How to stop being furious
Isabel Clarke, a clinical psychologist who runs an anger-management clinic, explains why bad temper is a growing problem - and how to keep it in check
Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30
Imagine a pill you could take that instantly calms your temper when it's about to burst into a Herculean mess. That's what researchers might be on the brink of formulating after experiments helped them to identify the brain's anger centre. Scientists at New York University found that chemical changes in the brain's lateral septum made the mice attack other animals. It's a discovery that could lead to a calming drug.
Research by PruHealth found that nearly half of us admit to snapping at colleagues, 28pc to shouting at people at work and one in four to slamming down phones and banging fists on desks.
On social media, it takes far less than a Katie Hopkins soundbite to enrage the digital public into attack mode. But until the anger pill is a reality, our only option is self-management...
Why are we all so angry? The more ongoing stress someone is under, the more likely they are to have an anger problem. Because we are working harder than ever, more chronically stressed people are presenting to their GPs and mental health clinics with anger issues.
Add to this, disinhibition - the fact that there is a greater level of acceptance of anger, swearing and even violent behaviour than there was 50 years ago - and the increased speed of our reactions, thanks to social media and email (as opposed to writing letters) and the root of our anger problem is clear.
Anger manifests itself in different ways. One person might turn their anger against themselves, which can manifest as depression, addiction or self-harm. Another might explode. But anger has a necessary function: to protect, by alerting us to threat and giving us the courage to meet challenges.
That "threat system" is part of our evolution - it's primal - and changes your body from a calm state into one that is ready to attack or run away. A shot of the stress hormone adrenaline is released, which leads to tense muscles, increased blood circulation, short breathing and alertness.
People who are under chronic stress exist in a constant state of attack mode, which can have a detrimental effect on their health. It is like driving in second gear on the motorway - you're using the car's resources to tackle a problem that isn't there, which means that your car is likely to be damaged, burn out or even explode.
The other problem is that the buzz from adrenaline can be addictive. Likewise, when a person gets what they want as a result of showing their anger, they can get caught in an anger trap, where outbursts seem like the only way to express their needs. So controlling excess anger is essential.
1 Look out for warning signs
Notice when your body is moving into threat mode - this might be during a conversation, while driving or when commuting - and pay attention to your early warning signs of anger. Everyone's signs will be different but they might include a tenseness across the shoulders or an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach.
Ask yourself: What's the matter? Then do something about it. This might be having a constructive conversation or using a simple breathing technique.
For example, making your out breath longer than your in breath can be instantly relaxing. Paying attention to the physical reality around you and taking in the bigger picture, rather than the thoughts in your head, can also help. This allows you to instantly distance yourself from your own threat system and get the mental space to ask yourself whether you need to take some time out.
2 Escape wind-up thinking
The language we use in our thoughts and conversations can alert the body to a threat, priming it to react with anger. Characteristic wind-up thoughts include "shoulds", "musts" or "oughts" as well as phrases beginning with "You never", "You always" or "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. Observe the thoughts and then let them go.
3 Object without losing it
Angry people may allow resentments to build up until they eventually explode. Learning to communicate assertively is essential. The key is to state what you want firmly and calmly with words such as: "Excuse me, I can't let this go."
It's also important to 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.
4 Call time
It can be difficult to have a constructive conversation if one or both parties have switched into attack mode. Take a couple having an argument. If one of them notices their own, or the other person's, anger building up with physical signs, such as increased breathing and a 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. I have worked with couples on negotiating this space and ensuring the other person respects it. Having such an agreement is essential for dealing with anger, especially at home.
Don't continue the discussion if you observe in someone's behaviour or speech - or your own - that the body has gone into action mode. Take time out. Go for a walk outside, write in a journal or call a friend - set aside some alone time.
5 Let go
When your body is in threat mode, anything - from being told you might lose your job to someone jumping in front of you in a queue - can feel equally outrageous and worthy of an outburst. By taking a step back with the simple breathing practices mentioned above, you can see the bigger picture and work out whether it really is outrageous and worth fighting for. Ask yourself if it will matter in five minutes. If the answer is no, let it go. © Daily Telegraph
'How to Deal with Anger: A 5-Step CBT-based Plan for Managing Anger and Overcoming Frustration' (Teach Yourself €15) is out on Thursday