It is a fact of life that we all have bad days. We all lose our tempers from time to time and I’d venture to guess that most of us have screamed at an inanimate object or two (or three).
Some lose their tempers more than others (especially during periods of extended stress) but for others, excessive anger is the norm and not the exception. When we experience disproportionate anger (or the people closest to us notice we do) it often triggers I red flag in our minds: Do I have a problem with anger?
Or we may not notice a problem and instead attribute our aggressive state of mind to the world around us. Either way, excessive anger is widely considered to be toxic so it is worth pausing to examine its cause, extent, severity, and explore methods to diffuse it.
One copywriter (who prefers to remain anonymous) said they experienced anger several times a day for a long time. “People were afraid to be around me and were walking on egg shells. I kept reading spiritual books that said ‘do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?’ and tried to control the anger that way but it didn't work for long. My anger was just like a knee jerk reaction I had no control over. I would regret it later and be bewildered by where it had come from so vociferously.”
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Dr. Joseph Shrand, Instructor of Psychiatry and Medical Director at CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), describes this knee jerk reaction as a defining component of feeling anger. “Anger is an approach emotion designed to protect you from a predator. As such, the fight branch of the fight-flight mechanism gets activated: heart rate can increase, blood pressure increases, tension in large muscles of arms, legs, neck, face reddens in a threat display, an adrenaline rush that interferes with your logical brain. And yes, it can get worse over time, with less and less provocation triggering anger. Ii fact, the brain begins to anticipate conflict and see these dangers in the surrounding world even if they are not really there!”
Since all human beings experience anger, where do we draw the line between normal and the possibility of an anger disorder? Dr. Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, draws this line where a person’s excessive anger begins to impact their daily life in negative ways.
“If you indulge in emotional outbursts, are violent or destructive, you most likely have an anger problem. If anger has cost you a career, your driver's license, or relationships with family or friends, it is definitely out of control. If you think screaming, yelling, obscenities, nastiness and/or physical violence toward persons or objects is OK, you probably have an anger disorder.”
As with other issues that combine physical and emotional symptoms, identifying that there is a problem is the first step on the path to resolving the problem. According to Tessina, there are several potential causes of anger disorders.
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“Anger disorders can be brought on by certain drugs, overdoses of testosterone, or brain damage such as Alzheimer's or injury to the brain. Some schizophrenics are violent. Most anger disorders are the result of dysfunctional family environment—the person may have had violent parents, or may have been placated as a child, or may have been ignored except when he or she expressed anger,” Tessina explains.
Depending on the cause of the anger problem, Tessina identifies a few methods used to treat the condition: “Treatment is pretty simple except in the case of brain damage or schizophrenia. Environmentally caused anger problems need training in self-control and therapy for understanding the roots of the anger,” she advises.
Tessina goes on to explain that many anger issues are routed in impulse control deficiencies. “People who have angry outbursts, whether at spouses or freeway traffic, have poor impulse control. They are often emotionally stuck in the early childhood temper tantrum stage (about age two-and-a-half to three) because they never learned to manage their own anger. Whoever was supposed to help them manage their temper, such as parents or teachers, were absent, intimidated or helpless, and allowed the child to grow into a raging adult. People who are prone to violent outbursts may also have witnessed a family member who was a ‘rage-aholic’ and frequently angry or violent. People who rage don’t know how to do emotional maintenance and shake off stress. They also don't know how to quit when something is getting to them. Those who allow themselves to rage don't know how to tell they're on the brink, or how to stop,” Tessina explains.
“Once an angry person understands that just spewing anger about is not healthy or functional, anger management is not difficult to learn,” advises Tessina. “Most habitually angry people have a feeling of entitlement (‘I can’t change who I am’) that prevents them from wanting to control their anger. Once they understand that shouting, blaming, raging, and being violent doesn't accomplish anything; that it ruins relationships, and makes them look weak, rather than powerful, then learning to control anger is not hard. I tell clients who see me for anger management that ‘He who loses it, loses,’ because no matter who started it, or who’s to blame, once you lose your temper, you become the bad guy.”
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You Have Choices
Tessina explains that dealing with an anger problem requires significant changes be made to a person’s attitude and general lifestyle. She advises that people with anger issues start this process of change by looking inward and deciding what kind of life is most attractive to them. “To solve your anger problems, make some choices: Do you want to keep doing what you're doing, or do you want to learn self control and have a life that works? Do you want to look controlling, or do you want to be successful? Do you want to be right, or be loved? In every case, learning to control your anger and act responsibly will get you more of what you want from life.”
She recommends the following exercise as a starting point for anger management:
Exercise: Rewinding the Tape
1. Imagine a previous angry situation as if it's occurring now. Get as clear a picture of the scene as possible, imagining what people are wearing, what the room looks like, etc.
2. Mentally play the scene as if it's a video, and see how it develops. Don't worry, if it plays out according to your worst fears; just watch it as you would any video.
3. Because this scene didn't go well originally, consider what you'd like to change about what you're doing (remember, you can't control the others in the scene, but you can get them to respond differently by giving them something different to respond to.) Rewind and replay this mental image, trying new ways to handle it until you are successful (that is, you handle the situation without losing your temper).
4. Play the tape a few more times, with this successful process and outcome, until you feel confident you can do and say what you are visualizing.
5. Play the tape again and again, visualizing your successful outcome. The more you replay it, and practice your new responses, the easier it will be to access them in the next discussion.
6. You have just reprogrammed your mind to create some new responses to tense or angry situations, and you'll find these responses are available to you when you need them. Use this technique any time you're concerned about an upcoming discussion or confrontation.
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