Getting wound up with loved ones? We ask anger management expert Isabel Clarke for healthy ways to express anger, as part of our Christmas Calm series…
2016 has thrown a lot of surprises at us, some of them very frustrating. One look at your Facebook feed will provide you with rants about Brexit, Trump, Southern Rail train strikes, or Honey G getting through another round on X Factor.
Now the year is coming to a close, Christmas is a time of year where tempers can flare as much as festivity and cheer. Aiming to deliver a perfect day, a poll by MORI for The Evening Standard has shown that women, one in four of us, are twice as likely than men to feel very or fairly stressed at this time of year. With pressures building over the lead-up, emotions can reach tipping point by the big day- at 9.58am to be exact, which is the time the average family will have their first argument, according to a 2010 study by the British Anger Management Association (BAAM). Furthermore, research by BAAM shows a quarter of adults say their relationships are rocky over the festive period, with an eighth of people even wanting to split up.
‘In general, more seriously in society, anger is very closely linked to stress, and the extent to which people have control over their lives’, says Isabel Clarke, a psychotherapist specialising in anger management. ‘I think there are trends in our world that make our lives more stressful, and people feel they have less control. Our increasing anger problem is also related to what I call the rise of disinhibition; a lot of people are expressing themselves in angry ways by swearing a lot. If there is more violence and anger expressed in the public domain, someone who feels a bit angry feels abler to join in with that. It will obviously vary with social groupings and circumstances’.
As part of our Christmas Calm series, and to ensure Christmas day doesn’t become a day to remember for all the wrong reasons, we spoke to Isabel Clarke, a psychotherapist specialising in anger management and author of How to Deal with Anger: A 5-step, CBT-based plan. Here, Healthista has explained Isabel’s suggested signs of unhealthy anger expression, and 8 steps to a healthy way of dealing with anger.
2 unhealthy ways of dealing with anger
Often this is a person who learnt that if they were a bully, life worked better for them
The angry bully
There are two ways of dealing with anger that aren’t healthy. First, there is the person who has clearly got into the habit of managing their world by when things aren’t going right, or they don’t feel they can clearly and assertively ask for they want they want. They will allow their temper to build up and then they will lose it. That buzz from the adrenaline that rushes around the body when the threat system is activated can be addictive. Likewise, when anger results in the person getting what they want they can get caught in an anger trap where temper outbursts seem like the only way they can express their needs.
Very often this is somebody who was initially bullied in younger life, but then learnt that if they were a bully, life worked better for them. They learnt to manage the world and relationships around them by letting their anger to take over, but sometimes really under the radar. Anger isn’t just about the situations you lose your temper- but how you behave in general. These people exist in a state that is almost always in threat mode, and as a result, they exist day to-day in a state that’s closer to boiling point than the rest of us. People see this person as threatening and they feel they have to fall in line.
2. The silent seether
On the other hand, some people seem to virtually never get angry, because for a lot of people, they are actually frightened of their anger. They might try and shut it off. Consequently, if this person is also not a very assertive person, they avoid picking up things that are not going their way, or when they should say something. They tend to get put upon and used, and be treated like a doormat. So their anger then builds up and up until there is an explosion.
Unexpressed anger will keep the body at a high rate of ongoing stress
There are a whole host of things in which are physical and psychological damaging in terms of side effects of suppressing anger. Unexpressed anger will keep the body at a high rate of ongoing stress which is physically bad for the body and immune system long term. A lot of depression is unexpressed anger.
There are two separate sorts of people in a way. The ones which are not comfortable with their anger, so they hang on to it, maybe forever, and it can come out in an explosion. There are those that just let it out anyway. And there are those in between.
The signs your anger is beginning to get out of control
People tend to come for help at our anger management courses when they lose things because of it. Relationships, jobs, friends, children. They can lose their liberty. There is quite a strong motivation to keep managing the world using anger, because those that are doing it, can’t imagine doing anything else. They imagine its dangerous to act in a different way, and that they will get walked over. For someone who has very ingrained anger, it can be a big step, and they are probably in two minds about it. They might be assessed because they believe they want to change, but when faced with the challenge of making those changes, they might or might not go through with it. The person really needs to have strong enough motivators to decide to work on change, and very often it’s the people around them and the threat of loss or actual loss.
A healthy way of dealing with anger
Somebody who expresses their anger healthily is prepared to face the situation as it really is. They notice if something is not going their way without leaping in and sending that furious email that they will later regret. They reflect, think about it, and become aware that they are getting angry about something. They use that anger as information that they are under threat.
The past and present can start to get mixed up
People need to reflect coolly on the situation, and the key to doing this is to manage the stress reaction that goes along with anger. The thing that creates anger is the stress reaction, which is the body getting ready for action to go into attack. It starts off as an adrenaline rush, and then it changes a whole lot of physical systems within the body. The mind goes into tunnel vision, concentrating on that threat. At that stage, if people don’t take control of it, they will start to see things in a very distorted way, and whatever it is will be magnified and mixed up with other slights and problems they’ve had in the past.
When we get into that emotional reaction, the past and present can start to get mixed up. Very often your angry person is you mixing reality with when you have been under threat in the past, or terrified as a child, say. The cool reflection will let them work out- is this really outrageous now? Or have I been in this situation before?
