Anger Causes and Management

Anger and Aggression

by Dr. Tony Fiore

Part I

Learn to manage your feelings for better health. Suppose you are standing in 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?

Dealing with angry feelings

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.

Part II

‘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 outbursts.

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 situations?

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 decline.

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 offenses.

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’ statements.

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Author:Dr. Tony Fiore is a So. California licensed psychologist, and anger management trainer. His company, The Anger Coach, provides anger and stress management programs, training and products to individuals, couples, and the workplace. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter "Taming The Anger Bee" at www.angercoach.com and receive two bonus reports.