On Anger Management

Almost everyone has heard the term anger management. Some of you may have even seen the comical version of the term anger management, i.e., the movie by that name, starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. For the very most part though, need I say there isn’t much room in real life for thinking about it in humorous terms.

In addressing the subject of anger management, let me first focus on the word anger, or a little more specifically, “angry.” The key here is that for many people, hearing someone sound and look angry implies that that person is being judged as being out of control (i.e., “flying off the handle” or “flipping out”). Yet for other people, the word angry may NOT imply being out of control. Instead, it may imply being frustrated or irritated–feelings which even if strong are usually perceived as the person still being in control of themselves. There also are many instances in which a person is perceived by others as being out of control–i.e., angry–yet NOT out of control in the eyes of the “angry” person himself/herself. And when this becomes a pattern of behavior, others may perceive that person as having an “anger management” problem, but the person himself/herself may not.

One postscript here. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to someone having a pattern of launching into full-blown RAGE episodes, even that person will have to acknowledge that that clearly reflects a major problem they have controlling their anger!

Psychological Factors Surrounding An Anger Management Problem

People with an anger management problem are likely to have that problem for a variety of possible psychological reasons. Let me break these reasons down into 4 main categories: 1) feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement; 2) parental role-modeling; 3) “masking” of vulnerability; and 4) feeling empowered.

1) Feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement–The definition of betrayal that I use in my work (as well as in my personal life) is: any significant feeling of letdown, by someone important to you, based on what you believed you had the right to believe they would never do to you. Connecting this to problems with getting a handle on anger, it’s safe to say that the more someone feels either one huge betrayal or a series of betrayals that add up to a huge one, the more that person is likely to develop a storehouse of anger. This especially applies, I will add, to the feeling of betrayal being triggered by severe abuse, severe neglect, or outright abandonment. The sense of injustice that typically accompanies deep feelings of betrayal, combined with a strong sense of entitlement that the injustice be undone or eliminated only adds to the size–not to mention persistence – of that storehouse.

2) Parental role-modeling–Simply stated, a person is much more to develop an anger management problem if they had at least one parent who presented with this problem themselves.

3) “Masking” of vulnerability–While I see this issue as generally applying to men more than women, there certainly are exceptions on both sides of the gender coin. The basic point here is: suppose someone is having difficulty dealing with strong vulnerable feelings like, e.g., fear or anxiety, guilt, hurt, or sadness. The more that person judges themselves as “weak” for having much less showing these feelings, the more automatically if not reflexively he/she may display strong anger. This display of anger then “masks” those weak–i.e, vulnerable–feelings.

4) Feeling empowered–Many people who have an anger management problem, whether they acknowledge it or not, experience a surge of feeling powerful when they are angry. This surge can behaviorally manifest in what could be seen or felt stereotypically as “macho” behavior or “attack mode.” In contrast, and going back to the “masking” concept, when someone is feeling any of the vulnerable feelings listed above to a strong if not overwhelming degree, accompanying that negative self-judgment of “weakness” can be the opposite of feeling powerful, i.e., feeling powerLESS (consciously or subconsciously).

Brain Physiology And The “Highjacking” Phenomenon

To help you gain a further understanding of why impaired anger management is such a complicated syndrome, we must also look inside the brain. To keep this as understandable as possible, there are two main structures in the brain that have a great deal of bearing on anger management. The first structure is called the AMYGDALA (a-mig-duh-luh). This is the part of our brain that is centrally involved in the universal “fight/flight” response, where “flight” refers to fear or anxiety and “fight” refers to anger and aggression. In brief, when someone is stressed and resultingly develops a good deal of agitation inside, the amygdala actively fires away. If the intensity of the agitation quickly becomes intense, the amygdala can quickly become not just reactive but, more problematically, HYPERreactive. If the stressor triggering hyperactivity in the amygdala is fear-related, the person will likely develop a very high level of fear or anxiety. If on the other hand the trigger is anger-related, then the person is likely to become intensely angry.