How you can deal with your anger
Usually somebody that isn’t healthily dealing with anger doesn’t have the skills to manage interactions appropriately, effectively, or assertively. To be assertive, you have to have a lot of courage. You have to be prepared to negotiate, and be prepared that it can go either way. Your best chance of getting what you want, and to keep your self-respect, is to be assertive. But you’re not going to win every time and you have to be prepared for that. It’s often seen as maturity.
I remember one member of my anger management group clearly. A guy who, every Friday night, his friends would have fun winding him up at the pub. On one occasion he didn’t let himself get wound up, he just answered in a normal manner. He watched them, and actually they looked silly rather than him. He realised people can get more respect by being assertive.
It’s much more difficult to face a difficult situation with a cool mind
It takes courage to control anger. You’re facing a difficult situation with a cool mind; it’s much more difficult than if you’ve allowed that response to take over. If you do it with a cool mind, you’ve got to take responsibility for that situation. You’re aware of how difficult it is, and you’re aware there is another human being that might be scornful of you. You’ve got to be prepared to face all that. There is the chance you might not get what you want, becuase you may be used to going about it in a violent way and saying ‘I’m going to get this whatever’.
Of course, one person may be more naturally temperamental than the another, but anger management is modifying the way you are. The thing about losing your temper is that if you keep from losing it, you keep your self respect better.
8 tips for dealing with anger
These tips can be useful for those in a constant state of angst, or for when you feel you’re on the verge of snapping.
Pay attention to when your body is moving into threat mode
For example, during a conversation or while you’re driving or commuting – and you will discover your own early warning signs of anger (everyone’s will be different). These might be feeling stressed across the shoulders, an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach, foot- or chair-tapping. Stop, and get space. Either make an excuse and leave the situation, or calmly bring your attention to the moment, rather than your emotions. By paying attention to the present moment- stopping and noticing your body, your surroundings and everything that is not in your head- you instantly distance yourself from your own threat system, getting the mental space to ask yourself whether you might need to take some time out.
2. Take long slow outbreaths
When the body is getting ready into action, you breathe in more than you breathe out. The instruction ‘get ready for vigorous action’ arrives with a shot of the stress hormone adrenaline. The heart pumps faster to get blood round to the edges of the body, so that there is plenty of blood for the muscles to punch hard or flight fast. The muscles get tense. The breathing gets quicker and shallower, because we need to gulp in oxygen to do all the vigorous action. If we don’t then use this vigorous action, this messes up the balance between co2 and oxygen in our brains, and the brain can get confused. It starts to concentrate on threat signals, and will see everything as a threat. The quickest way to turn it down is a simple breathing technique. Making your out breath slightly longer than your in breath can be instantly relaxing and works to switch off the body’s action response.
3. Take in the bigger picture, coolly and reflect.
Is this a situation that warrants being angry about it? Is there something I need to do here? Or am I getting things out of proportion? By taking a step back with the breathing practices explained above, you can see the bigger picture and work out whether it really is outrageous and worth fighting for – some things are – or not. Ask yourself if it will matter in five minutes. If the answer is no, let it go.
4. You may decide this is something that needs to be tackled
If you take action, use the energy to write a carefully written email, or say to the person exactly how you feel about something. If it does turn out that you’re being walked over or similar, think what the most effective way is to counter this.
5. Object without losing your temper, instead of bottling things up over a long period of time.
Angry people often try to project an attitude of ‘I’m cool, nothing gets to me’ and as a result, may not respond to things that are not quite right at the time, letting resentments build up until they eventually explode. Learning to communicate assertively is essential to combat this. The key is to state what you want firmly and calmly with words such as ‘Excuse me, I can’t let this go’, but also to communicate that you understand the interests of the other person and demonstrate that you have thought about that. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – this is something people with anger issues often have a hard time with as they tend to be wound up in their own position.
6. Escape ‘wind up thinking’.
The language we use in our thoughts – and with others – can alert the body to a threat situation, priming it to react with anger. Characteristic wind up thoughts (or spoken words) include ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ or ‘oughts’ as well as phrases beginning with ‘You never,’ ‘You always’ or – a common one – ‘It’s not fair’. These are definite, accusatory and inflexible and can keep you fixed in threat mode where you’re more likely to blow up. It can be hard to change your thought patterns. Instead, recognise wind up thinking and acknowledge that it’s not in your best interest to continue it, simply observe the thoughts and then let them go.
7. Take space when both people are in attack mode.
If one of them notices their own or the other person’s anger building up with physical signs such increased breathing and raised voice, they might say they need to go out for a walk to clear their head. Often, this is the point where the other partner won’t let them, desperate to get one last point across. But it’s also the point where arguments can escalate to emotional or physical violence. Don’t carry on a discussion if you observe in someone’s behaviour or speech – or your own – that their body has gone into action mode. Take time out with a walk outside, some time alone perhaps journaling or calling a friend.
8. When all else fails, do something else
Even if you’ve taken time out effectively, you might still feel wound up. You might realise that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You need to discharge that anger by turning it into something positive and enjoyable. Like going for a run, digging the garden, or creative expression. Do not do something that encourages you to think about how angry you are- like punching a punch bag. It needs to be something that makes you switch from ‘I’m angry’ to ‘I’m angry but I’m using the energy in a different way’.
Isabel Clarke is a consultant clinical psychologist in the NHS. She ran an anger management service between 1992 and 2004 and has published a self help book on How to Deal with Anger: A 5-step, CBT-based plan for managing anger and overcoming frustration, £10.68. She has also written books exploring themes of spirituality, mental health, and being human:Psychosis and Spirituality: Consolidating the New Paradigm, £89.99