Healthy Responses to Anger

sunday 20c fire on earthPhysical Expression of Anger

We may decide not to express our anger in a given situation but to physically release the energy of that anger in a safe context through sports or other non-violent activities, such as walking, jogging, running, swimming, cleaning, ironing or rearranging furniture, etc. The purpose of any anger-release technique should be to help us gain control. There is evidence that the more aggressive techniques actually increase rather than decrease the pent-up energy. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, quoting Tic says that “ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outburst of rage typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry, not less. …

Far more effective was when people first cooled down, and then, in a more constructive or assertive manner, confronted the person to settle their dispute.”[1] Different types of relaxation techniques, some appropriate for use within the actual anger situation and some for use after the fact, can facilitate the non-violent release of anger energy. Within the actual situation, deep breathing, counting to ten, or taking “time out” to regain control can be helpful. After the fact, useful relaxation techniques include yoga, guided imagery and visualization, listening to music, and watching a movie. Spending time in yoga or meditation lowers the body’s physiological arousal, lessening the physical sense of urgency. Getting involved in activities that demand concentration and give us pleasure—such as pursuing a favourite hobby or preparing a festive meal—helps bring our body around and calm our emotions as well. And when we are angry, doing something generous for someone else almost always transforms our mood. Anger harbours the impulse to punish other people; helping people counteracts that urge. Hostility drains away, even when the recipient of our good deed is not the person who has angered us.[2]

Cognitive Anger Management

Anger is both a psychological and physiological emotion; it consists of both emotionality and rationality. Thus, it is important to release the physiological energy of anger as well as to use our rationality in expressing anger. One way of diffusing anger is to seize on and challenge the thoughts that trigger the surge of anger, since it is the original appraisal of an interaction that confirms and encourages the first burst of anger, and the subsequent reappraisal that fan the flames. It is important to keep the timing in mind. The earlier in the anger cycle the more effective.[3] It is done through cognitive restructuring. Simply put, this means changing the way one thinks. Angry people tend to curse, swear, or speak in highly colourful terms that reflect their inner thoughts. When one is angry, his or her thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. So then one needs to replace these thoughts with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling oneself, “oh, it’s awful, it’s terrible, everything’s ruined,” tell oneself, “it’s frustrating, and it’s understandable that I’m upset about it, but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.”[4] Reappraisal is another useful strategy for lessening anger’s hold. A change in interpretation can be as effective in dislodging anger as a change in our bodily stage. Any step we take, the essence of healthy anger management is consciously making choices and being responsible for our anger. It can also enable us to give others the space to express their anger and not take it on as ours, even if others blame us.

 Forgiveness and Reconciliation

No discussion on anger management would be complete without a mention of forgiveness and reconciliation. Here we need to make a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness differs from reconciliation in that it comes from one person (i.e., the person hurt), whereas reconciliation is a reciprocal forgiveness and healing. Forgiveness help us to reinterpret anger. In forgiving we choose not to let the hurt we have experienced get in the way of a relationship continuing. In forgiving we respond to the other person not in terms of the harm they have inflicted but in terms of who they are beyond that pain. Forgiving also involves a decision. Forgiveness is a process that gradually allows hurt to heal as trust rebuilds. To accept forgiveness, we must revisit the harm we have done, acknowledging our responsibility or admitting our mistake. Asking forgiveness humbles us, so denial tempts us to resist. To accept forgiveness is to confess our guilt – not only to another but to oneself.[5] In the same way forgiveness and reconciliation do not entail the repression or suppression of anger and its underlying hurt. They are a challenge to move beyond a social or religious training that has cited anger as something to be removed from our lives. The essence of forgiveness is that we forgive others unconditionally. In this situation we do not have control over other’s responses, but in choosing to forgive others, we establish control over our own responses. Thus, in forgiving others we empower ourselves.[6] Giving up anger takes great inner strength and can be achieved only with a great deal of support through painful processes. Forgiveness must be learned; it does not come naturally to us. In reconciliation we actively seek to be reinstated in a relationship with anther. A person may refuse to be reconciled with us, and we must accept this choice. We are called, however, to forgive.[7]

-Notes prepared by Fr. Bhyju cmf


[1] D. GOLEMAN, Emotional Intelligence (1995), 64-65.

[2] Cf. E. E. WHITEHEAD, J. D. WHITEHEAD (2003), 84.

[3] Cf. D. GOLEMAN (1995), 62.

[4] From an internet article “Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You” accessed from http://www.apa.org/topics/controlanger.html on 31.07.2006.

[5] Cf. E. E. WHITEHEAD, J. D. WHITEHEAD (2003), 84-86.

[6] Cf. J. MALONE, Human Development (Spring 1994), 38.

[7] Cf. B. HERMANN, Human Development (Summer 1990), 17.

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