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We all get angry. Many people choose not to believe this, but anger is a universal human emotion that can help us survive and solve some of life’s problems, or, conversely, it can create further trouble. Anger is an emotion that can occur when there is a threat to our self esteem, our bodies, our property, our ways of seeing the world or our desires.
People differ in what makes them angry. Some people will perceive an event as threatening, while others see no threat at all in the same event. Our responses to anger differ as well. Some people are able to experience angry feelings and use them as a way of solving problems. Others turn their anger inward and engage in self destructive behavior. Other people strike out when they feel angry. And some refuse to acknowledge their anger, or they confuse anger with other emotions such as vulnerability or fear.
When anger occurs, the body goes instantly into a series of mind body reactions involving hormones, the nervous system, and the muscles. This involves a release of adrenaline that results in shortness of breath, skin flushing, muscle rigidity, and the tightening in the jaw, stomach, shoulders and hands.
Our thoughts can become fragmented and our eyes may dart from object to object. We become agitated and may even tremble. Our first impulse may be to take action and this could turn out to be destructive.
Think of anger as a tool for survival. When we perceive a threat, we experience a fight or flight response. That is, we will either struggle to head off the treat or we will flee the situation. Either response can be helpful, depending on the circumstances. Anger is a tool that, when used effectively, can motivate us to solve problems and confront threats in a sensible manner.
Some children are brought up to feel comfortable with their anger. When they feel angry, they have a parent or other adult who helps them experience this emotion, become familiar with it, and contain their responses to it. With the guiding hand of a stable adult, they learn to trust in their anger, to feel secure when anger occurs, and to direct it non-destructively and productively.
They accept anger as an emotion that can be used in a positive way. They experience anger fully, but they are able to moderate their responses, a skill they will be able to use throughout their lives.
Unfortunately, many of us, as we grew up, lacked helpful guidance in learning to deal with our anger, which is widely seen as a negative emotion that should be suppressed. A common myth suggests that healthy, happy people do not get angry. Nothing could be further from the truth. How often have we been told never to show our anger? How many people have been made to feel shame for having anger, only then to turn their anger inward and chastise themselves for feeling this normal emotion?
If we do not recognize or experience anger, we cannot learn ways to deal with it in a healthy way. If we turn it inward on ourselves, we will have difficulty using it to deal effectively with problems in the real world. Luckily, even if we learned unproductive ways of handling anger in childhood, we can learn useful methods for dealing with this emotion in adulthood.
When anger goes out of control the consequences can be devastating and irreparable. When people have a destructive angry episode, there is a series of steps involved in the escalation of the interaction. We should aim to stop the escalation before it spirals completely out of control. We can learn to break into this chain of behavior at any point to prevent anger from reaching a destructive level, although the interventions are more effective at the earlier stages of the sequence.
First there is a triggering event. All of us have different events that can trigger anger, but in most cases the event is something that makes us feel threatened. Next we interpret the event. It is our interpretation of the event that can send us instantaneously into an angry state.
If the event taps into our unresolved issues regarding rejection, humiliation, or being controlled or abused, we are likely to interpret it as a threat. In order to break the chain of anger at this point we need to go immediately into more flexible mode of thinking so that we can interpret the event in a positive light and with compassion. Third, we quickly have a physical reaction to anger with a rush of adrenaline that causes stress, quick movements, fragmented thoughts, and a need to take action.
To intervene at this point, we should breathe deeply, work on calming ourselves down and refuse to take destructive action. Lastly, we go into a stage of automatic negative thoughts which increases our perception of being harmed and justifies our physical reaction. These thoughts usually involve self righteous beliefs and a desire for vengeance. There is often little logic associated with these thoughts. At this point, observe your thoughts and statements and simply refuse to engage in this stage of the process.
Understand your anger and its positive and negative consequences, so that it can be used in a productive way in your life. Cheers!
J.M. Evosevich, Ph.D., LMFT, CADC (MFC33118) is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Palm Springs. He works with individuals and couples to assist them in dealing with the stress that life brings to have happier, healthier relationships. If you have a question you would like to see answered in this column, call 760.778.4929 or email to email@example.com