Anger Management: Essential Concepts and Strategies
by Shlomo Radcliffe, MACP, RP
An Anger Model
The three parts of anger...
Anger situations can be broken down into 3 parts: what precedes an anger situation, the anger situation itself, and what follows an anger situation. Behaviour scientists like to refer to this break-down as the ABC model (or antecedent, behaviour, and consequence). If you like you can use that, or if you want something catchier we can also call this Build-Up, Anger, Make-Up (or not)... (BAM! If you’d like an acronym!). Understanding and working with each of these three phases of anger is essential for dealing with and reducing related problems.
Anger is not usually 0-100
Clients often tell me that their anger is 0-100! It just comes out of nowhere… However, when we spend time discussing things further, it becomes clear that anger is rarely actually a true 0-100 proposition. It is true that in the moment it can appear that way as in the case of someone who punches a wall when asked to wash the dishes. Yet, anger build ups usually involve a long process that can sometimes take place outside of our awareness.
Some of the factors that contribute to a build-up of anger can have occurred on the same day as an anger moment. These include factors like having a bad day at work/home, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, sleep deprived, and anxious. These can also include things like having a number of small anger moments or frustrations during the day before the “big one”.
Other factors can include general life context: those dealing with chronic stress, difficulty, or hypothetically… a global pandemic can find themselves experiencing low frustration tolerance and a propensity to react poorly to triggers!
Factors can even go back much further in history and include developmental history… including your experiences of adverse events in your life and your learning of how those around you dealt with anger. Of course, it’s important to note that while an understanding of the greater context around an anger problem, including your learning history may give you a greater understanding of why a problem is there - it does not diminish one’s responsibility in learning how to more effectively deal with the problem that is certainly there. Anger hurts, whether there are good reasons for anger or not.
So Anger is rarely a 0-100 proposition. More often you’re already walking around at a 60/100+ a lot of the time and by the time you get triggered, it can be hard to cool things down!
Use stress management to deal with the build-up...
Learning how to reduce the factors that contribute to anger build-up where possible can significantly reduce anger, conflict, and stress. While certain build-up factors may be less malleable than others - unfortunately this article does not include any significant strategies for addressing COVID or other present world stressors - there are many actions that can be taken ahead of time to curb anger moments before they occur.
In dealing with the build-up, certainly tried and true stress management methods apply…
Reduce commitments and responsibilities where possible
Even small shifts help. Maybe you can’t leave your job, but do you really need to have your work email turned on or be reachable by phone 24/7? Consider setting specific times where you are available and times where you are otherwise unreachable. Unless you are working in emergency services, most things can wait 24 hours.
Tackle work overload by learning a productivity method… GTD, Pomodoro, Kanban, Eisenhower Matrix. Many systems have been designed to help get things done more effectively, more efficiently, and more sustainably to cope with demands of 21st century work standards.
Take care of your health by protecting the pillars of health: exercise, nutrition, and sleep
Consider practicing mindfulness, relaxation, or yoga. Reduces stress and enhances calm and mental well-being. These practices also give you a greater self-awareness of how you are feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally and therefore is also a tool for increasing anger/emotional awareness. Awareness is essential for recognizing when you are at 60/100 so you can take action there before the level goes up!
Stress management and anger management tend to go hand in hand. Learning anger management without dealing with stress management is like learning how to swim with weights strapped to your body. It might be possible, but it’s going to be a whole lot easier and more sustainable if we take those weights off first.
Where possible, efforts to reduce stress and all the factors that contribute to anger before it happens can have strong effects on reducing angry moments.
Even just being aware of the build up is helpful since you recognize what the anger is really about...
Even when it becomes difficult to completely eliminate all the factors that are at play in the build-up stage, even just maintaining an awareness of the build-up can have a positive effect on anger interactions. Becoming aware of these factors can allow you to ask yourself this question in angry moments: is my anger reaction in proportion to what is happening now? Or am I reacting this way because of everything else going on in my life? Questions like these can help you modulate and adjust your anger response in the moment so that you are responding to what is happening now (for example at home) rather than what happened at an earlier point in the day (for example at work).
The Anger Moment
While addressing and increasing your awareness of the build-up factor can reduce and prevent angry moments and intervening at this stage is the best option.... The reality is, angry moments and conflict do occur. So, when you find yourself in these spots, how can you best navigate them so that you and those around you leave in one piece? Here are a few essential concepts to keep in mind:
1) Sloooow it down
One of the biggest things we want to do with anger, or any strong emotional response for that matter is slow things down. In the grip of anger, our bodies pump us full of chemicals - think fight or flight response - and send us a strong impulse to act NOW. Our brain actually shifts to a fast, automatic way of reacting and moves resources away from our logical slower thinking brain. Blood flow moves away from our brain and into our arms and legs. These changes result in us being able to respond more quickly and more forcefully in the moment. They also result in us literally having less access to the thinking part of our brain - the part that makes logical and effective LONG-TERM decisions. This is one reason why regret is often the close companion of anger, we’re not operating out of our rational brain! For this reason, it is highly important to slow things down when feeling activated. This gives our brains a chance to cool down and shift from the emotional brain to a more logical, rational part of the brain. This shift doesn’t mean you're not upset with what has happened, but it does give you the ability to take more perspective on the situation and react in a way that is more likely to be effective in the long-term. Here’s one way to do that: Stop, Think, and Go
STOP: The moment you get triggered, take a pause. This can be a short pause such as counting to 10 on your fingers, or a long pause such as leaving the room, taking a walk, taking a mindful minute… or even going to sleep (if the time is right)!
