Working to Change our Anger Habits

Yesterday we explored the phases of anger; if our goal becomes to be able to use anger to our advantage, and stay “above the line,” the first step is in acknowledging that our anger habits are in fact habits. We learn about anger and how to process it from our experiences growing up and we often inherit learned behaviour from our caregivers. If for example, you had a parent who had a “0 to 60” temper, you might also have developed the same tendency.

It is important to note here that the following steps in processing anger are meant for alleviating the first two phases; aggression and hostility/resentment. Chronic anger and rage need deeper exploration and typically require professional help.

When you begin to feel anger rising, if you naturally move to aggression you will have an action urge; if your tendency is to suppress, you will feel that tendency to push it away (or down, hence the build up.) In either case, following these steps can help:

  1. Take some deep breaths. Research shows that deep breathing inhibits anger, anxiety and impulsivity.
  2. If you need to, remove yourself from the situation for 15 minutes. During that 15 minutes, continue to maintain some deep breathing and ask yourself the following question:
  3. “What am I really feeling? What is the emotion that I am skipping over? (remember that anger is our safe emotion so it becomes a default position for us).
  4. Before returning to the situation, ask yourself “How do I want to handle this? What can I do differently to avoid falling into my usual anger habit?” Tip: the 3 M’s help!
  5. Returning, keep in mind that the new behaviours you are choosing are the only ones you have control over. Rewarding the effort, not the outcome helps to reinforce your overall goal of moving towards healthier ways of coping anger.

Giving yourself permission to understand and accept unhealthy behaviours is the first step to growth; the work in changing habits takes time and patience. Please be gentle with yourself as you practice, practice, practice.   🙂

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When We Cross the Line; The Truth About Anger

Anger can have a bad rap. One look at an angry face and it can elicit a whole mix of emotions; everything from fear to helplessness to defensiveness. But anger really is meant to be a useful emotion to us; one that can motivate us to bring about change, one that can help us feel relief, one that aids us in processing more complicated emotions. When anger is in our control, we can put it to good use; however as soon as we cross the line; anger no longer works for us in positive ways. Listed are common phases of anger:

Aggression: As soon as we move to yelling, sarcasm, swearing, name calling, or hitting, we no longer have full control over our anger. It is at this stage, that we move to wanting to be right or gain control and we lose the ability to see the situation in an objective light. There is no room for solution in the aggressive stage. 

Hostility/Resentment: This is anger built up. It is a suppression of anger; sitting heavy within. It is during this phase that I am often reminded of the saying, “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.”

Chronic Anger: This is a phase in which someone lives in anger. Every emotion is now filtered through anger and it can lead to mistrust and paranoia at times. In reality, a very difficult way to live.

Rage: The phase of truly uncontrolled anger.

We may recognize ourselves in one of these phases; certainly the first two at different times in our lives. Tomorrow we will explore how to stay “above the line” so as to how to make our anger work for us in positive ways.

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The Fear Response

When we are going about our everyday lives, our brains help us to move and flow through our activities with a fair amount of ease. We call this top to bottom thinking; as the top parts of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex especially, help us to attend.  When our fear response kicks in, we call this bottom to top thinking; as the fear response part of our brain, in the amygdala, is closer to the base of our brain. When the brain detects danger, the fear response kicks in, and the rational part of our brain gets hijacked in a sense in order to attend to the threat.

The fear response sequence follows as such:

  1.  Freeze (danger is being assessed; happens in milliseconds)
  2.  Flee (fear will always choose to flee if it assesses the possibility)
  3.  Fight (when our fight response kicks in, it is still in an attempt to flee).

While this works considerably well for true danger, it is important to note that it works for perceived dangers as well. Our perceived dangers are often emotional, based on past experiences, or worst-case scenario thinking. Our brains get hijacked into bottom to top thinking, but in the absence of true danger, we get locked into an anxious state; which for some people can lead to panic. Knowing this can help us to begin to assess the reality of the worry. By focusing on fact, our rational brain allows greater space to be objective, which in turn settles down the fear response, and we return to a more grounded state.

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What is Our Window of Tolerance

We all have a window of tolerance. It is that place where we have full access to our Wise Mind, where both our emotions and our logic inform us to make decisions. This is the state in which we are mentally engaged and in a growth mindset. It is here that we function optimally.

