Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Take Control of Your Anger

Take Control of Your Anger.

Take control of your anger before it takes control of you. Last month's column emphasized the importance of understanding your anger and keeping track of your angry thoughts. The column discussed one method of anger control: developing "coping" or calming thoughts to defuse internal anger before it turns into angry behavior.

This article will describe additional methods of anger management. Most anger situations have a common component of feeling harmed, victimized and controlled by others. Therefore, an antidote will be to find ways you can assert control yourself in these life situations to manage problems which otherwise would start the cascade of angry thoughts into angry behavior. You can try this approach immediately. When the next situation occurs which starts to make you angry, take a moment to think about possible situations to manage the life problem. Decide upon your best alternative and take action. As you begin to sense that you are taking action and exerting self-control, you should find your angry thoughts calming because you are no longer being harmed or victimized. An example will help make this point. Let's take an example of the spouse who fails to pick up clothes from the floor. Just seeing the pile of unwashed clothes will usually set off angry thoughts. You know that expressing your anger by nagging or yelling might work temporarily but not permanently, as both you and your spouse will usually end up angry at each other. "Give in" and pick up the clothes only if this makes you truly happy; the usual response to "giving in" is increased frustration and simmering anger. You can take control of the situation in many different ways; you could, for example, buy your spouse a new clothes hamper; hire a maid; delay dinner until clothes are picked up; schedule mutual cleanup sessions; start marriage counseling. You are limited only by your imagination and resources. One enterprising wife and mother picked up everything left on the floor by her family, then sold the goods on eBay! (Not recommended!)

This "taking control" approach to anger management is guaranteed to work by altering the problematic life situation before your angry thoughts and behaviors exacerbate the problem. But what if you have a "short fuse" and your anger flares before you have time to problem solve? The remainder of this article will discuss additional strategies to help you "chill out." The coping thoughts approach described in the previous article is very useful but does not work well if angry behavior has already started.

To work on counteracting angry behavior, consider what I call the "opposite approach." Whenever possible, try substituting "opposite" (i.e., not angry) types of behavior which cue your body to calm rather than heat up with anger. Smile instead of frown. Research has shown that smiles lighten moods while frowning intensifies anger and depression. Speak softly in a low, gentle voice. Let go of muscle tension, unclench your jaw and let your shoulders drop. Take whatever kind of time-out you need to disengage from the situation.

Practicing the "STOP" method will help you apply this opposite behavior approach and work on calming down so that you can develop assertive or problem-solving approaches instead of anger. Learn to summon the word "STOP" to cope with provocation. "S" obviously means to stop your angry thoughts and behavior. You can do this by hearing your inner voice say "stop" or you can envision a big red stop sign. Just as you automatically break for a stop sign when driving, you can learn to put an automatic brake on your angry behavior. The next letter "T" is for "think." After you have stopped or interrupted an angry response, think about calming down to analyze the frustrating situation and think your coping thoughts. The letter "O" in stop means focus on "observable " facts about the situation. This will help you analyze the life problem and back away from your angry thoughts and behavior. The letter "P" calls your attention to the need to develop a behavior "plan" to respond to the situation. Again, an example. A grocery clerk almost rams you with a grocery cart. A habitually angry individual would yell and curse or even use fists to retaliate. The anger control approach would include: "S" Stop, take a deep breath. "T" Think about what just happened instead of responding immediately. "O" What did you observe? Did the clerk bump your cart accidentally or steer the cart directly at you with a gleam in his eye? " P" Decide if your plan is to consider the incident an accident and let it go or take assertive action such as asking for an apology or filing a complaint with the manager.

Relaxation methods are helpful in anger control as they are in coping with other kinds of distress. Relaxation is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system, while anger is a function of the sympathetic nervous system. The physiological response of relaxation is incompatible with angry rumination and behavior. You should practice relaxation techniques often and pair the relaxation response with a cue word such as "calm" or "chill out." this cue word is practiced along with relaxation, a new habit will be created to summon the word and the relaxation response when needed. Music has power to excite or relax. You can practice relaxation with special tapes or CDs for this purpose; hemi-sync CDs are especially useful.

You may be thinking that these anger management ideas sound good, but you'll never remember to use them in real life. If you are this reader, you'll need to take additional steps to learn and practice anger coping skills until they become part of your habitual behavior repertoire. Anger logs will help you keep track of your progress. Practice using coping thoughts and STOP behavior often, especially for easy problems so the skills will be available in more difficult anger situations. Post your coping thoughts or STOP method on your mirror, desk or car dashboard. You can rehearse your new anger coping strategies in front of a mirror or with a tape recorder or even with imagery. To use imagery: relax, picture anger provoking situations and visualize yourself calm and in control using these techniques to manage the provocations. A therapist trained and experienced in using these methods will be a valuable addition to your anger coping plan.

For additional information about anger and anger imagery, you can consult McKay and Rogers, Anger Control Workbook, New Harbinger, 2000, with information on Anger Innoculation found on pages 83 to 124. For more information about the STOP method or other anger control methods consult W. Robert Nay, Taking Charge of Anger, Guilford, 2004, pages 126 to 130 for the Stop method.