Anger is essential for survival. It arouses motivation for action when our needs are jeopardised or thwarted.
It is how anger is expressed that determines whether the behaviour is adaptive or maladaptive.
So, anger is the emotional experience, and the behaviour of anger can either be constructive (helpful) or destructive (unhelpful). In other words, adaptive or maladaptive.
The problems that people experience relating to anger are:
- Being chronically angry without any external trigger. This may be because of misperceiving what’s actually going on in reality in the present. Often past experiences stuck in emotional memory are triggered by present stimuli (things that are happening right now).
- The second issue is how anger is expressed – whether it is constructive or destructive, adaptive or maladaptive.
The goals of anger management are to reduce activation of your sympathetic nervous system (in other words, stress) to bring clear thinking back online so that you can perceive what’s going on more accurately; and then, implementing specific strategies to help gain perspective so that you can take a more measured approach to manage your anger in a more constructive way.
I will describe some anger management strategies that clients have found to be the most effective. It is important to do this with a competent and licensed or registered mental health professional. And, it’s best to practice this experientially as a role-play so that procedural and other implicit memory systems are activated. Think of it as a rehearsal or training in a sport; you need to simulate the situation and factors of the actual situation so that your mind and body remember this learning in the type of memory systems that operate outside of your conscious awareness. This is implicit memory.
Some of these steps are done at the same time, but for the purpose of initial learning these will be ordered in a sequential way. The precise sequence that will be most effective for you depends on the degree of impact that each particular step has for you individually. This is one of the reasons why it is helpful to have a mental health professional guiding you with this.
The more practice you get with these strategies in an experiential manner, the better you will be able apply these in the actual situation.
Steps to Manage Anger:
Let’s begin. The steps are:
- Assess if you are in immediate danger. What do you see happening right now in this moment? What is the actual loss that occurred on family, health, food, shelter, or freedom? Is there any danger anymore right now, or no? Assess this for 5 or 10 seconds. It takes about this long for what you are perceiving to start registering and sinking-in to emotional understanding.
- Be aware of what is most important and meaningful to you in your life and imagine interactive experiences with your greatest values and priorities (this imaginative interaction helps with activating the emotional experience of what you are trying to imagine). For example, I think of my son and wife and the life I want to spend with them travelling, watching my son grow and flourish, making the world better through psychotherapy, and enjoying life.
- Wait 30 seconds before responding, if you need to respond at all, of course. Stall as long as possible before taking any action because with each second that passes, the more capacity you will have for control over your impulses. The impulse for immediate action subsides as the seconds pass, and the more perspective you automatically get with each passing moment.
- While you are waiting for the 30 seconds, take a deep breath in to help give you the inner resources to exert your will to refrain from the urge to act on your anger. Remind yourself that this will be really difficult. It may be gruelling because you are refraining from very intense primal emotional impulses. Slowly let your breath out because prolonging your exhales brings your heart rate and stress levels down. It decreases the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Continue slowly and rhythmically breathing in and out while taking your time exhaling.
- Increase the distance from the trigger of what is making you angry. Get as much physical space or proximity as possible from the stressor. This is because the closer you physically are to the stressor the more intense the impulse for aggression is. So, this means that the more distance you have from what is making you angry the less intense the impulse will be for acting aggressively.
- See the situation in a birdseye view of the timeline of your whole life. Imagine looking down at the timeline of your life and see where this situation fits into it by comparing it with the most important events or experiences in life: marriage, children, great times with friends, travel, etc. You can even compare it with other significant challenging experiences to gain perspective as to the current situation’s relative importance or unimportance. Also, visualize your priorities that you identified in a previous step in the timeline of your life. Imagine seeing from a birdseye view where you are in space and time in the city, in the country, on the earth, in the galaxy, in the universe, and in the timeline of the universe and compare what just happened with this.
- What are your options to deal with the situation? Sometimes we reject certain options because we feel the situation is unjust so we want to fight against it even if there is a simple option to side-step or handle it.
- What are the consequences 20 years ahead? In the moment of experiencing anger long-term considerations are usually absent.
- Imagine a calm or safe place and visualize it in your mindseye. Linger on it for about 20 seconds so your mind (implicit memory) starts to absorb it and, in turn, causing your heart rate and stress levels (i.e., arousal) to decrease. This allows the thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) that also is responsible for will power (specifically the medial prefrontal cortex) to come back online giving you more control over your impulses.
- Feel, think, and behave in the way that you would want your loved ones to in the same situation. This will help you to have actions that are directed toward what will keep you safe, healthy, and being socially appropriate in the long-term.
- And the final step. Compensate for the stress and the will power that you used (because it is a limited psycho-physiological resource) by, for example, having a hot bath, getting a warm tea for yourself, watching a movie – anything that will help you rejuvenate.
I hope these strategies serve you well in your effort to manage your anger in a way that is adaptive and constructive for you in the context of your whole life.
-Alistair Gordon, MA, RCC, CCC
Registered Clinical Counsellor