When we move out of our window of tolerance, we move into either a hyperarousal state where we can overreact emotionally, or into a hypoarousal state of shutting down. In either case, our emotions are what begin to dictate our behaviours. In a heightened state, we begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious and can have emotional outbursts, triggering our fight-or-flight response. In a dulled state, we begin to feel numb, unmotivated, separate from our feelings; triggering our freeze response.

Our window of tolerance lies in our comfort system; it is the place to which we can self-soothe, think clearly, act accordingly. We can strengthen our window of tolerance by first recognizing our triggers that will lead us away from it – anxiety, feeling frazzled, exhaustion, worry, being emotionally or physically drained. We can use grounding techniques such as deep breathing or a guided meditation to strengthen our familiarity with what our comfort system feels like. We can create an inner dialogue that is supportive and non-critical. We can remind ourselves that taking a break to re-group is okay. We can prioritize self-care.

By expanding our window of tolerance, we move towards feeling more comfortable with our emotions,; we are better able to handle the ups and downs that daily life presents us.

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The 3 Functions of Emotions

How exactly do emotions work for us?

  1. Emotions help us to non-verbally communicate our feelings. We can tell the tell-tale signs of emotion by: the look on the face of our partner if they had a bad day at work, the quiver of our two year old’s little chin when on the verge of tears, the heaviness of grief in someone’s eyes, the look of terror that is captured when riding a roller coaster (you’ll never see that on my face, ha-ha!) or the universal look of joy when someone is wholeheartedly laughing. We wear our emotions in our body language, tone, facial expression and posture, and we can learn to put trust in our non-verbal expressions and those of others around us.
  2. Emotions prepare us for action. Undoubtedly, our emotions will produce an action urge and we are motivated to act on them. At times, this can work for us (the tears that follow feeling sad, hugging someone when we feel happy) and other times the behaviour that follows an emotion we can live to regret (sending a nasty text when we’re angry.) Emotional regulation becomes an important part of learning how to manage our action urges so that the emotion and behaviour can work together for optimum success.
  3. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves. When we tune in to how we are feeling, our emotions can be self-validating, they can serve as a signal that something is wrong and they can help us to find words to how we are feeling. It becomes about listening to our gut. 

Defining both emotion and it’s functions can allow us to move towards a greater understanding of how our feelings are hard-wired into our amazing, complex system of mind and body; ready to work efficiently for us if given the opportunity. 🙂

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“I Don’t Care What You Think”

Is often the sentiment when a difference of opinion gets to a heated place. We may not say that (or maybe we will) but either way, the point of the conflict has moved to one of having to prove that we are right; an indignant, inflexible place. Lost to our own anger, we are fueled to feel justified in our belief until it reaches the point of conviction, both parties becoming stuck in an unyielding pigeonhole of wanting to get your own way.

I often tell clients that there is no point in arguing with an angry person; as soon as anger rises in contention, you move into defensiveness and denial and there is no space left for solution. It is always best at this point to take a time out, agreeing to come back to resolution when everyone’s jets have cooled.

In order to find a solution to the argument,  two things can help:

  1. Approach the problem with a healthier aim; one in which the focus becomes to find a win-win solution to the issue. This helps in creating an open-minded, curious position.
  2. Focus on the notion that listening to another person’s opinion may not be about changing your mind, but rather about developing your thinking.

Approaching conflict in this manner helps to move us to a more receptive position; one whose focus is of a deeper sentiment of care and benevolence. (As a side note, these tips work great with teenagers too!)

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A Focus on De-Escalation

Sometimes we are faced with someone whose anger is getting the best of them. This might be a child, partner, co-worker, friend, or someone at the grocery store. In any case, we are better served to employ some de-escalation strategies in an effort to bring the communication back to a place where compromise has space to be sought.

