Keep the lid on

Anger management tips-how to not blow off your top at the drop of a hat

Anger does not come out of the blue. Psychologists have fathomed, all anger comes from stress, caused due to some obstacle blocking your way to your goal. It is a natural reaction to an obstacle—a signal that something needs to be done. It is also a sign of frustration, when you cannot move things, however much you try. Anger acts as a communication too, that you are displeased with the situation and you do not accept what is given to you.

Sometimes we are placed in situations which act as triggers. Yet, triggers alone cannot lead to a fit of rage. For example, toys strewn around the house cannot be the only factor for you throwing a tantrum at your kids and your maid. There are times when you are able to take the same situation mildly and get it rectified without getting angry. But at a time, when you are returning from a long day at office and the least you are expecting is a relaxing shower and a good sleep. When you enter your house and see this mayhem, you immediately start feeling that perhaps your family members do not care about you or your long day at office. That is what sets off the anger bug–the thought, which intervenes between the situation and your behaviour. How we process information influences how we behave in every sphere of our lives.

On the road, if you strongly hold the belief that other people SHOULD not cut in front of you from the wrong side, when somebody does that, you think it's unfair, WRONG and ought to be resisted and punished. This thought irks you and gradually sets off that emotional alarm and might lead you to abuse the individual.

Thus, anger management is not about setting the world right, it is in fact about adjusting your beliefs, so that you are able to live more peacefully.

People deal with anger in seemingly three different ways:

  1. Acting out, which involves hostile aggressive behaviour, like abusing, fighting, screaming and throwing tantrums.
  2. Suppressing anger, or avoiding conflicts, by being distant, passive aggressive, cynical and even taking it on oneself [this often leads to depression].
  3. Calming down and responding assertively.

The third method is one that doesn't come naturally to us, and needs to be learned and practised to perfection. The aim of this whole anger affair seems to have our own way. By calming down the 'hot emotions' we are able to prevent the brain hijack as well as act according to reason. We can thus behave assertively, negotiate with the other party and get our work done, without getting angry. Of course, it's not as simple as it sounds, and it entails training and practice.

Anger as an advantage

Although anger is not appropriate most of the time, a study in 2007 suggests that anger-induced action is sometimes the result of quite clear-headed and deliberate processing. Which means, anger, when channelled for positive behaviour, leads to moving forward or even success. We do think of successful individuals as ones being a tad more aggressive than usual. Well, these are people who have been able to successfully channel their anger into their ingredient for success.

Anger management, therefore is NOT about NEVER getting angry again, but is about learning how to regulate and express the natural feelings in a way that makes us more effective—a trade-off between letting the steam escape a bit and at the same time firing the engine to work at a desired speed.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter suggests a blend of three therapeutic methods for managing anger:

  1. Changing the way you process information, known as cognitive restructuring
  2. Learning newer ways to cope with obstacles and frustrations in daily life, known as coping skills training
  3. Using self-induced relaxation to simmer down that boiling pot of emotions.

We are blessed with a free will to make our lives more beautiful. We may choose to be angry or be calm and behave better.

The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the only one who gets burned.” The choice is ours, to live and let live or to fret and fight.

A cool anger management plan

Recognise what bothers you: Often, we are not fully aware of the triggers that make us angry. Keeping a mental note of these helps avoid both, getting into the situation as well as managing it.

Respond, don't react to stress: Accept that reactions are far less wiser than responses. Therefore, it's important to take time to analyse and then respond, rather than react on the spur of the moment.

Retreat and calm down at rage points: The Buddha once gave the example of muddy water to explain this point. Just like we need to wait for the mud to settle down before we can drink water from a lake, we ought to exit the situation, take time out to cool and clear our mind to render it suitable for its job.

Review your 'SHOULD' thinking: Check whether your standards are too idealistic or too high for the world. We ought to be reasonable rather than right, and allow people to have their own limitations. Black and white thinking, and believing too strongly in right and wrong action, are underlying thinking patterns of anger.

Resolve resentments: If you harbour a grudge towards some situation/people, chances are, you will act on the basis of this grudge [the emotional memory] when you are in a similar situation the next time. Therefore, come to terms with such unfinished business, accept differences and close such matters peacefully.

Develop empathy: When we are angry, we fail to see the other person's point of view; that's the reason we fight and not discuss. Understanding the other person's perspective to feel what s/he might be going through makes us less rigid and open for discussion.

Be assertive: Being assertive does not mean being aggressive. Managing anger is about communicating assertively and negotiating to meet your needs. This is crucial because unless you feel you've cleared the obstacle from your path, it will occupy your mind and come out one fine day, dressed up as rage. Negotiation skills are important because it makes both parties feel their interest has been served.

Recognise negative self-talk: We often talk to ourselves in negative ways—“My boss doesn't appreciate me; he piles more and more work on me” or “My colleague just wants to pass the buck to me, no one respects me for the work I do” and so on. Although situations often lead us to think in these terms, it is crucial to notice such negative self-talk and substitute it with positive talk like “May be my boss thinks I am capable of handling more, therefore gives me more challenges” or that “May be my colleague is not comfortable with that job and is trying to give it to me because she knows I will do a better job of it.”

Relax: Practising diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness can help you relax and get better control over your mind

Forgive and let go: On a trip, the more baggage we carry, the less we can enjoy our journey. The same holds true with life; if we had to hold on to every grudge and every fight we had, we would be weighed down and not able to enjoy togetherness and company. It helps to forgive and let go, to say “sorry” and “thank you” more often. It costs nothing.

This was first published in the August 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Sukanya Ray
Sukanya Ray is a consultant at Human Dynamic Asia Pacific, Bangalore, providing people management services. She is a clinical psychologist trained from the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences [NIMHANS], Bangalore.

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