|by Dr. Tony Fiore
Learn to manage your feelings for better health. Suppose you are
the ‘express’ lane of a supermarket checkout. You
see that the third person ahead of you has about 25 items and is
paying by check when the signage clearly restricts this isle to 10
items and cash-paying customers.
You, on the other hand, are standing there with a dollar in your
hand to purchase a package of chewing gum.
The cashier is doing nothing to manage the situation and, in
fact, is having a friendly chat with him about his life while she is
ringing up his items.
If you are like most people, you will probably experience angry
feelings. Then what should you do? How should you respond?
There are three ways to deal with angry feelings:
1. View the situation differently. While angry feelings
frequently surprise us and come upon us automatically, it is our ‘self-talk’
that makes us angrier. Change what you tell yourself about what is
going on, and you can drastically change your feelings about it. In
our example, try telling yourself things like “Maybe he or she isn’t
aware this is an express lane,” or “Actually, a few minutes more
won’t matter,” or “I’ll speak to the manager about the issue
when I have more time.”
2. Relax and cool down. Once captured by intense angry feelings,
we may become incapacitated and unable to problem-solve or to obtain
the information we need to deal with the issue. The solution is to
cool down before doing anything.
For example, while standing in line, take in several deep
breaths. Count to 10. Tell yourself things like “Calm down,” “This
won’t be important tomorrow,” and “I can control my emotions.”
3. Look for alternatives. Look for different ways to respond to
the situation, before angry feelings overtake you. Maybe you can
still get what you want without displaying angry behavior. For
instance, try simple information giving (“Are you aware that this
is an express lane?”), or assertive communication (“May I get
ahead of you since this is an express lane and I only have one item?”)
It is almost always better to try alternatives before expressing
anger or aggression!
Why keep yourself calm? Because doing so may help you live
healthier and longer. Anger is like obesity. It is everywhere but
not good for anybody. In fact, according to a recent issue of The
Harvard Mental Health Newsletter, “optimistic hearts do better
than angry ones.”
In one study, people with normal blood pressure who scored high
on a rating scale for anger were nearly three times more likely to
have a heart attack or require bypass surgery within five years.
The anatomy of anger
Most of the time we do not choose to be angry, but somehow we are
suddenly in the feelings. Often, we don’t know we are angry until
we feel it.
Anger, which comes from a part of our brain that is very old, can
be very brief, lasting only a second or two. You can be happy one
moment and angry the next. Angry feelings may also continue over a
long period of time. If you are angry a lot, but your feelings are
not connected to life circumstances, we call it a ‘mood.’ Angry
moods lead to angry feelings coming on stronger and faster.
Once anger begins, it generates changes in our expression, our
face, our voice and changes in the way we think. It also creates
impulses to action. Sometimes we have thoughts that generate anger.
Other times we have thoughts that occur at the same time as the
anger. It is also possible for your anger to generate thoughts about
what you are angry toward.
The different faces of anger
You may have noticed that what ‘triggers’ your anger one time
may not do so at another time. Different people may also react very
differently to the same event. Some people recover much more quickly
than others when provoked by any negative emotion, including anger.
If you are a quick-recovering person, you probably are also
better able to control your emotions. However, if you are challenged
in this regard, you will need to work harder to develop anger
management skills to deal with your feelings.
Angry feelings are a natural reaction to frustration or
interference with our goals. Yet, we all are different in terms of
what events trigger anger in us, how strongly we respond and how
long it takes us to get back to normal. Learning to see a situation
differently, cooling off and looking for alternative responses are
all effective ways to better cope with angry feelings.
‘Dr. Fiore,’ the voice on the phone pleaded, ‘I need anger
management classes right away. I blew up at my girlfriend last night
and she said it’s over until I get help.’
As Kevin recounted the first night of class, he and his girlfriend
had argued in the car over which route to take home from a party.
Events progressed from mild irritation, to yelling and name calling.
Things escalated at home. He tried to escape, but she followed
him from room to room, demanding resolution of the conflict. He
became angry, defensive and intimidating.
Frightened, she left. Later, she left an anguished message saying
that she loved him, but couldn’t deal with his angry, hurtful
Kevin said that he normally is a very ‘nice’ and friendly
person. But on this occasion, his girlfriend had been drinking
before the party. In his view, she was irrational and non-stop in
criticism. He tried to reason with her, but it just made things
worse. Finally, as Kevin saw things, in desperation he ‘lost it’
and became enraged.
How should Kevin have handled this situation? What could he have
done differently? What actions should you take in similar
Option 1: Time out. Take a 20 minute time-out (but commit to
returning later to work on the issue). Take a walk. Calm yourself
down. Breathe deeply. Meditate. Do something else for awhile.
New research by John Gottman, Ph.D., at the University of
Washington indicates that when you and your partner argue, your
pulse rate goes above 100 beats per minute, and you enter a
physiological state called DPA (diffuse physiological arousal). Once
there, it becomes nearly impossible to solve the problem. You lose
perspective. Your reasoning ability, memory and judgment greatly
Taking a time-out allows both of you to return to your normal
state of mind.
It is neither healthy nor necessary for you to explode as a
result of being provoked by your partner. Our recommendation: Turn
the heat down rather than intensify the pressure.
Option 2: Interact differently. Many couples like Kevin and his
partner develop patterns of behavior that create miscommunication
and conflict. Do you interact in one or more of these ways?
- Inattention; simply ignoring your partner when you shouldn’t.
This is also called stonewalling or being emotionally unavailable
when your partner needs you, or not speaking to your partner for
long periods because you are upset with them.
- Intimidation; engaging in behavior intended to make your
partner do things out of fear. This includes yelling, screaming,
threatening and posturing in a threatening way.
- Manipulation; doing or saying things to influence your partner
for your benefit instead of theirs.
- Hostility; using sarcasm, put-downs and antagonistic remarks.
Extreme or prolonged hostility leads to contempt – a major
predictor of divorce.
- Vengeance; the need to ‘get even’ with your partner for a
grievance you have against them. Many dysfunctional couples ‘keep
score’ and are constantly trying to ‘pay back’ each other for
Option 3: Positive interactions. Start by actually listening not
only to what your partner says, but what he or she means. Partners
in conflict are not listening to understand; rather, they listen
with their answer running because they are defensive. Unfortunately,
defensiveness is another predictor of divorce.
- Stick to the issues at hand. Seems obvious but is very hard to
do in the heat of battle. Focus and stay in the present.
- Learn to forgive. Research by Peter Larson, Ph.D., at the
Smalley Research Center, suggests a huge relationship between
marriage satisfaction and forgiveness. As much as one-third of
marriage satisfaction is related to forgiveness!
- Communicate your feelings. Tell your partner how you feel about
what they do, instead of accusing them of deliberately offensive
behavior. Use ‘I’ statements rather than accusatory, or ‘you’