Your co-worker embarrassed you in your staff meeting today. Your wife didn’t have your back with the in-laws this weekend. Your boyfriend hurt your feelings and rejected you. Your best friend disappointed you. You don’t feel recognized, protected, respected, included, validated. You’re embarrassed to admit it. It’s easier to just tell everyone to go bug off than it is to reveal how badly you might be feeling. That would be weak. Vulnerable. Pathetic. Fragile. You tell yourself to get over it, suck it up, let it go, move past it. But you can’t. So then you tell them, or maybe you show them, that you are mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.
But are you really getting your needs met? Is the screaming match effective long-term? How many doors can you slam before you can’t walk back through one?
I was once sitting in my car under the overpass on Mission waiting for the light to change. The guy in the car in front of me was so angry, not only could I hear him screaming in his car over the din of the freeway traffic, his entire automobile was rocking back and forth because he was waving his arms about so strenuously. Scary thing was, there wasn’t anyone else in his car and this was before Bluetooth, so he had no immediate audience. I wondered what could have caused him to be so enraged that the sheer physical manifestation of his anger was powerful enough to rock a 4,000-pound vehicle to and fro? I can only imagine what havoc his anger was wreaking on his blood pressure, never mind the impact the constant flood of stress chemicals that accompany the flight or fight response was having on his heart, skin, and digestion. What was it that this guy needed so desperately to communicate? And why wasn’t anybody hearing him?
What is anger, and when does it become a problem? Anger is an emotion like any other emotion. It is a little red flag waving frantically in front of our noses telling us that something is wrong; we are not happy. We might not know why. But we know it to be true. We sometimes can’t put words to it, but we feel ashamed, unsafe, frustrated, inferior, uncomfortable, helpless. Those of us fortunate enough to have learned early on in life how to assertively and effectively communicate our feelings are able to share these feelings, and more often than not we can get our needs met. Or at least have the satisfaction of sharing that we are not getting our needs met! And ultimately we learn how to cope with it, thereby helping to ameliorate the anger.
Anger displayed in a menacing, abusive, or volatile way that is designed to intimidate is not a healthy demonstration of distressing feelings. Rather it perpetuates ineffective communication and doesn’t get us any closer to getting our needs met, and more importantly in the long-term, to learning what triggers the unpleasant feelings. We then often further complicate the issue by utilizing unhealthy coping mechanisms such as abusing substances and exerting inappropriate power and control over others.
Healthy ways to cope with anger, stress, and trauma can vary from person to person; you have to find what works for you. However, in general and in order to reduce the physiological impact of the adrenaline/noradrenaline surges one experiences when enraged, de-escalation is the goal.
In a hypersensitive, or traumatized, state, an individual can be susceptible to noradrenaline surges long after being enraged. In other words, a person can remain vulnerable to feeling and reacting as though the conflict remains. This makes a person more susceptible to further aggression. Engaging in physical activity such as walking, running, and any non-combative athletic activity is a good way to reduce the physical tension, as are relaxation and meditation.
As for prevention, hydration, sleep, and eating a balanced meal before having a potentially difficult conversation with someone is key. I have encountered a surprisingly large number of people who report being very hungry after an argument. We know that hunger reduces our ability to exercise self-control, and research indicates that low-blood-sugar and lower blood-glucose levels in the evening have been linked to domestic violence incidents.
When encountering someone who is enraged or is demonstrating escalating violent behavior, it is typically most prudent to remove yourself from the situation as quickly and with as little conflict as possible. There is often no rationalizing with a person who is in this state of mind, and attempts to do so can result in further escalation. Don’t engage, and get to safety ASAP.
New Beginnings Counseling Center offers 12-week Anger Management groups that cover all of these issues and help participants understand where their anger comes from and how to cope with it and express it in an effective and productive way. A new group just started and meets from 5:30-7:15 p.m. The cost is $20 per session. Call (805) 963-7777 x133 to sign up.
A veteran-specific anger management group will begin in early September and is provided at no cost to veterans through a grant from the Williams-Corbett Foundation. Call (805) 963-7777 x107 to inquire further about the veteran’s group. Voluntary and court-ordered participants are welcome in both groups.
Kristine Schwarz, MFT, LPCC is the executive director of New Beginnings Counseling Center and a psychotherapist in private practice at Santa Barbara Psychotherapy®.