Whenever I tell others that as a therapist I teach anger management, the response is often similar. They usually range from “really, you teach anger management?” to the sarcastic, “yeah, that’s appropriate” followed by some laughter. Once in a while I get a more enlightened response suggesting I look like I used to have an anger management problem. I have to admit, I’m not the stereotypical anger management facilitator. For one, I probably don’t have the look expected. But more importantly, I am a passionate individual. I raise my voice when excited, and have been known to joke about “choking the life” out of some types of drivers. Of course I would never do this, and can’t even remember the last time I gave someone the finger in anger. But haven’t we all had thoughts that we aren’t proud of?
Now when I say I am passionate, I mean in every aspect of my life. I enjoy life completely. I may react emotionally initially, but my reactions have not resulted in any real difficulty in some time. Besides, aren’t we all human? Is it necessarily so bad to react a little? I always tell my clients the goal of therapy is not to make them robots devoid of emotion. But when it comes to anger management, the general public seems to want a Dali Lama clone to facilitate.
This isn’t to say they aren’t great facilitators. Even I, with my eastern philosophical beliefs, strive for more peace and tranquility. But some people begin life with more tranquil temperaments, or their environment enhances this type of persona. I believe one of my strengths is that clients relate to me as I seem more like a regular guy, with thoughts and reactions similar to theirs.
Moving onto to anger management skills now, there are many techniques that can assist one in managing their anger. I would like to use the rest of the article to discuss helping individuals manage their anger. As with any set of techniques for any behavioral change, it will take practicing the technique to make the change effective. So let’s start with some definitions related to anger.
First, it’s important to understand that anger is a normal emotion, everyone has it, and it can range from irritation to rage. Some of the other related definitions include: Aggression- a behavior intended to cause harm or intimidate, hostility-an attitude which seems to radiate from the individual, and Rage- the loss of control of the anger, usually resulting in behavior leading to remorse.
Anger is considered a problem when it is felt too intensely, too frequently, or expressed inappropriately. Anger can contribute to violence, medical issues as a result of the bodily response (fight or flight syndrome), and damage to relationships. Consequences from anger can be experienced whether the anger is expressed or not.
Anger is usually seen as a problem when it is expressed inappropriately. But even the inappropriate expression of anger has a payoff. One reward is the release of tension. There is generally a sense of release following a blow-up. The angry individual often experiences a sense of relief and even calm. One of the other payoffs of the inappropriate expression of anger is the control of others. Often the exploding individual gets what they want. Others may continue to placate the aggressive individual to avoid conflict or another explosion. This in itself can be very damaging to relationships. Because of the payoffs, inappropriate expression may be reinforced, resulting in the continuation of its use.
People have different anger triggers. A trigger is any event that typically leads to anger. There are three types of triggers that it is helpful to identify. Everyday event triggers include any common event that is irritating or a pet peeve. Examples include driving, traffic, waiting in line, or being put on hold. It is important to identify personal everyday and common triggers.
Another type of trigger is Red Flags (Sensitive areas). Examples of these include being called a name that personally triggers anger, trouble with authority as a result of an authoritarian parent, or anything that personally triggers a sensitive area for the individual. A personal example is when I was young my father used the word punk in the most degrading way. Having heard this term used over and over in a negative fashion led to a very negative association for me. Later, when someone would call me a punk, my anger would instantly rise to rage.
The final type of an anger trigger is Resentment. These triggers are identifiable because one is able to sit alone and get angry about a prior infraction. It differs from a red flag as no one else (or their action) is needed to trigger the anger.
One way to think of anger is in relation to a scale, going from one to ten. One through three could be considered irritation through frustration. Four through six can be considered moderate anger. And seven through 10 could be the range of rage. I usually instruct clients in my anger management workshop to identify what they are experiencing physically, what their thoughts are, and what they are doing behaviorally at three different numbers on the scale. These numbers should be at the low range (irritation to frustration, when they start to feel angry, and what they experience before they move into rage. This provides a starting point for exploration, and assists in identifying the escalation process and identifying where steps can be taken to de-escalate.
Next I discuss de-escalation techniques. One easily used de-escalation technique is a Time out or break from the conflict. I consider there to be two types of breaks: an official break is an agreement with a party frequently in conflict with the person learning to manage their anger (parent, partner, family member). It is agreed between the two that when escalation begins the individual can take a time out to calm down before resolving the issue. The break is not to exceed 24 hours unless absolutely necessary. And when it is necessary, a note should be provided suggesting the appropriate time to hold the discussion (Thich Nhat Hanh). I often encourage the clients in my workshop to attempt to make these arrangements with the person or persons they often get in conflict with.