Anger

Do you have trouble managing your anger?

Anger is a tricky emotion. In pure evolutionary terms, anger is our signal to fight a threat, as part of the fight, flight or freeze response (anxiety is the emotion that tells us to freeze or flee). This is all well and good if you are facing a hungry lion, but not so helpful if your boss has just criticised you, or another driver cuts you off in traffic. But this primitive, self-protective threat response explains why we can react so strongly, violently even, if we feel threatened – in a very crude way, that's what anger is for.

Most of my clients have some kind of problem with anger, roughly falling into two camps. The first group is scared of or uncomfortable with anger – theirs and other people's. If this describes you, it may be because one of your parents was given to angry outbursts, which as a child were very frightening. That vulnerable child inside you learns to be scared of anger, even when you are – on the outside at least – now an adult. It's also possible that your family were rather buttoned-up, viewing any expression of anger as rude and uncivilised (a very British way to deal with anger!), so you learned to keep your angry feelings stuffed deep down inside you. As an adult, it's now hard to access and express them, even when it's appropriate to do so.

The other problematic form of anger is expressing it too often and too volcanically. This is the cause of domestic violence, bar brawls, violent crime, road/air/trolley rage and aggressive bullying. It's just as harmful as repressed anger, both to those around you and ultimately yourself – you will probably end up in serious trouble, perhaps even prison, if you cannot contain your anger and explode at the smallest provocation. People with this 'anger style' may come from very angry, combustible families in which everyone was always shouting at/being aggressive to each other. They may also have been hurt, neglected or abused as children, so that child inside is absolutely furious at the world and can't help but express it, even when it's dangerous or destructive to do so.

The angry modes

In schema therapy, when people are expressing anger in a problematic way, we see this showing up as one of three angry modes. If you find yourself blowing up all the time, perhaps shouting or swearing at other people, being threatening or even physically violent, you are in Bully/Attack mode. This is the most problematic angry mode, so a major part of your therapy would involve learning how to respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational manner. Anger-management strategies can be helpful here, as well as longer-term healing of schemas such as Abandonment, Mistrust/Abuse or Vulnerability that can trigger this attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence style of responding to threats or challenges.

The second mode, Angry Protector, is less destructive but still problematic. This is when you express anger in more subtle ways, perhaps non-verbally by scowling or with a closed-off body posture; with sarcasm or cutting humour; angrily complaining about or being harshly critical of other people. This mode is all about keeping a distance between yourself and others, perhaps because deep down your vulnerable child is scared of attack or rejection. You may also be uncomfortable with any kind of criticism or challenge, so respond with subtle but unmistakeable shows of anger to shut that down.

Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
— Aristotle

The third mode is the most helpful, even if it doesn't at first appear that way! This is the Angry Child mode, and is evident in the way a person expresses their anger – often disproportionately to the perceived insult or infraction. You may have a tantrum, smashing or throwing objects (not to hurt others, just to release your anger). You might also get very tearful or upset. And beneath the anger is always hurt, fear or sadness, so if we were working together I would help you express your anger in a non-attacking, non-destructive way, so we could contact and soothe the hurt, upset or fearful vulnerable child lying just beneath the angry surface. 

When we get people into Angry Child mode, teach them how to express their anger verbally or by doing something safe but physical, like twisting a towel or punching a cushion, they experience a tremendous sense of relief – all the anger literally drains out of their bodies. It can then be deeply healing and soothing to deal with the hurt that lies beneath – over time, your anger subsides as you feel happier, safer, stronger and calmer.

If you have a problem with anger and would like my help, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

Bibliotherapy for anger issues

'Bibliotherapy' is an important part of cognitive therapy, either to run alongside a course of therapy or as a self-help tool. I often recommend books to my clients, partly because there is only so much time in a session, so it's much more useful for them to read up about their particular issue and for us to discuss their findings next week. But I also find that many people like to understand why they might be having problems and find their own strategies for solving them – another important idea in cognitive therapy, because ultimately I am trying to help my clients to be their own therapist.

You can read one or all of these books, depending on which appeal to you. You can also read the whole book or dip in to the chapters that seem most relevant to you.

1. Overcoming Anger and Irritability: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, by William Davies. Part of the excellent Overcoming... series, this is designed as a CBT workbook, which you can use either instead of or alongside a course of cognitive therapy. As with any issue in CBT, problems with anger (either struggling to express or control it) are seen as a consequence of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs. So if you change the way you think, you will change the way you feel and behave.

