Trinitas psychologists Dr. Patricia Neary-Ludmer and Dr. Rodger Goddard get to the bottom of getting steamed.
Goddard: Anger is a serious issue. Stories of road rage, shootings, domestic violence, workplace assault and bullying fill our airwaves. Movies and television shows are populated with dangerous, angry, vengeful, criminal characters. Anger, aggression and violence are ever-present in our lives. Anger fuels violent crimes, rapes, murder and war. The model of dealing with threat that we see in the media is one of threatening back, upping the ante and retaliation. We often ascribe to the Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry Go ahead make my day school of conflict resolution.
Neary-Ludmer: We become angry when we—or someone we care about—is threatened, or when another person has wronged us or those we care about. Anger also can be the result of frustration when our needs, desires, goals are not being met, or when we feel a lack of control.
Goddard: We may experience anger in dealing with our husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and work relationships. We experience anger in our bodies, thoughts, urges, heart and soul. Anger can express itself on a continuum of intensity ranging from annoyance, tension, dislike, frustration and resentment, to fury, rage, aggression and violence. Anger makes us do and say horrible things. Anger makes the heart pound and thoughts race. Anger infiltrates our daily lives in the form of stress, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, argument, discomfort, illness and relationship problems. Anger is unhealthy. It takes a toll on the quality and quantity of our lives. Living with chronic states of anger injures our immune system and contributes to heart disease, stroke, ulcer, stomach problems, headaches and countless other illnesses. We hold anger in our bodies. It leads to subtle and sometimes intense muscle tightening that we may have for days, weeks or years. Many of us have favorite body areas for holding our anger. We may constrict the muscles of our lower back, forehead, neck, jaw, face or stomach. We can begin to reverse the negative effects of anger by first learning how to tell how tense our muscles are, and secondly, by learning how to release our muscles tension.
Neary-Ludmer: One of the ideas I try to convey to the people I see with anger issues is that anger does far more damage to them than to others. I try to explain that it’s okay to forgive—it doesn’t mean you have to forget. Just breath in, breathe out, and move on. Often I will use quotes to help people understand their anger. There are three in particular that are really effective. Buddha said that holding onto anger is like “grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else—you are the one who gets burned.” Gandhi observed that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that for every minute you remain angry, “you give up 60 seconds of peace of mind.”
Goddard: Anger and frustration often come from not being in control—not getting something we want or not getting our way with others. Regaining control in our lives is an important key to overcoming chronic anger. Many people do not understand the difference between anger and aggression. Anger is an emotion. Emotions and anger are actually good. Emotions are a sixth sense. They tell us very important things about ourselves and others— what we want and what we need. Emotions, however, can be used, experienced or expressed in positive or negative/constructive or destructive ways. Aggression, on the other hand, is a negative action that is harmful, destructive, threatening and/or violates the rights of another. Anger can give us important messages and can be positive fuel which can provide us with the motivation and energy to make needed changes.
Neary-Ludmer: There are some basic steps involved in getting anger under control. First, a person with anger problems has to admit he/she has a problem. This is a fundamental step in addressing virtually all self-destructive behavioral issues. Next, a person needs to learn relaxation techniques that target the emotional and psychological components of anger; feelings of anger protect us from other more vulnerable feelings, such as hurt, insecurity, anxiety or fear. Part of anger control also involves learning to challenge the thinking that creates hostility and inflammation. Finally, a person with anger problems must develop the positive communication skills of assertiveness and conflict resolution.
Goddard: Two skills that I give to my clients and audiences concerning anger are the MAD skill and the SURF Method of Assertion. The MAD skill involves, M for Muscles Relax, A for Ask Nicely for What I Want and D for Do Not Insult or Drop It. SURF Assertion involves S for Specifics, U for Understanding, R for Repetition and F for Firmness or Find a Compromise.
Neary-Ludmer: Knowing how to deal with someone else’s anger is also a valuable skill. Rule number one is to remember that it takes two—do not take the bait! Do not respond to anger with anger in kind, or it could set off an escalation process that could turn violent and even deadly. Adopt a non-escalation policy by being the emotionally mature person. For instance, if a driver believes you slighted him by cutting him off, taking his parking space or looking at his girlfriend, defuse the situation. Apologize even if you don’t mean it. You never know whom you may be dealing with. Be the bigger person. Show empathy for their feelings.
Goddard: If someone you know has serious difficulty with managing anger, there is no quick or easy solution. Confronting this type of person can definitely be dangerous and is often not helpful. Chronic aggression or anger indicates a serious problem and needs to be dealt with by getting professional help.
Neary-Ludmer: Something that has definitely hit the Anger Management radar in recent years is the role technology plays. Rage-induced emails, texts and tweets require the mere tap of a Send button and they are on their way. Many a job, marriage and friendship have been lost over impulsiveness with this type of technology—not to mention the legal problems this communication can cause. If you are angry, don’t hit Send. Reread, rethink, reconsider, sleep on it. Chances are you won’t send it.
Goddard: The point is not to eliminate anger, but to understand and manage it. Anger is an important part of life. Anger is fuel, energy and power. Like any hot and powerful energy we need to learn how to handle and channel it. We can get a message from our anger, control it, embrace it and use it in positive ways. Or, we can let it control us, take us over and allow it to injure our health and relationships. Dealing productively with anger necessitates building self-calming, assertion and anger management skills. The next time you get angry try identifying exactly what you want and use the MAD skill or SURF Method of Assertion to calm down, relax your body tension and get what you need from yourself or others.
Neary-Ludmer: To deal successfully with anger, it’s also helpful to recognize a few of the myths about it. Anger isn’t inherited. The expression of anger is learned. That’s good news, because it means that appropriate ways of communication can be learned, too. Intense anger does not automatically trigger aggressive behaviors. One can develop skills to challenge hostile, negative or irrational feelings and beliefs. And contrary to earlier beliefs, “venting” anger in aggressive ways—such as screaming or punching a pillow—is not a good idea. It merely reinforces aggressive behavior.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Rodger Goddard is Chief Psychologist at Trinitas and Director of the hospital’s wellness program which provides companies, agencies and schools with on-site programs to improve health and productivity. Dr. Patricia Neary-Ludmer manages the Family Resource Center in Cranford, an affiliate of the Trinitas Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry.