Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Can You Manage Your Anger? Learn to Cope, Not Explode

Can You Manage Your Anger? Learn to Cope, not Explode.

(This is an expanded version of the article published in the Southern Neighbor September 2006.)

The last two columns discussed ways to manage anxiety and depression when they "double your problems by adding emotional distress to life difficulties. Angry, out-of-control reactions are also a surefire way to add extra problems to the life dilemmas causing your stress. This column will begin a series of articles dealing with anger management. At this point you may be reaching for your scissors to cut out this article and hand it to someone else. But first-- why don't you start with yourself? You may or may not have a problem with "hot anger," but cynicism and sarcasm, cold withdrawal or passive-aggression are all forms of anger problems.

Think about someone or something that makes you angry. Feel yourself getting "hot under the collar," blood pressure rising, frowning, fists starting to clench, stomach in knots. Also notice your accusatory, blaming thoughts, maybe even swearing and cussing. Yes, anger is a normal emotion but it often gets us into trouble with our family, friends, coworkers and bosses, road-rage, fights or assaults. Anger conflict management is the most potent predictor of marriage dissatisfaction and divorce. Angry parents breed hostile children. Intense or chronic anger causes physical and emotional distress, even disease. You can't even suppress anger without the emotions turning inward to helplessness, depression or even suicidal feelings. Drowning your anger with alcohol just fuels the fire.

So how can we deal with anger without it getting the best of us? Some of us are fortunate to have learned anger control from our parents early in life so that coping strategies come naturally to us without conscious effort. The rest of us can learn to manage anger-- but it does take work.

To begin you'll need to understand the emotion of anger as well as your individual approach to anger. Anger actually has several components: a problematic life situation; frustration, pain, and stress caused by the life situation; angry "trigger" thoughts igniting the fire; and finally angry behavior. Often these ingredients set up a "vicious cycle" with angry thoughts and behavior creating more problematic life situations, then causing more pain and stress and so on in a self-perpetuating negative feedback loop. Many people identify anger as being identical to the angry behavior, without realizing that three other components precede the overt angry behavior.

To completely understand the structure of anger, you'll need to learn about your own responses to anger provoking situations. The best way to start is to develop an anger log, listing the: 1) life situation; 2) distress and degree of anger; 3) trigger thoughts; 4) angry behavior. For example, suppose you just had an angry confrontation with your spouse about the budget. Your log may look like: 1) I notice bad check fees on my bank statement; 2) anxiety about paying the mortgage bill; feel rage; 3) thoughts of "#*#*, I told you to balance the checkbook. You never pay attention. You're so irresponsible. 4) yelling and throwing the checkbook at your spouse. Note that your angry behavior will not always be overt, as you can, for example, withdraw in an angry funk without yelling or fighting.

The next step will be to examine your anger log for useful information. What kinds of situations cause you the most anger? Are any of these situations preventable? What are your anger payoffs? The reasons for your anger may be self-related (blowing off steam; concealing pain with anger) or other-related (attention-seeking; controlling the behavior of others; or seeking revenge and punishment.)

When you examine the patterns of your anger you will see that most anger thoughts have a common component of feeling harmed, victimized or controlled by others. For example, in the situation above, the spouse who feels personally victimized by the bad check charges will feel the most anger about the situation. These types of thoughts are the "triggers" which add the most emotional upset to the problematic life situation. Extra bank charges will likely cause some distress, but the angry behavior in the example was set off by the thoughts about the spouse ignoring previous discussions about balancing the checkbook.

When you look at your anger log you will realize the many ways that anger causes problems for you in your life and in relation to others. This series of articles will discuss different types of techniques to help you manage your anger and decrease the negative consequences of your anger. The approach discussed in this article will be to develop ways to manage and cope with angry trigger thoughts to decrease problematic angry behavior.

