Anger management: Uncontrolled emotion can damage health, relationships
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Anger is a natural and normal reaction to life’s unavoidable irritations, but uncontrolled, it can escalate and end up damaging one’s health and relationships.
“Generally (anger) is unhealthy coping,” said Jill Calderon, a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota.
And how we handle our anger is something we learned as children, she said.
Calderon recently led a six-week class on anger management for The Village Family Service Center in Grand Forks.
“Usually, what we see in people who (express) anger when stressed or upset is that they have grown up in a home where that was modeled.”
The behaviors we see and experience as children become the model for how we behave later in life, she said.
“If you grew up with abuse, where anger was the predominant emotion in the home, you’ve learned that that’s how you deal with stressors that come up: by getting angry.
“Everybody can feel when something doesn’t feel good,” she said. But “those are learned behaviors. It’s a cycle.”
That’s not to say that people who were exposed to uncontrolled anger early in life automatically repeat that behavior as adults, she said.
“There are people definitely who made changes (due to) awareness. They get therapy and are conscious of how they treat their own kids.”
“A lot of people consider anger a ‘safe’ emotion,” Calderon said. “What we find under anger is hurt, most often.”
In an anger-stressed household, “children learn that saying ‘you hurt me’ is not going to be received in a valid way,” she said. “If they are open and vulnerable, their reaction will not be supported.”
So, they learn other ways to react, she said. “They may not say anything at all or they may not react. … As kids, we learn how to protect ourselves.”
Children who grow up in abusive situations feel powerless, she said. If they received the brunt of the abuse, later “they use anger as a way to regain some of that power (to prevent) being taken advantage of or being put in a vulnerable position.
“They become this intimidating, angry type of person.”
The angry behavior becomes a habit, she said.
The first step to getting anger under control is awareness, Calderon said. Increased awareness gives a person insight into where the behaviors come from, she said.
In her anger management class, Calderon teaches aspects of mindfulness, a type of meditation that calms chaotic thoughts and feelings and focuses the mind on the present.
“It helps people get in touch with what’s happening internally,” she said.
When anger is escalating, the heart rate and breathing usually speed up. People can learn to notice and react to those physical signals by choosing alternative coping skills that can defuse a potentially emotional situation, she said.
Acceptance and forgiveness also are important in dissipating anger, Calderon said.
She asks participants in her class “to write letters to themselves as little kids (and) to someone who was a dominant force,” she said. Such gestures may alleviate the pain and resentment a person has been carrying around for years.
In some cases, the person who is the focus of the pain and resentment is still in their lives, she said, possibly as a significant other or former caregiver.
Anger management provides “a way of being around that person without losing it,” she said. “Awareness is most important, because if you’re not aware when those triggers happen, that’s when you get into trouble.”
In learning to harness anger, different things work for different people, Calderon said.
“For some, deep breathing really resonates,” she said. “For others, talking to themselves helps to defuse a situation in the moment.”
Living in a fast-paced society, “there’s not a lot of time for ourselves, that’s part of the problem,” Calderon said. “We walk around on auto-pilot and take (our anger) out on someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
Once you recognize that your anger is building, “you can take a bath, take a walk, ask someone else to watch the kids, so you can go for a drive.”
She recommends that, if you tend to be passive, instead of burying resentment until you explode, “speak up and express your needs and wants, but not in an accusatory way that makes the other person feel attacked. Let them know how you feel.”
An aggressive person “is getting their needs met through intimidation, not listening and not taking into account how they’re making others feel.”
A clear indication that you need help with anger management from a mental health professional is getting in trouble with the law, she said. “Another is if people — family members, co-workers, peers — in your life are pointing it out to you,” she said.
“If you become angry in situations that don’t call for an angry reaction, it may be time to get some help.”
Serves a purpose
“Anger is tricky, though,” Calderon said. “It should not be viewed as this horrible thing. It’s healthy to feel anger in certain situations.”
Anger serves a purpose in our lives, she said. “It lets us know that injustices are being done to us — that we’re being treated poorly, unfairly or disrespectfully.”
Feelings are accurate and reliable, she said. “Emotions don’t lie — and they’re pretty immediate, depending on your reaction style.
“If something has stirred up your emotions, there’s a pretty good chance there’s a reason for it.”
That’s different, though, from someone who walks about angry all the time, she said.
“We need to address anger in a healthy, discussion kind of way.”
- Think before you speak. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to say something you’ll later regret. Take a few moments to collect your thoughts before saying anything — and allow others involved in the situation to do the same.
- Once you’re calm, express your anger. As soon as you’re thinking clearly, express your frustration in an assertive but nonconfrontational way. State your concerns and needs clearly and directly, without hurting others or trying to control them.
- Exercise. Physical activity can help reduce stress that can cause you to become angry. If you feel anger escalating, go for a brisk walk or run, or spend some time doing other enjoyable physical activities.
- Take a timeout. Give yourself short breaks during the day that tend to be stressful. A few moments of quiet time might help you feel better prepared to better handle what’s ahead.
- Identify possible solutions. Instead of focusing on what made you mad, work on resolving the issue at hand. Is your partner late for dinner every night? Schedule meals later in the evening — or agree to eat on your own a few times a week. Remind yourself that anger won’t fix anything and might only make it worse.
- Stick with ‘I’ statements. To avoid criticizing or placing blame — which might only increase tension — use “I” statements to describe the problem. Be respectful and specific. For example, say, “I’m upset that you left the table without offering to help with the dishes,” instead of, “You never do any housework.”
- Don’t hold a grudge. Forgiveness is a powerful tool. If you allow anger and other negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by bitterness or a sense of injustice. But if you can forgive someone who angered you, you might both learn from the situation.
- Use humor to release tension. Lightening up can help defuse tension. Use humor to help you face what’s making you angry and, possibly, any unrealistic expectations. Avoid sarcasm, though — it can hurt feelings and make things worse.
- Practice relaxation skills. When your temper flares, put relaxation skills to work. Practice deep-breathing exercises, imagine a relaxing scene or repeat a calming phrase, such as, “Take it easy.” You might also listen to music or write in a journal — whatever it takes to encourage relaxation.
- Know when to seek help. Learning to control anger can be a challenge for everyone. Consider seeking help for anger issues if your anger seems out of control, causes you to do things you regret or hurts those around you.
Source: The Mayo Clinic