“A short fuse.” “Blowing my stack.” “Hot under the collar.” “Seeing red.”
Anger inspires some pretty creative metaphors. It often feels like the most intense emotion we experience. We may want to yell, or throw things, or even hit someone when we feel angry. Intense anger has distinctive physical sensations: increased heart rate, an adrenaline surge, and quite literally, feeling hot under the collar.
Anger is normal emotion, not right or wrong, just a feeling we experience. Anger can actually be helpful when we are confronted with a threat to our safety and well-being or the safety and well-being of loved ones. It is a powerful emotion that we can use to our benefit to defend ourselves or to make necessary changes. More than any other emotion, though, anger can get us into some real trouble.
When Anger is a Problem
Anger becomes a problem when we can’t control, or we believe we can’t control, the hurtful things that we say or do in the heat of the moment. Anger becomes a problem when we blow up at a co-worker and damage our professional reputation. Anger becomes a problem when our family begins to adjust their behaviors in order to avoid “setting us off.”
Inability to manage anger has a number of health consequences. People who are prone to “blowing their stack” have an increased risk of high cholesterol levels, heart attack, and stroke. Inability to manage anger can lead depression, cynicism, and even trouble with the law.
Unhealthy anger causes us to respond to minor annoyances and major triggers with an outburst we feel sorry for later. We find ourselves incapable of biting out tongue and NOT saying that hurtful comment that leaves loved ones distrustful and pulling away from us. We are unable to communicate how we feel without declaring others at fault. Anger is a problem when it hijacks our better instincts and makes us feel we have no control over our actions.
How Counseling Can Help Manage Anger
If anger is causing problems in important areas of a person’s life, counseling can help. There’s no cure for feeling anger, but there are ways to develop new strategies for dealing with and expressing anger. Counseling can help us learn to recognize the physical sensations, often times an early clue, that indicate anger is getting the better of us. Calming strategies help to get the physiological response to anger under control. In addition, counseling can help us to learn new ways of responding to situations when we do feel angry. Here are a few methods a counselor might use to help someone understand feelings of anger and provide options for responding to those feelings.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
One common approach to helping clients manage anger more effectively is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our perception of a situation determines how we react more than the situation itself. When we perceive things in a negative light, our actions are often negative. CBT’s primary focus is to examine the way we think about things and determine whether that thinking can be altered in a way that leads us to a better emotional state and better behavior.
Imagine, for example, a friend who doesn’t return a phone call. We jump to the conclusion that our friend doesn’t care about us. We think, “I can’t believe he didn’t call me back. What a jerk.” We feel hurt and angry and get snappy with those around us. In reality, our friend had a family emergency and his life has gotten turned upside down. The unreturned phone call has nothing to do with our friend’s feelings toward us.
Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches us to notice how unhelpful our conclusions are and asks us what we could say to ourselves instead. Until we catch up with our friend, we have no way of knowing why he hasn’t returned the call, so might it be more helpful to think, “Wow. It’s been awhile since I talked with my friend. I hope everything is okay.” We still don’t know why he hasn’t called, but we feel better and, therefore, act better.
There are many techniques that CBT employs to get to this kind of change:
Enhanced Personal Awareness
Through enhanced personal awareness we look inside by learning to question our perceptions, emotional responses and behaviors. What are common triggers to our anger? Where do we feel the anger in our body? What times of the day or week are we more prone to explosive outbursts?
Anger Disruption and Removal
Essentially this teaches us to switch gears so we don’t keep the same behavioral patterns going and going. Instead of banging pots and pans to let everyone know how angry we are, we remove ourselves from the situation and do something that distracts us-shoot hoops, watch a favorite show, take a walk. Interrupting our well-worn grooves of behavior has a calming effect and we can return to the situation in a better frame of mind.
Other techniques may include attitude and cognitive change, acceptance and forgiveness, relaxation techniques, and learning new communication skills.
The study and treatment of human psychology has focused on its maladies and disorders for over a century. Positive psychology flips that focus and looks at the vast research done on human happiness and optimal functioning. That research is applied in therapy to help people live a more fulfilling, meaningful, connected life. Researchers have actually found that there is an optimal ratio of positive feelings vs. negative feelings that is required in order for us to thrive. The 3:1 ratio is known as the Losada line.
Therapists use positive psychology in conjunction with other therapies to help individuals replicate scientifically proven habits that produce this optimum ratio. Exercises, such as keeping a gratitude journal, cultivating optimism, and setting achievable goals are all research-proven techniques that foster more positive emotions and a sense of well-being and happiness.
Mindfulness is a way of bringing our awareness to the present moment, without judging the moment as good or bad, but observing it with compassion-for ourselves and others. Mindfulness is the practice of learning to focus on what we experience, physically and emotionally in any given moment, not thinking about the past, not worrying about the future. Anger management counseling may include mindfulness training, which has been shown to have numerous positive effects on our bodies and our minds. Mindfulness practice can reduce stress, increase positive emotions, give us tools for calming down in the moment, and fosters compassion and altruism.
Common methods for practicing mindfulness include focusing attention on breathing, mentally scanning our bodies from head to toe, and focusing our attention on the sounds of our surroundings. When angry emotions and thought patterns (I can’t believe so-and-so was acting like such a jerk. My boss is a jerk. I am a jerk.) emerge, mindfulness teaches us to say a friendly hello, (Hello, anger. Hello, self-doubt.) and get back to observing the present moment.
When We are Ready for Change
None of us like to feel that we don’t have control in our own lives. It’s one thing when external factors make us feel out of control-family issues, workplace worries, etc.- but to feel out of control because of our own behavior is especially frustrating. When we decide that we have had enough of our unmanaged anger and we want to make a change, we have many options for learning to control our anger, instead of having our anger control us.
“Controlling Your Anger Before It Controls You” American Psychological Association
“What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?” Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy
“What is Positive Psychology?” Positive Psychology Institute
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2012). Positive Psychology. NY, NY: MJF Books.