Vail Daily column: Controlling anger before it controls you
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
We all know what anger is, and we’ve all felt it: whether as a fleeting annoyance or as full-fledged rage. Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems – problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life. The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.
On the other hand, we can’t physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far our anger can take us.
We all have a variety of ways, both conscious and unconscious, to handle our anger. The three main ways are:
• Expressing it
• Suppressing it.
• Calming it.
Expressing your anger is the healthiest way to deal with it. But to do so effectively, you must do so in a way that is respectful both to yourself and to others. You need to be able to express your needs and feelings without hurting those around you. If you choose to suppress your anger, you will often find it to be redirected. Your aim of suppressing angry feelings may be honorable, as you try to hold your anger in and perhaps focus on something positive. But anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure or depression. It can create other problems as well. It can cause passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly), and it can lead to cynicism and hostility. Indeed, people who are always putting other people down and criticizing everyone and everything around them have not learned to constructively express their anger. Finally, a third way to handle anger is to simply learn to calm yourself down, thereby controlling not just your behavior but also your internal response.
So how do you know if anger is controlling you? From what I’ve read, most people get angry at least a few times a week. That’s perfectly normal. What is not normal is intense anger that happens more frequently and lasts longer than the brief irritation most of us occasionally feel. Other warning signs include physical aggression, nasty responses and problems with your relationships, job or health as a result of your temper.
Therapy can help. Counselors use three basic strategies to treat anger:
• Relaxation. Counselors train clients in a technique called “progressive relaxation” until the client is able to relax simply by thinking of a particular word or image. Counselors then ask clients to spend a minute or two thinking intensely about a situation that makes them excessively angry, such as other drivers going too slowly. Counselors then help their clients relax. If this technique is practiced over and over, clients can usually get themselves to relax.
• Cognitive therapy. Often the way people think when they’re angry makes situations worse. When another driver cuts you off, for instance, you might think, “You idiot!” In cognitive therapy, counselors help clients find alternative ways of thinking about and reacting to anger. Instead of thinking bad thoughts about the other driver, for example, a client could instead think, “Whoa! That was an accident waiting to happen.”
• Skill development. Learning new behaviors can also help. Parents might need to find better ways of communicating with their children, for instance. Angry drivers might benefit from learning safe driving skills.
All three strategies or combinations of them seem to be the best approaches to anger management.
If you feel as though you are at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion, if you feel that your anger is really out of control, if it is having an impact on your relationships and on important parts of your life, you might consider counseling to learn how to handle it better. You can’t eliminate anger. In fact, at times, anger is quite appropriate, but you can change the way you let events around you affect you. Controlling your angry responses and reacting appropriately, i.e., with respect for yourself and others, can keep you from being even more unhappy in the long run.
Elizabeth Myers is the executive director of the Samaritan Counseling Center. She can be reached at 970-926-8558. Visit the Center’s website at http://www.samaritan-vail.org for more information.