Trigger thoughts turn frustrating situations into anger provocation. Your thoughts about life situations are actually more influential in causing anger than the events themselves! Most trigger thoughts magnify your perception that you've been harmed or victimized, that someone acted against you deliberately and that this person's behavior was unjust or wrong. Individuals with chronic anger problems harbor constant internal dialogues of angry trigger thoughts which often are eventually verbalized in angry outbursts or erupt into angry behavior. For example, take the problem created when your spouse leaves dirty clothes on the floor. A calm response might be, "Oh, clothes on the floor again. I need to decide what to do about this." Angry trigger thoughts might be: "Joe left his clothes on the floor again. He never picks up after himself. That ### is a lazy bum. Mr. High and Mighty thinks I'm his slave. If he cared for me he'd picked up his stuff. This house will never be clean again. The kids will be slobs just like their ### father." Obviously the wife with these trigger thoughts will be feeling much more distressed and angry when finding clothes on the floor.

The first step in managing trigger thoughts will be to create and practice an antidote to trigger thoughts, that is coping thoughts to calm yourself and silence angry monologues. General coping thoughts often focus on maintaining peace and calm, while other coping thoughts carry a self-control message and/or minimize the seriousness of the life situation. Calming thoughts can be, for example, "Take a deep breath and stay cool," or simply "Chill out." Other coping thoughts can be, for example, "A fight is not worth it," or "It's not the end of the world," or "Look at the big picture, not just this problem." One client told me she derived special benefit from my simple saying, "Oh well." Note that this approach is not simply to suppress angry feelings, which often just go inside but continue to stir up angry feelings. This approach is actually to calm yourself by creating a less provocative viewpoint about the situation and focusing on a series of thoughts which lead to calm, in-control behavior. You should write down your coping thoughts and practice them often so they will pop up in your mind as the angry burn starts.

Joe's wife can save her sanity and marriage using coping thoughts when she encounters an untidy pile of clothes on the floor. "Joe's busy again. That's all. It's just one pile of clothes, not the end of the world. He's a good guy and he'll pick up his clothes later. I need to take a deep breath and chill out."

A complementary approach is to analyze the patterns of your angry thoughts and create specific coping thoughts for problematic situations. These coping thoughts will be very specific to the situation, be accurate, nonjudgmental and not moralistic, will not attribute harmful or deliberate motivations to other people, will not magnify the problems and will not predict dire consequences. In the example above, the wife used many kinds of distorted trigger thoughts: blaming; name-calling; moralistic thinking; assuming ulterior motives; overgeneralizing; and catastrophizing. Coping thoughts to counter blaming will move beyond the belief that the person is deliberately causing you harm. In the example above, Joe may not be trying to provoke his wife by leaving clothes on the floor. Coping thoughts to counter name calling and moralistic thinking will avoid perjurative terms and expletives which label a person as bad or worthless. Joe may have a bad habit of leaving clothes on the floor, but this may not indicate a serious character flaw. Coping thoughts will avoid assuming ulterior motivations. Joe may have no intent to stress or anger his wife or teach the children bad habits. Overgeneralizing and catastrophizing magnify the problem beyond its original scope. Joe's bad habit may occur occasionally but may not expand beyond occasionally dropping his clothes on the floor, and the children won't necessarily learn bad habits. To further counter angry trigger thoughts, you can also look for alternative explanations and examples to contradict negative assumptions. Joe may be very neat in other situations such as arranging his work papers, and therefore help with an organizing system may be all he needs for his clothes.

As in the example above, now is the time to go back to your anger log and create coping thoughts for the anger provocation situations you encounter in your life. When we are angry we harbor angry trigger thoughts and behaviors which emerge during provocations and are often uncontrollable in stressful situations. When coping thoughts are practiced they will be available to use instead of the angry thoughts and expletives which cause problems additional to the life situation. Chill out and enjoy life more!

For more information about the cognitive approach to anger control, you can consult McKay, Rogers and McKay, When Anger Hurts, second edition, 2003, and McKay and Rogers, The Anger Control Workbook, 2000, both from New Harbinger Publications.