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Coping with Anger
WHAT KIND OF PROBLEM IS ANGER?
Anger is a complicated emotion. Both its cause and its display are often multifaceted. This is why it can be tricky to simply answer the question, what kind of trouble can anger cause? This question often elicits a lot of discussion.
You will not find anger as a stand-alone psychiatric diagnosis in either of the commonly-used classification systems. While, it is mentioned in both, it’s mention is connected with a set of behaviors or associated with another emotion. Many people who experience problems because of their anger may not view their emotional displays like someone with a more clear cut diagnosis.
Let’s compare someone who is dealing with anger versus someone living with the symptoms of depression. In the case of depression, there is generally agreement as to what is going on. There will likely be a consensus that depression exists and is the root cause of the difficulties the person is experiencing.
This is very often NOT the cause when it comes to anger. It is very rare that a clinician is contacted by a client someone wanting treatment for their own anger. There is rarely that kind of consensus about what it is that needs to change. It’s usually a parent calling about their child’s outbursts, a significant other concerned because problems escalate very quickly and end very badly, or someone who is worried about what could happen when a loved one becomes so angry that they apparently lose control.
WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF ANGER?
Anger stems from the same root cause as anxiety. It comes from the automatic way our mind and body responds to danger, known as the fight or flight response. In a situation where there is a potential threat to someone’s life, the emotional center of the brain triggers a series of changes, which can include physical sensations and thoughts. These changes help us prepare to either fight off the danger or run away. The process is natural and adaptive - in the right circumstances.
For example, imagine someone tries to attack you. Your chances of survival are much higher if your brain responds quickly and you either fight or run.
This response can keep you safe.
If someone tries to come at you with a knife, anger can help keep you safe.
If someone threatens your child, anger can help keep your child safe.
If you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, anger can keep you safe.
However, compare these scenarios with:
If the star player of your favorite team strikes out looking with the bases loaded, anger really won’t help you in any way.
If the series finale of a show you have been obsessed with for years horribly botched the ending, anger really won’t help you in any way.
If you are caught in traffic and were already running late to a meeting, anger really won’t help you in any way.
If your significant other forgot to pick up the kind of chips you prefer, anger probably isn’t going to help.
The problem with anger arises when the fight or flight response is initiated and you are NOT in a life-or-death situation. In fact, in pretty much any situation other than a potentially dangerous one, anger will probably only make things worse. If not immediately, then certainly over the long term.
THE POTENTIAL DAMAGE FROM ANGER
When someone is in fight-or-flight mode, the mind has one objective: STOP THE PROBLEM NOW! It doesn’t matter how. You are unlikely to stop and consider whether there is a better solution available. It doesn’t matter if things got broken in the process. It doesn’t matter if the collateral damage (including relationships) is fixable or not.
“Just end the problem right now so everything is okay again.”
Anger doesn’t just say it, it SCREAMS it throughout your mind and body. It functions as a quick solution to a problem, but it can come with awful short- and long-term ramifications.
Bitter breakups, job loss, legal troubles from destruction of property or road rage, immortality of your worst moments on YouTube, social shame and exclusion, substance abuse, limited schooling options, resentment, a guilty feeling you can’t shake, and giving up what had been a nice leisure-time activity are just a few.
In the moment, it seems like your reaction to the problem and how you are reacting is going to solve the problem. The flaw in this logic is that afterward you may realize that anger actually made the situation worse, not better.
When comparing anxiety and anger in terms of the fight or flight response, anxiety is present when you have the instinct to run. On the other hand, anger is what would drive you to fight. Functional in situations where you are in serious danger, but potentially problematic in more realistic situations.
While the part of the fight or flight response that is attributed to anxiety gets a lot of clinical attention, its nearly-identical twin response anger brings on a very different, and just as impairing, set of problems.
MY CLINICAL APPROACH TO TREATING ANGER
When dealing with anger it is important to address all the components of the fight or flight response. As an anger therapist, I can work with you (or your child) to find strategies to better handle the physical sensations and thoughts associated with anger. We will also change how you respond in the heat of the moment so that you can better identify more productive and beneficial outcomes (short-term and long-term).
By identifying different ways of dealing with the physical aspects of anger (ie: increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, hot flushes, shaking, and tingling, among others) you can learn how the process works and how you can manage it better.
Some of these techniques commonly used by anger psychologists include diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and calming imagery. You will learn to better handle the thoughts that can maintain or intensify anger (through techniques such as cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness, acceptance). Apps, review forms, and audio tracks will be provided and/or recommended to help you continue developing these skills between sessions.
We will work together to create alternate strategies for dealing with anger in the moment, as well as skills for handling whatever initiated the feeling of anger. Our goal will be to develop techniques that allow you to respond to anger in a healthier way, rather than follow what your instincts may be telling you to do (which is how the real trouble tends to happen). Through practice in calm moments and use of your preferred coping skills when experiencing anger, you’ll be able to develop a less tumultuous and more enjoyable life.
COMMON ANGER QUESTIONS
When working with younger children my anger therapy approach is to start by changing the environment and the reactions of those around the child. If a child gets what they want as a result of the behaviors they display when angry, the reactions will get stronger over time. They will see it as a strategy that works for them.
Imagine you are at a slot machine and pull after pull, the machine you have chosen is paying out big. Not only are you not likely to walk away, but you are probably pretty satisfied with the experience. If you child is finding success with angry reactions to his or her environment, those responses are probably well reinforced and are likely to repeat.
