Curbing anger

Anger, and the hurt that anger causes, is rarely out of the news.  But it does seem that we have had an escalation of “anger stories” in recent months.  What’s more, I have been hearing a disturbing number of anecdotal accounts of road rage, children being shouted at by parents in public places, people yelling and fighting in the street, as well as the “usual” stories of verbal tirades between couples and in workplaces.

It’s hard to know whether people are becoming increasingly angry, but there are danger signs.  While stress doesn’t cause anger it can worsen it. It is also possible that some people feel increasingly less inhibited about spewing out their frustrations in public places. This also has its effects on how people behave in private, and especially on how they rationalise their behaviour. Feeling “entitled” to lash out is dangerous. So is the belief that you have no choice. Normalisation of violence is also an issue. It is a bizarre comment on our society that so many people’s idea of a relaxing night at home is to curl up in front of the television and watch other people hurting each other in extreme ways. All violence is not driven by anger – but anger itself is a form of violence. Discussing their viewing,  people talk about psychological mystery and intrigue, but does that really explain why popular drama so relentlessly takes cruelty, rage, revenge and crime as its subject matter?

Unlearning anger is not easy.

And it is certainly not easy in a society that gives such mixed messages about violence: applauding it as entertainment but disapproving of it when real people act it out. Anger has become one of the areas, along with trauma, grief and marriage breakdown, where therapists and counsellors are supposed to work a kind of magic. And that can happen. Some anger management courses, and some therapists working with individuals or couples, can make a huge difference. But this will happen only when the angry person wants to behave differently and is willing to replace old responses with new ones.

Learning to “manage” anger involves learning to manage your emotions and thinking more generally. Many people live like slaves to their impulses. “I couldn’t help it,” expresses a painful lack of self-awareness and control. It is already empowering to learn to think and respond with more choice and consideration, yet that isn’t enough. You must also learn how conflict builds – and what will resolve it; how to identify the particular triggers that “drive you crazy” – and how to circumvent them. You need to learn how to articulate your feelings rather than acting them out, and how to listen to other people and take their experiences seriously, rather than being exclusively focused on your own perspective and needs. Just as crucially, anyone with even occasional anger issues can’t afford to be drinking alcohol, eating junk or chronically having too little sleep.  Anger expresses frustration, depression, low self-worth, boredom or sadness – and it makes them worse.

Countless people use food or alcohol to self-medicate those feelings yet angry people get even angrier when they drink. Alcohol irritates the nervous system, confuses the emotional system and skews your thinking. The ingredients of a less angry life are simple to state though not so simple to achieve. They include giving up alcohol completely on the basis that one drink is never enough; offering as well getting emotional support and insight (which is why group therapy can work so well) and learning how to think constructively and objectively whatever the situation. What’s also immediately beneficial is doing daily exercise, eating wholesome food, reducing unnecessary stress, getting enough positive stimulation to reduce stress and boredom, and sleeping when tired. None of this is as a surprise. And while it takes courage and tenacity to achieve, the rewards are literally life-changing: the pleasures of choice, wellbeing and self-respect for yourself, and far greater ease, safety and comfort for everyone around you.

Stephanie Dowrick writes about reducing anger in Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials.  First published in Good Weekend, 2008.  Please do not reprint without permission.