If you’ve ever had difficulty managing your anger, then you can attest to the overwhelming flood of emotion that feels totally out of your control. I have practiced both group and individual anger management therapy for many years, and while every person is unique, there is a common anger cycle. If this difficulty resonates with you or a loved one, this post will give you information about how this cycle works, why it persists and coping strategies to try.
The Anger Cycle:
Elevated Vulnerable Emotion -->
Anger Expression -->
Physical and Emotional Tension Release -->
Shame and Guilt
Anger is a secondary emotion. We express anger because it allows us to feign power and dominance which provides us with a sense of safety. However, underlying anger, is often vulnerable primary emotions. For example, you may raise your voice and utilize sarcastic word choices and tone, but underlying this anger you may be feeling hurt, judged, powerless, afraid or hopeless. Expressing deeper emotions is difficult because it leaves us feeling even more exposed in a tough situation.
When we experience elevated emotion, our bodies physically react. Our stress hormone elevates, we may experience chest tension, racing heart, shortness of breath and/or shakiness. Once anger is expressed, we gain release of emotional and physical tension.
People with anger management difficulties often tell me that it’s like a “switch goes off” and there is no opportunity to act differently. This feeling is understandable because their bodies and brains become reactive to emotional elevation. The reaction to elevated emotion is to seek release; the brain and body quickly learn they can gain this relief by expressing anger. So, just like your leg jumps when your doctor tests your reflexes, your expression of anger can become an unconscious reflex to elevated emotion.
The last part of the cycle are the feelings of guilt and shame that always accompany a loss of anger control. We hurt those around us, our true message is not communicated effectively, and we feel embarrassed by how we have behaved. Basically, it sucks for all involved.
Red Flag - Use your physical symptoms to flag your awareness. Start to notice where you physically feel anger in your body, attend to it and mindfully state to yourself “I feel angry.” This slows down the process and provides you with an opportunity to make a different choice.
Time Out – Take a time out from the situation. This is not avoidance of a situation. It is meant to give you time to compose yourself and return to the discussion once you have managed your emotion and identified what you truly wish to communicate.
Relax – Utilize a relaxation technique to calm your physical tension. Get the release of tension you usually feel from expressing your anger, by using a relaxation technique such as deep breathing, guided imagery or a body scan. (See my blog post “Tense No More!” for further information on relaxation techniques.)
The important thing to recognize is that while gaining control of anger is challenging work, it is achievable! The rewards of communicating more effectively and not experiencing guilt and shame, will make it a worthwhile effort.