When possible, the longer the pause the better as it gives you more time to shift emotional states. However, this is not always possible and even short pauses are helpful!
THINK: Ask yourself this question… “What do I need to do right now that will leave me feeling okay in the long-term?” Just asking yourself this question helps keep you in your thinking brain and acts as an additional part of slowing down. It also orients you to focus on the long-term and can help you reflect on the actions you can take right now that are unlikely to leave you with regret tomorrow.
GO: Implement that response
2) Communicate Right
Anger expression usually is tied to our needs not having been met. For example, our spouse leaves a mess in the kitchen, we get angry because we need the kitchen to be clean. Your husband overspends on the credit card, you get angry because you need financial well-being. Your family member visits you without a mask, you get angry because you value health and safety.
Yet, when expressing anger we tend to place more emphasis on blame. “How could you make a mess again, you're such a slob!”, “You spent $500 on UberEats this month? How could you be so irresponsible!”, “You’re not wearing a mask… how selfish are you!”
Unfortunately, blame only tends to fuel the fires of anger and cause the other party to try to adopt a defensive or even aggressive stance in response. “You’re so over the top about cleanliness!”, “You’re so controlling about money, just give it a rest!”, “COVID is so overblown, masks are useless!”
If we want to resolve anger more effectively, we need to learn how to shift from communications of attack to communications more focused on what we are really looking for. We need to learn how to express our needs. One way to do this is to use the formula:
I feel X because of X and I need X.
The first part changes the focus from what “you” (the other party) did to how “I” am feeling. You-focused statements often promote defensiveness whereas I-focused statements are better at facilitating empathy. The second part… because of x makes it clear to the other person what went wrong, while the third part makes it clear what you are hoping for now or in the future.
“I feel overwhelmed because there is a mess in the kitchen and I need you to please be more conscious of cleaning up as you go.”, I feel upset because we’re overbudget this month and we’re trying to save for a house. I need you to limit how much you’re spending so we can do that. Maybe we can try to figure out a fast-food budget so you can get some of what you want each month?” “Could you try and wear a mask when we see each other? I know that you don’t think it’s a big deal but I’m trying to be careful so I would really appreciate it.”
You don’t need to formulate every statement you speak in that structure…. We’re not robots! However, “I feel x, because of x, and I need x” can give you a way to focus on what you are really trying to express in the conversation. Shouting anger is effective in expressing how discontent you are, but is rarely helpful in helping you get your real needs met. Keep in mind that angry moments are often not the best time to do in-depth problem solving. For issues that keep recurring it can be helpful to schedule specific times and places to collaboratively brainstorm solutions to address the problem in a way that helps both parties get their needs met.
The make-up phase of anger involves how we respond following an anger moment; to ourselves and to those involved in our anger moment. Some essential concepts include: redirecting rumination, reflection, and repair.
Following an anger moment many people find themselves in the process of rumination which can be:
Other-directed: how could they say that to me, why would they say that, I’m in the wrong relationship
Self-directed: how come I keep making the same mistakes, why would I say that, I’m a bad person
Notice… getting stuck in this process rarely relieves anger and instead tends to keep us locked in negative thoughts, negative imagery, and the anger, shame, and depression cycle. One way to shift from the cycle is to move from why thoughts about the past to what thoughts about what you can do. It’s important to make a distinction between rumination and problem solving…Rumination tends to be repetitive thinking that goes around in circles whereas problem-solving can actually lead to actions or strategies you can take. If you’re still circling in your head after 5 minutes and not getting anywhere you might be in a rumination cycle! One way to break out of the cycle is to move from rumination to reflection.
It is far more effective to reflect on what you would like to do next time you're faced with a similar situation.
After the anger incident:
Reflect on what happened
Consider what you would do differently next time
Visualize yourself doing it that way the next time a similar trigger comes up
(Keep in mind that reflecting on the times you handle anger effectively is just as important… it is useful to consider what you are doing right so you can keep doing that too!)
If you are left with an interpersonal problem that needs to be solved, you can also reflect on what solutions you can come up with to deal with the problem or otherwise engage in problem-solving. Concrete problem-solving is the opposite of rumination.
If you recognize that you’ve lost your cool and said things that you regret, repair is an essential part of the make-up process. However, apologizing is not easy! Even if you’ve managed to work yourself up to make an apology, it's important to be aware of the way you go about the process of apologizing. Consider the difference between what might form an ineffective vs. effective apology:
Ineffective apology: “I’m sorry about yelling at you but each time you do that you just make me so upset.” The “but” decreases the value of the apology and places responsibilities for your actions in the hands of the other party. It also may promote defensiveness on the part of the other party again.
Effective apology: I am sorry for yelling at you, I was out of line. You take full ownership of your contributions and do not add anything else in there.
Even if you are not fully at fault in the anger situation, there is no harm at all in apologizing for what you contributed to in the moment. Often, doing so will help the other party make their own apology too… but it's important to not make that a condition of your apology. You can only really control your part of a conflict.
Just like an anger moment, an apology moment is not a problem-solving moment. It is just an apology moment. If there is an ongoing problem, find a time and place to sit down and problem solve to state your need.
Keep in mind that apologies need to be combined with a firm commitment to behaviour change and more importantly follow through on that commimentent to be effective.
This article has covered a few essential aspects of anger and conflict management. For a list of further resources you can access to build on these concepts, please see the list below. There are many great self-help resources and online resources that can help you improve stress, anger, and conflict in your life. As well, professional help whether in the form of counselling or anger management groups are available to help. If you’re interested in the approach described here and would like professional guidance to help you better manage stress, anger, and conflict, you can also book an appointment with me here.