Food for Thought: Keeping anger under control

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In my work with individuals and couples, I see many people who have a difficult time expressing and managing angry feelings.

Let’s take a look at what causes people to become angry and how they can respond to stressful situations more productively.

What Is Anger?

Anger may be a response to stress, fear, hurt or frustration.

Researchers have found that while hormones play a role in an angry response, there is always a cognitive (thinking) component.

Frustration may lead to aggression, but it is not inevitable. Some people respond to frustrating events with anger, while others don’t.

It may surprise you to know today’s research shows expressing anger often results in more irritation and tension rather than feeling calmer.

Why Expressing Anger Can Be Bad for You

Giving vent to anger can produce the following kinds of harmful effects: your blood pressure increases, the original problem is worse rather than better, you come across as unfriendly and intimidating, the other person becomes angry with you as a result of your behavior.

Physical Effects of Anger

• Heart. Researchers at Stanford University have found that of all the personality traits found in Type A patients, the potential for hostility is the key predictor for coronary disease. The combination of anger and hostility is the most deadly.

• Stomach and intestines. Anger has a very negative effect on the stomach and has even been associated with the development of ulcerative colitis.

• Nervous system. Anger is bad for you because it exaggerates the associated hormonal changes. Chronic suppressed anger is damaging because it activates the sympathetic nervous system responses without providing any release of the tension. It is a bit like stepping down on a car’s accelerator while slamming on the brakes.

Why We Get into the Anger Habit

Anger is our response to stress. Many times we feel anger to avoid feeling some other emotion, such as anxiety or hurt. Or we may feel angry when we are frustrated because we want something and can’t have it.

Sometimes, feeling angry is a way of mobilizing ourselves in the face of a threat.

People often respond with anger when they experience the following kinds of stress: anxiety, being in hurry, being overstimulated, being overworked, depression, fatigue, fear, feeling abandoned or attacked, feeling forced to do something you don’t want to do, feeling out of control, guilt, shame, hurt, loss or physical pain.

What to Do Instead of Getting Angry

Here are some constructive things can you do to reduce stress—instead of becoming angry:

• Beat a pillow .

• Do relaxation exercises.

• Get physical exercise.

• Listen to your favorite music.

• Use self talk to calm yourself “I can handle this”. “Don’t sweat the small stuff”

• Do work or gardening, chop wood

• Yell into your pillow

• State your needs assertively..

• Tell a friend about it.

• Write about it.

New Responses to Stress

An angry response often results when we are unhappy with someone else’s behavior.

Here are some other responses you can choose instead of flying off the handle:

1. Set limits. Let’s say a friend hasn’t returned a book you loaned to her. Now she wants to borrow another one. You could say, “I’m not going to be able to lend you this book until you return the first one.”

2. Don’t wait. When you realize that you’re feeling annoyed by a situation, speak up. Don’t wait until your annoyance escalates to anger.

3. Be assertive. Say in a positive way what you want from the other person.

For example, say, “Please call me when you get home,” rather than, “Would you mind giving me a call when you get there?”

Four Ways to Stop the Spiral of Anger

1. Call a time-out. This is a very effective technique for breaking the sequence of behavior that leads to a blowup.

It works best if it is discussed ahead of time and both people agree to use it. When an argument is heating up, one person states that he is getting angry and needs to take a time out. The other respects this and allows the person to leave. However, when the person returns they need to resolve the problem and not sweep it under the carpet.

2. Check it out. If anger is a response to personal pain, it makes sense to ask the other person, “What’s hurting?”

3. Make positive statements. It may be helpful to memorize a few positive statements to say to yourself when your anger is being triggered. These statements can remind you that you can choose your behavior instead of reacting in a knee-jerk manner—for example, “I can take care of my own needs,” “His needs are just as important as mine” and “I am able to make good choices.”

4. Be prepared with a memorized response.

Here are a few statements and questions which will help deescalate anger:

• What’s bothering me is...

• If it continues like this, I’ll have to _____ to take care of myself.

• What do you need now?

• So what you want is...

Don’t let anger rule your behavior or damage your health or relationships.

With some practice you can overcome your anger.

- Dr. Leta A. Livoti Ph.D, LCSW, LCPC is a psychotherapist in Thompson Falls.

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