprised at what kind of a reaction you get.
Triggers for anger are not always environmental. They can come from within us as well. That is why it is important to recognize the thoughts, beliefs or expectations for others that we carry around like a can of gasoline (i.e., fuel for the fire). There are many ways that our thoughts can become distorted and a full discussion of mindbenders is beyond the scope of this article. I have included a handful here for clarification.
· Personalizing: this person is doing this on purpose to hurt me!
· Catastrophizing: this is when we magnify a situation. THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED, I CANNOT FORGIVE THIS EVER.
· Polarized thinking: Everything is good or bad, always or never. You use words like any, every, always and never. Example: “EVERYTIME I try to tell you ANYTHING, you ALWAYS interrupt me, you NEVER support me.”
· Mind reading: you assume you know why a person is acting a certain way and what they are feeling. “YOU hate me, that is why you always yell at me.” “You can’t possibly understand, you’re too mad at me to care.”
· Thresholding: Set an arbitrary limit for when the person has crossed the line. “If those dishes are not done when I get home-THAT IS IT.” “If she prances through her singing at the top of her lungs one more time……”
Listen to what you are saying to yourself is it anger building or anger taming? Anger taming thoughts force you to challenge your thoughts and beliefs, examples include:
· I am going to try something different this time.
· Remember, no raised voices, no threats.
· I don’t have to take this personally.
· Can I ask what you meant by that?
· I have the ability to react differently, even if I can’t control this person.
Recognizing these patterns is the first step and changing behavior can be difficult, particularly when others are involved (as in family interactions). If you feel stuck or overwhelmed with anger or frustration, seek professional help. The slightest change in communication and habits can make a big difference. In addition, there are some great self help books for anger management. I often use When Anger Hurts by Matthew McKay, Ph.D., Peter Rogers, Ph.D. and Judith McKay, RN, and Taking Charge of Anger by W. Robert Nay, Ph.D. in my practice. So, take a deep breath, keep smiling and drop that tax return into the mailbox (or hit send).
- Andrea L. Rotzien, Ph.D.