  • Remain calm. Or at least act it. When someone is getting angry, it automatically creates in us a defensive or frustrated stance. By centering ourselves to not fight anger with anger, we are helping to de-escalate the situation.
  • Lower your voice, speak clearly. When anger is rising, so does the cadence of our voice. By purposely lowering your voice, it creates space for listening.
  • Use language in which they feel heard.  “I’m here for you.” “Tell me what happened.” “How can I help?”
  • Be aware of the non-negotiables. Just because someone is angry, it doesn’t mean we automatically give them what they want. We may be able to compromise, but we might also be in the position of reminding them (calmly) that “sometimes no is a no.”
  • Take a break. Sometimes we need to encourage our loved one to create some space for themselves to slow down the emotion train. This might include taking some deep breaths, holding the hands of our little ones, asking the person to take a walk if they need to. Revisit the issue when things have settled.

Healthy communication requires calm parties. Sometimes anger will get in the way of that process; however it always takes two people to have a conflict. Sometimes we are better to take the high road and move first to de-escalation as a means to pave the way towards a healthier way to deal with someone’s troubles. 🙂

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“Before You Put the Cuffs On….”

I want you to ask yourself, “Did I actually do anything wrong?” This is often the counsel I give to clients who are struggling with guilt. The definition of guilt as written in  Webster’s Dictionary: “the fact of having committed a legal offense // the fact of having transgressed the moral law // a feeling of culpability.” In my “Dictionary of Emotions by Patrick Michael Ryan,” he lists guilt as: “remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offense.  In either example, there is the element of having made some form of a transgression that elicited the feeling of guilt as a direct consequence of the mistake. Seems pretty straight forward, right? And yet many of us struggle deeply with this emotion.

Guilt is actually one of our healthy emotions because it allows us to repair. But we also learn a lot about guilt growing up; from our caregivers, our communities such as school or church, our extended family and so forth. If one of the people in our life used guilt as a way to elicit compliance, then it can sometimes become a default setting for us.

So before you put the cuffs on, ask yourself “Is this guilt warranted?” “Did I do something wrong?” “Did I hurt someone’s feelings by my words or my actions?” And if you did, fix it. Say you’re sorry, ask for understanding, reflect on how you can change that behaviour in the future. If the answer; however, brings you to the conclusion that you, in fact, did not do anything wrong but rather have slid into default guilt, then acknowledge that too. Take a deep breath and remind yourself, “I didn’t do anything wrong in this situation. It is what it is, I am going to move on” and let Officer Guilt know on the way out the door that he had the wrong suspect. 🙂

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The Shame of a Secret

There are many times in therapy when a client is finally able to share a secret that they have held onto since childhood. The air becomes palpable with relief, the client expresses how the space around them feels lighter, and there are often tears indicative of their loss.

When we are children, we internalize everything. When trauma occurs, when we witness something or are a victim of something that we understand is ‘wrong,’ we automatically feel that somehow it must be our fault. There can be both an unspoken expectation, or a verbal message that we must keep this a secret. Sometimes a child comes from a background where they have no one to tell; but in many instances, even children who have trusting adults in their lives, will guard the secret. The reason? Shame.

Shame is an insidious emotion; it resides in us because it was given to us. It accompanies childhood trauma and until it is spoken aloud and processed, it will continue to occupy a space in ourselves. In telling the secret, it is important to understand that something can come of it, or nothing can come of it – the choice as an adult is always ours. The important part is the integrating; the sharing; allowing a trusted friend, partner or therapist to help you hold it.

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Anger 101

Anger is a universal emotion; when we see an angry face, we are able to instantly recognize the emotion. It is also our safest emotion; we know not to ‘poke an angry bear.’

Anger is a useful emotion in that it produces an action; it also provides relief. Anger however, is only productive when it is in our control; as soon as it moves to aggression (raised voice, yelling, hitting, name calling, etc.) it is no longer in our control and then works against us. When that “angry bear” shows up, it is either going to keep others from engaging with us or increase the conflict (anger will automatically make you feel defensive; it’s a survival strategy.)

We are in a much better place when we can recognize our anger and then work to keep our cool. Anger is always precipitated by another emotion. Sometimes this is sheer frustration, but other times we skip over our vulnerable feelings such as sadness, guilt, fear and go right to anger to keep us safe from those tougher emotions. When we feel anger rising, we need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves “What am I feeling first?” Just focusing on this initial feeling can often help keep the anger away from a place that begins to feel out of control.

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