The other key structure in the brain involved in anger management is known as the PREFRONTAL CORTEX (PFC). This is the crucial structure in the brain that is the seat of rational and logical thinking, including good decision-making, concentration and attention, and impulse control. Connecting this to anger (as well as fear too), the brain-based physiological general rule of thumb here is: the more the person’s PFC is functioning at a normal–i.e., non-stressed/agitated–level, the more controlled and better managed will that person’s anger be in general.

Now let’s tie these two structures of the brain together as it relates to anger management problems. In a nutshell, when some stressful/agitating situation triggers significant hyperactivity in the amygdala, the process known as “high-jacking” occurs. Specifically, the amygdala essentially overtakes–i.e., high-jacks–the PFC, resulting in significant impairment in the person’s ability to think clearly, concentrate adequately, and control their self-defeating impulses. In anger management terms, this means that when the amygdala is triggered to become very hyperactive, and the PFC’s functioning is therefore limited, anger takes control of the person. Which in the extreme–such as in a state of pure rage–creates the proverbial “zero to 60” effect. The overall moral of the story here being: this high-jacking process in the brain does not excuse a person with an anger management problem, but it most certainly helps EXPLAIN the problem.

Strategies For Anger Management

Given all that’s spelled out above on the psychology and brain-based physiology of anger management, I hope you are clear–maybe clearer than you’ve ever been–just how much easier said than done it is to achieve. And yet: whether you’ve ever really looked at it this way or not, in the end there are two extremely important reasons to work on anger management. The first reason is an individual one: self-respect. Simply stated–and feelings of empowerment and masked vulnerability notwithstanding– if you let intense anger take control of you, you cannot possibly respect yourself for your pattern of “flipping out” and “flying off the handle.” But just like with addiction, and to put it bluntly, who the heck ever thinks about self-respect when you’re in the middle of being very angry or indulging in an addictive substance! Yet the psychological fact of life is: a pattern of a significant loss of self-control guarantees an accompanying loss of self-respect. And that’s, let me reiterate, whether you ever consciously think about that or not.

The second reason to work on anger management has to do with being challenged or confronted by significant others about their feeling that your problem controlling anger is in there eyes sabotaging your relationship with them. If that is their experience and perception, and your relationship with them truly matters to you, then I’d say it’s advisable you get to work on your problem for this reason too!

On that note, presented below is a “menu” of strategies I recommend for working on anger management. Like a real menu, you can choose the same item each time, or change around if you feel trying a different item would be better for you. Let me preface this menu though by saying that no matter which items on the menu you choose to try to help yourself manage your anger better, it is absolutely essential that you practice them as often as possible. Otherwise, you must face the music as they say: if you don’t practice them, there is virtually no chance that you will make any progress on this troubling–and trouble-MAKING–front.

The menu I recommend for anger management includes the following:

–mindful meditation (especially focusing on breathing, tension in the body, and visual imagery; more spiritual pursuit of some type can also be a meditative option )

–“get physical” (e.g., walking or more strenuous exercise, gardening, or something cathartic like pillow-pounding)

–“get vocal” (e.g., call a friend, or: go in the car, don’t drive anywhere, and yell your heart out)

–“get your journal” (emotional venting in written form)

–“get musical” (listen to whatever type of music you believe can help you reduce your agitation)

–“get perspective” (basically, force yourself to remember that you are allowing your anger to control you in a way that can be sabotaging to your self-respect and also potentially to the relationship with someone important to you; that perspective can leave you still feeling angry yes, but able to express it in a more reasonable and controlled manner)

–“get de-stressed” (do the best you can to cut down on the overall stress in your life)

Last but not least, given the complexity of the problem of agitation management and the big challenge it therefore presents, I highly encourage you to give yourself a big pat on the back each and every time you do something to keep your anger to a manageable and controlled level!

On Psychology & Spirituality

Personal Definition of Spirituality

The practice of some form of spirituality is for many people an important part of their daily lives. Yet the term “spirituality” itself can mean different things to different people. As you may recognize, for some people, spiritual practice automatically connotes having a theistic set of beliefs, in which the central focus surrounds a belief in God. Yet under the heading of the term theistic spiritual practice can be two sub-categories: a belief in God through involvement in a chosen religion vs. on one’s own, without any religious involvement.

