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The Meaning and Essence of Anger Management

By: Dr. Michael Levittan
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Anger management is one of the "hot" phrases of the 21st century. It is a concept that is often used, often suggested, but little understood. A good working definition of anger management is: "The insertion of rational thought into a mind that is consumed with anger." The universally difficult task is to achieve that rationality!

The costs of unmanaged anger are enormous. People who cannot control their angry feelings cause hurt, insult, abandonment, abuse, violence, and death. The consequences of unchecked aggression occur worldwide and manifest in all contexts: homes, schools, workplaces, restaurants, cafes, streets, stores, busses, trains, airplanes, freeways, etc. It would seem to be imperative that both adults and children learn anger management skills and tools as soon as possible. It is axiomatic that if you don't control anger, then it will control you!

There are crucial misconceptions regarding the emotion of anger. To begin with, anger is a universal feeling. Everyone experiences anger. In fact, everyone experiences anger every single day. To both comprehend the concept and master the practice of anger management, we must increase our awareness of each of the small or large annoying, frustrating, irritating, disappointing, and confusing moments that we endure on a daily basis. Each of these challenging moments are representative of emotions that are actually subcategories of anger.

A second salient concept regarding anger is that people usually fail to recognize their anger until it has reached an overwhelming stage. When we are yelling, cursing, clenching our teeth, pounding our fist, slamming a door, or hitting something or someone, then we know that we are angry! Anger can be such a frightening, shame-filled emotion that people are often reluctant to acknowledge it in themselves. It is convenient to point at others as being angry and out-of-control, but not us! In treatment, I often hear clients say: "I felt so annoyed." "I was really frustrated." "I was freaking-out!" Then, the client adds: "But, I wasn't angry."

The truth is that most of us not only have difficulty acknowledging anger but struggle with managing this volatile and consuming emotion. Oftentimes, there exists a lifelong fear of dealing with angry feelings. If parents abandoned their children or intimidated them with anger, then children grow up afraid to be involved in confrontations and cautious about being assertive.. If parents lacked the ability to manage anger in their interactions with each other, then children fail to acquire the tools or the tolerance to express anger in appropriate ways. Instead, children internalize the "fight-or-flight" response of their elders and reenact that response in subsequent relationships.

A little physiology is in order: The more primitive part of the human brain - the "hindbrain" - has much in common with our animal ancestors. Fear and threat messages received in the limbic system, particularly the amygdale, are then relayed to the adrenal glands. Once adrenalin is secreted, the fight-or-flight response is activated and the animal or the human is immediately reduced to two options: either run away or go off on someone!

Referring back to our definition of anger management, the key to modifying the fight-or-flight response is to engage the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. This feature of advanced intelligence is (hopefully) our great advantage over the animal kingdom. Engaging our thought processes actually involves a counter-instinctive response. When threats emerge, both humans and animals focus on that threat in preparation for either running or fighting. The external danger must be reduced. However, the very root of anger management begins with an introspective process. The most efficient method of engaging our thinking brain is to focus on ourselves!

Managing anger is so universally difficult to achieve because of this counter-intuitive action. In the midst of the threat - hurt, insult, disrespect, disappointment, neglect - we must think about our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, behaviors, etc. Obviously, this is no easy task, but - like playing the violin - it requires knowledge, commitment, dedication, and concentration, and improves with practice.

The introspective process of anger management starts with asking questions - questions about ourselves: "Am I angry?" "How angry am I?" "What is 'triggering' my anger?" "What other feelings do I have?" "Is there another way to view this interaction?" "What is the other person - my temporary adversary - going through?" and, ultimately, "What is the best way to deal with this situation?"

Once we just try to answer these self-directed questions, then we are thinking and engaging our pre-frontal cortex. The anger does not go away, but rational thought is now being inserted into the flood of anger that is occupying our psyches. In a sense, the anger is diluted by the introduction of cognition and its intensity is reduced. Human beings are quite capable of modifying the fight-or-flight response and thus, capable of managing anger!

Self-awareness is the first step to anger management. In the heat of the moment, it is imperative to be as immediate and specific as possible with the knowledge of our angry feelings. The primary tool may be termed: "Recognizing the Signs of Anger." We must learn about our anger on intimately, personal levels: 1)Behavioral - "What actions do I typically take when I am angry?"; 2)Physiological - "What do I experience in my body when I am angry?"; 3)Emotional - "What feelings usually go along with my anger?" When we gain awareness of our typical reactions to anger, then we become more familiar with ourselves, and we begin to develop actual signposts in our minds that represent these signs of anger.

Once we begin to recognize angry feelings, then we need to gain control over them. This can be achieved by engaging the thought process to quantify the intensity of our angry feelings. The appropriate tool is called: "Levels of Anger." It can become increasingly facile to designate a number to our anger - with "1" being the lowest and "10" being the highest. An efficient method of breaking down anger is to assign a number to specific angry feelings, e.g. "annoyance" = 1; "irritation" = 3; "upset" = 5; "frustration" = 6; "agitation" = 7; "furious" = 10; etc. When using this anger management tool, it is important to personalize the feeling, as various emotions affect people in different ways. For some, "disgust" = 3, while for others, "disgust" = 8!

When we gain awareness of anger and specify its intensity, then we are well on the road to anger management. In order to make use of the tools, "Recognizing the Signs of Anger" and "Levels of Anger," we need to achieve a mental state akin to the "Sounds of Silence." We need to use our minds to create the necessary space to think about ourselves and not the external source of stimulation, or more pointedly, aggravation. With the creation of mental space, we can then hear, see, smell, taste, touch, and sense anger before its sudden arrival. It is analogous to the hasty, yet diligent preparations that one undertakes as the hurricane is approaching. We must be quick, expedient, and concentrated in our efforts to gain control of the coming storm of emotionality. There is no time to lose.

When anger is managed, then we gain mastery over its' expression. Our minds begin to create options for releasing angry feelings. We can assert ourselves, think about the situation some more, or revisit it later. Significantly, we begin to achieve equanimity in our minds and help to create peace in our environments!

Michael Levittan, Ph.D., is an Expert Witness, Psychotherapist, Media Consultant, and Professor at UCLA Extension and California Graduate Institute. Dr. Levittan has been retained as an expert on numerous cases involving domestic and school violence, child abuse, post-traumatic stress, and child custody. He is director of a certified Domestic Violence and Anger Management program and has numerous articles published on violence and abuse.

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