Before you can learn to control your anger and your cognitive reactions to feeling angry, you must first be able to identify when you are angry. This means paying attention, not only to your feelings, but to the signals your body is giving you in terms of the physiological signs of anger (most of which we don't notice until long after we've acted regrettably). This chapter will explore ways you can learn to identify anger and anger triggers.
Anger is not a problem; it is a normal emotional response. It is how people handle the emotion of anger that becomes the problem. Recognizing anger is the first step in helping someone who uses violence or other destructive methods of dealing with anger to change the way anger makes them act. You can not change the way anger makes you feel – but you can change how you respond to the feelings.
The first signs of anger are physical: tension, a tightening of muscles, a "pit of the stomach" feeling. You might feel cold or break out in a sweat. Your heart will pound and your breathing may change (fast, shallow breaths). You may even experience a headache. Most likely, all of these things will happen without you noticing anything more than being MAD.
Many times, we begin to react to the physical feelings of anger before thinking about what a rational response would be. Other people may shut down completely and internalize the anger. Most of us develop habits for the way we deal with anger.
When you teach yourself to recognize the physical signs of anger, you can train your mind to control your response – you can pause your overt reaction and allow yourself time to reason – with yourself and with others later. If you are prone to violence or have already had anger control problems, you can recognize the physical symptoms of anger as a cue for you to take a time-out. If you tend to internalize anger in an unhealthy way, you can use the physical cues to help you recognize the need to express your feelings.
If you have a problem with anger – if you react to anger with violence, or with self-destructive habits – it can be helpful for you to do a self-assessment of anger in your life.
Step One: Think about the examples you have seen in your life about how to handle anger. Did your parents constantly over-react to things that made them angry? Was your childhood home a place of tension and frustration? Did you withdraw, or did you lash out? What about other influential people in your life? Have you incorporated reactions to anger into your life from the various behaviors that you witnessed? Did you receive messages from your parents about the expression of anger? Was it OK or not OK to express anger in your home? Did you have a "voice?"
Step Two: Think about things that seem to trigger your anger (or your over-reaction to the emotion of anger). Do certain things seem to "set you off?" Does it only happen when you drink too much? Do you get angry when you feel rejected, teased, or ridiculed? Do certain behaviors make you angry (perceived thoughtlessness, being ignored)?
Step Three: Once you identify the things that cause your anger, you will be able to work on finding rational solutions. The old-fashioned idea that anger should be completely expressed all the time because it is unhealthy to hold it in is simply not true. In fact, always expressing your anger, especially if you have negative or violent ways of expressing your anger, can actually lead to more violent expressions of anger as time goes on. On the other hand, always repressing your anger is no better – repressing your anger means you are not dealing with the things that cause your anger, so they will keep repeating. Either style of handling anger will result in more long-term issues. The best solution is to identify the causes of your anger and remove them, if possible, or work through the issues that cause your particular set of anger reactions.
Emotion versus Action
The most important thing that you can do when you are working on anger management skills is to recognize that the feeling you feel when you are angry and your physical response to anger (lashing out, hitting, violence, withdrawing) are separate things. You can unlearn the habit of your reaction to angry feelings, even when you cannot completely eradicate the feeling of anger from your life. You can learn better ways of reacting to your angry feelings that are not as damaging to you and others.
Irrational Thinking and Anger
It is possible to change your approach to the things that cause your anger, and to reduce your emotional response. Often, our life experiences create defense mechanisms that cause us to use anger as a way of protecting ourselves, like a shield. If you have been picked on as a child, you may decide that other people's words belittle you. You may – even subconsciously – create an angry response that causes you to lash out with violent words and actions whenever you perceive that you are being teased or bullied. Not only can you train yourself to realize that what other people say about you does not actually impact who you are, but you can recognize that you may have developed an over-sensitive nature to this particular type of situation.
Have you ever been accused of being too touchy? Or have people seemed surprised that what they said, either in jest or otherwise, bothered you as much as it did? If so, you should take the time to examine your past and determine whether or not you have unresolved issues about other experiences that you are carrying with you. You do not become what others say about you. By training yourself to be conscious of the fact the others cannot dictate who you are, you can diffuse your angry reaction to being teased or belittled.
It is possible that you have an expectation that things will go the way you want them to, and when they do not, you may have a habit of getting angry. This may have become a lifelong habit for you, something developed over a long time. Perhaps it even stemmed from your parents' attitudes and expectations. Retrain yourself to realize that, while it is OK to shape your world the way you want to, you are not always in control of the environment around you. You can only control your choices, not the choices of others. When you learn to recognize and let go of irrational expectations, it can lessen your anger.
If you tend to keep your anger inside and pretend that everything is ok, you may have been raised to think that anger is bad, evil, or punishable. You may repress your feelings, or feel very uncomfortable expressing them. You might turn your angry feelings inward and not deal with them, or express your anger in less obvious ways (see the chapter on passive aggressive behavior).
Before you can learn to manage your anger and your reaction to having the emotion, you must learn to recognize it. Recognizing your anger requires you to do a little self-exploration to determine what kinds of things make you angry, how you have been taught to handle anger, as well as why you feel provoked to anger in certain circumstances. Once you understand what the potential triggers are that cause your anger, you can teach yourself to recognize the feeling before you begin reacting, and start retraining yourself to react with less volatility to situations.