But now let’s look at people who identify themselves as atheists, who of course disavow a belief in God or a God-like figure. “If you so choose, please feel free to replace the word God with words you may prefer, like Higher Power or Spirit. Just for consistency, I will stick with using God.” From the standpoint of a theistic bent regarding spiritual practice, it can almost be concluded that atheists do not do any type of spiritual practice. In order to dismiss this conclusion entirely, one can choose to define one form of spiritual practice in “earthly”–i.e., non-theistic–terms. Allow to me propose a definition of spiritual practice that cuts across theistic and atheistic belief systems. At risk of sounding glib or oversimplifying the matter, that definition is: anything you do that LIFTS YOUR SPIRITS. With the understanding that there is a range of how much lifting of your spirits a particular spiritual practice can provide you. So therefore, one type of spiritual practice you do may lift your spirits a small amount, another one a bigger amount, and a third one a very significant amount.

Taking this notion one more step, you can end up with two categories fitting this definition of spiritual practice. The two categories can be called theistic practice vs. in this case “personal/situational” practice. If you are a theist, your spirits can soar to varying degrees through some type of connecting to God, be it in a house of worship, or for that matter anywhere else you feel that connection to God, as for example looking out at the ocean, or walking in the woods. Yet truth be told there are non-theistic ways to make your spirits soar too– sometimes every bit as much as involving a theistic spiritual practice. Take the same two situational examples I just listed: staring out at the ocean and walking in the woods. Simply stated, many people can experience an uplifting in their spirits by doing either of these two things, without feeling any connection whatsoever to God. Spiritual uplifting can also occur from doing anything like, e.g., listening to or playing your favorite music, doing yoga, eating a wonderful meal, attending an event you find highly entertaining, reading an absorbing book, doing rewarding volunteer work, attending an inspiring class or workshop, watching a child play and laugh, or making love. And certainly these examples do not exhaust the the list of what any of us can find to be a spiritual practice to lift up our spirits–none of which requiring any belief in or feeling any connection to God!

Spiritual Practice Applied to Psychological Distress

People who seek professional help for psychological problems such as anxiety and depression may or may not view spiritual practices as a beneficial tool in their efforts to manage these conditions. In my experience, most psychotherapy techniques are not primarily spiritually-oriented. Instead, they are geared mainly towards efforts to, e.g., create more positive cognitions, manage stress and fear better, build up self-worth, and improve the quality of relationships. Mainly through talking things out with the therapist and then doing occasional “homeworks” to apply what is discussed in session is how these techniques are seen as hopefully helping people reduce their clinical symptoms.

I would like to propose here that there is room to bring spirituality into psychotherapeutic treatment. In this context of spirituality though, I am going to focus mainly on theistic spiritual practices. My main point is to very much encourage anyone who has a strong religious or personal belief in God to utilize this belief in a manner that maximizes its potential therapeutic benefit. More specifically, let’s suppose you are mired in the throes of episodes of depression or anxiety. As an alternative to attempting only to e.g., utilize more positive cognitions, practice specific symptom-management techniques, or do non-theistic mindfulness meditating–as many therapy approaches are geared towards–you might start utilizing some type of THEISTIC spiritual practice to better manage and control your clinical symptoms. Thus for example, when you are conscious of feeling overtaken by a bout of depression or episode of anxiety, as a spiritual practice try in your own way turning right to GOD, such as through some type of preferred prayer, or simply talking to God in a manner that makes you feel like you are turning to Him for, e.g., comfort, courage, inner emotional strength, and determination. All of which can, if your faith in God is solid, provide you with at minimum needed situational relief from your clinical symptoms, and at maximum more confidence that you can control these symptoms from taking control of you.

Yes, you can also psychologically benefit from non-theistic spiritual practices (or for that matter, prescribed medication for more intense symptoms). But if you can embrace theistic spiritual practice–without the necessity to have to practice it through involvement in organized religion–then my own personal/theistic belief is that God is always there inside you, anytime and anyplace you need to turn to Him. So you can if you choose turn to Him especially for help in dealing with your depression or anxiety–or for that matter any other stressful psychological challenges you are faced with. I therefore encourage you to give yourself the option of a spiritual practice involving going right to God as quickly and regularly as you can. By doing so, hopefully you can come to feel you have a strong and trusted ally inside you, to help you cope with your psychologically challenging problems.