What your young child does when angry doesn’t mean they don’t love you or feel bad about their words or action afterward. If their responses work to get a desired outcome, this becomes a natural response they fall upon. Without even realizing it, or being able to express it, there is most likely some level of awareness that anger is not the best choice. That being said, while your child probably regrets disruptive behavior and may even share in your concern afterward, this may not be enough for them to stop doing it on their own.
If you don’t change the payoff, your young child is just going to continue using this tactic. Keeping in mind that if anger is repeated time and time again, it could mean quicker intensity, more extreme and scary behaviors, an increase in inappropriate or concerning language used, and knowing exactly what lines to cross to get someone to give in faster. In other words, they will get better at using anger to their advantage.
We will work together to do two very important things. First, we will change your child’s expectations as to whether their inappropriate behaviors will be effective in getting what he or she wants. Second, we will work on helping the child develop appropriate skills for communication, conflict resolution, frustration tolerance, and socialization so they have available plan B’s for when they realize that their plan A (anger) is no longer effective.
Sometimes parents will notice early on in the process that their child responds even more with anger. This just means that the process is effective and they’re starting to understand that change is brewing. They are beginning to get what is being taught to them, but they might not necessarily like the process initially.
In my experience, the children I work with are usually not oppositional, bipolar, or psychotic. They are savvy enough to discover what works and persistent enough to keep doing it as long as it is leading to the results they want. The key to change is helping them develop and use other skills and strategies instead. Long-term, it is their awareness and ability to use coping techniques that determines whether anger interferes with their life as they get older. Because of that, we try to teach them what we can as early as possible.
Working with older children requires a slightly different approach. The undesired behaviors, words and attitudes that accompany anger are working in your child’s life in some way to get them what they want.
This is why our first step is to figure out specifically what those desired outcomes are (regardless of whether the strategies used are actually successful). Even when behaviors appear to be 100 percent from a place of defiance, there’s some rationale and intended result underneath. To change these unwanted actions, you have to figure out what they are looking to accomplish (this can include multiple reasons or functions). The objectives might not be easy to find, but they are there and very important for making any kind of change.
Once the purpose of the behavior is determined, the next step is to assess whether they do possess a better way of communicating, accessing, and problem-solving to earn what they want (and aren’t using it). Or is it the case that they lack the requisite skills needed. If they don’t have them, we work towards helping them build these more effective strategies. This foundation must be in place for any therapeutic changes to take hold.
When the skills and techniques for more effectively getting what he or she wants (again, if appropriate to have it) have been developed, we adjust the dynamic so that those more desirable strategies are the only ways to get it. This includes things like problem-solving collaboratively, completing responsibilities to get privileges, displaying a calm and respectful demeanor when requesting something, doing household tasks to earn money, etc. Using the old habits and approaches will get them nowhere.
I work with you as a parent to demonstrate how to change your teen’s expectations and the results of behaviors. When working with your teen, I can help them acquire more effective ways of coping with their anger and frustration, as well as skills for dealing with the initial problem more appropriately.
Keep in mind, it’s very possible that this person will never decide on their own to get help to deal with anger in a healthier way.
All you can do is to express your thoughts and feelings about the matters that are impacting you. During a calm moment, express how you feel about the conflicts that are occurring. Use “I statements” that keep the focus on you, your thoughts, and your feelings. (“I think you really need help” and “I think you can be an immature *favorite expletive that you know triggers them* when you don’t get your way.” do not count as productive “I statements.”)
Try to be gentle and understanding, not accusatory. Do not frame it as a punishment. Avoid having this conversation while the other person is already angry, as it will not be processed right and likely result in even more anger. Indicate that you are interested in learning new skills to help decrease the tension and stress in the relationship/family.
And don’t expect any of the above to necessarily work quickly or the first time. Or, in some cases, ever.
Things will change. But probably not for the better.
The research is pretty conclusive that positive reinforcement (getting what you want through desirable means) is far more effective than punishment. This doesn’t mean that negative outcomes can never be used to change a behavior, but it very much depends on the situation and the type of strategy used.
Increasing physical punishment can easily cross the line into an abusive situation which comes with unwanted consequences. On top of being morally suspect it can launch a whole host of legal troubles, and sends the message that it is okay to respond in this way if you are mad enough (which is the complete opposite of what you want them to learn about anger).
If the chosen punishment is absurd or impossible to ensure follow through (no cellphone use for a year, no videogames even over at a friend’s house, no use of any social media apps), you’ll just be piling on more resentment. This will inevitably decrease the likelihood of them taking what you say seriously. The focus then becomes trying to circumvent/uphold the punishment instead of teaching better ways of handling anger. People are much better at being determined than vigilant. They’ll find a way, which ultimately leads to restarting the unhealthy cycle.
The positive reinforcement approach focuses on engaging in healthy and desirable actions to get what you want when angry. It helps people to learn the skills needed (relaxation, assertive communication, compromise, perspective-taking, flexible thinking, problem-solving, etc.) and use them successfully. If they develop and experience success with alternate strategies (more success than with the undesired behaviors), those will be used going forward instead of the unwanted approaches.
A FINAL WORD ON ANGER
Anger serves a purpose in keeping us safe in certain circumstances. While it has an important role in our lives, it can sometimes serve a less functional purpose when used inappropriately. Children, teens and adults can sometimes enter into a cycle where they use their anger to get what they want. Fortunately there are proven clinical methods to help teach new, more productive and effective methods of achieving goals.
If you or someone in your life is struggling with the unwanted impact of anger, you have options. It may seem like the solution is out of reach, but for every problem, there is a solution. Let us help you find yours.