Anger Management Techniques - Letting Off Steam Safely

by James A. Baker
(March, 2008. Recovery Today)

My lawyer says I have to take some kind of anger course, but I don’t see how it can help me. I am a reasonable person. I try to get along with everyone, including my wife who just threw me out of the house. I think I am open-minded enough to see both sides of an argument, but even I have my limits. I can only take so much of my wife ragging on me or my supervisor constantly putting down my work before I have to fight back. I prefer to use words to fight my battles, and yes, I can get really loud and out of control at times, but what else can I do? Once I feel trapped, don’t I have the right to defend myself?

Tired of Losing in Toronto

Dear Tired:

I don’t have any doubt that you are trying to be a reasonable person, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to find a better way to deal with your anger. A big clue to your situation is the fact that you mention needing to defend yourself. People who are put on the defensive almost always feel anger; apparently, you are handling it in unhelpful ways. Have you heard of the fight or flight syndrome? This is a powerful, almost automatic, physical response that your nervous system and your body experience when you feel the need to protect yourself from something that is threatening to harm you. All the physical responses and changes that take place in your body during this process are similar to the process of heating up steam in a boiler to produce a high-level burst of energy. This is what helps you to get ready to fight as hard as you can or run as fast as you can. It is very helpful in times of extreme emergency when every second counts and life is on the line.

However, if the risk is more emotional than physical, if you are simply having a disagreement with your spouse or your kids or your boss, the fight or flight response can work against you in a BIG way. During such times, you need to think clearly and rationally but the fight or flight response interferes with your ability to do those things. Instead, your body just keeps building up steam for a big blow up. Most inappropriate expressions of anger are the result of this fight or flight response getting out of control. In your case, the first thing you need to do is find a way to shut it down.

Think of it this way. Suppose you are in the cab of a runaway steam locomotive. The brakes are out so you have to find some way to slow the train down. The boiler is pressurized to full strength. What do you do? Well, you could open the valve and instantly depressurize the boiler, but that would release a cloud of superheated steam that could kill every one within a 20-yard radius of the cab, including you! Is there another way? What about just reducing the source of heat that is boiling the water? If you stop throwing fuel on the fire, the engine will eventually coast to a stop all by itself!

The fight or flight syndrome works in a very similar way. The process is actually fed by a series of thoughts, actions and attitudes that keep the pressure building inside your emotions until you finally erupt in a burst of angry energy, striking out verbally or physically to defend yourself from a perceived threat. Maybe something was said or done that caused you to fear a loss of prestige or control in a relationship at home or elsewhere. You respond by driving your angry steam locomotive right over your spouse or your coworkers, creating lots of pain, destruction and confusion for everyone. In order to get your anger under control, you must find a way to turn off the fire, shut down the boiler and get that train under control.

Many people believe that some form of counseling is the answer to fixing anger problems. It is true that counseling can often be helpful in addressing long term, root causes that allow the anger to get a foothold in the first place. However, counseling has one big drawback: it can take months or even years - not to mention lots of money - to fully address these root causes. You may not have that kind of time, especially if your spouse or your boss or a judge has told you to change NOW or face serious consequences. Is there another option?

Yes! You can begin to get your anger under control right now, by taking away the fuel that is feeding your fire. If you are like most chronically angry people, you probably think that your anger is triggered by things that happen to you, especially the things that other people do to you and say about you. But that is not completely true. In reality, your anger is being driven to the flash point by those attitudes, thoughts and actions that take place within you while your fight or flight response is building. Even though it sounds too simple to be true, you can actually begin to get your anger under control almost immediately if you will just stop doing the things that you always do when you get angry. Here are a few suggestions.

When you feel a potential anger situation developing, you should stop talking and maybe even leave the room; don’t interrupt the other person to force your opinion on them; don’t use threatening motions or facial expressions (like staring in a hostile manner); don’t resort to profanity or name-calling: don’t use a sarcastic, harsh, or critical tone; and, of course, don’t yell or raise your voice, or express physical violence by slamming doors, punching walls or throwing things.

You can begin to shut down the fire under your locomotive’s boiler almost immediately, if you will commit today to STOP DOING these things. This of course, requires self discipline, but you describe yourself as a reasonable person. I promise you that if you will use this strategy for a month, you will definitely have fewer out of control anger incidents. With the fire under control, you can then turn your attention to the long-term solutions that will help you make permanent changes in your relationship with anger. Doesn’t this sound like a reasonable place to start?

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