CBT is proven to be an excellent tool for tackling unhealthy anger, with plenty of good-quality research confirming its effectiveness. This book is easy to read; packed with useful information about why we develop anger problems and how to overcome them; and provides a step-by-step programme of exercises to tackle your own problematic anger. And at just £9.99, it's a fair bit cheaper than a course of CBT too!

2. The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger, by Russell L Kolts. I am currently reading – and thoroughly enjoying – this warm, wise and helpful book, so can strongly recommend it. Kolts is an American clinical psychologist specialising in anger issues, with vast experience of working with groups such as prisoners, for whom destructive anger is clearly a major problem. He draws on Paul Gilbert's compassion-focused therapy (in which I am currently training) to explain the evolutionary/psychological basis of anger, especially its role in protecting us from threats, either real or perceived.

As Buddhists have known for 2,500 years, compassion is a wonderful antidote to anger, aggression, hostility and hatred – a fact that is increasingly recognised by Western mental health professionals. Learning to treat ourselves and others with greater kindness, compassion and tolerance is a major step on the road to reducing the destructive impact of anger on our lives. If you only read one of these books, I would choose this one, as it is both profound and a pleasure to read.

3. The Superstress Solution, by Roberta Lee MD. Don't let the title throw you off – I have included this book in both the anger and stress sections of my bibliotherapy course, because anger and stress and often inextricably linked. Think of it this way: if you are prone to irritability, remember how you felt after your last holiday. I'm guessing that all the little things that normally drive you to distraction didn't seem like such a big deal – and you probably dealt with them without becoming in the least bit cross or frustrated. Why? Because you had de-stressed and were relaxed, so your levels of patience and what's known as 'frustration tolerance' were far higher than in your pre-holiday, stressed-out state.

That's why, if you have a problem with anger, managing your stress levels is extremely important. Dr Lee is an integrative physician who takes a holistic approach to reducing the stress levels many of us suffer from in our always-on, over-stimulated, over-caffeinated, under-rested modern world. Covering everything from diet and exercise to meditation and lifestyle changes, this is a wonderfully clear, sensible and helpful book. Follow her advice and both your stress and anger levels should reduce significantly.

I hope these books prove helpful – if you would like to book a session with me, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

Thoughts racing? This meditation will help

When you are feeling stressed or anxious your thoughts might race, making it hard to slow down or focus on what you're doing. Although this is completely normal, it can feel really unsettling, as the content of those thoughts is likely to be negative or frightening, so it's a bit like watching a scary movie stuck on fast-forward... If this is a problem for you, here is a simple mindfulness meditation technique that can really help:

Mindfulness of breathing

1. First, make some quiet time for yourself – take 10 minutes out of your busy day, that to-do list can wait! Switch your phone to silent and make sure you won't be disturbed. Find a comfortable position, either cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, or sitting on a straight-backed chair. Make sure your spine, neck and head are in alignment – erect but not tense, so you are sitting with a sense of calm alertness.

2. Set a repeat timer on your phone to 5 minutes, then close your eyes and settle into your body. Do a quick scan of your whole body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head, noticing any areas of tension and allowing those parts of the body to soften and relax. You can imagine breathing into the tense area, then releasing any tension on the out-breath.

3. Bring your attention to your breath, following the entire breath cycle as it travels into the nostrils, down the back of your throat, into the lungs, then back along the throat and out of your nose. Notice the way your chest and belly rise with each in-breath, then fall on the out-breath. Don't try to change or control the breath in any way, just let your body breathe itself – which it does every second of your life, whether you notice or not.

4. Start counting after each breath cycle, beginning with 1 – so breathe in, out and mentally count 1; in, out, 2; in, out, 3 and so on until you reach 10. If you find yourself carried off by thoughts, that's fine – be kind and gentle with yourself, direct your attention back to the breath, then go back to 1.

5. If you find yourself counting 20, you have got distracted! Again, just go back to 1 and start again.

6. When you hear the first timer signalling 5 minutes, you can choose to continue counting, at the beginning of each breath cycle – so count 1, in, out; 2, in, out; 3, in, out and so on. Or, if your thoughts have settled and quietened down you can drop the counting and just focus on your breath.

7. When you hear the second timer, that's 10 minutes. Slowly open your eyes and gently move your body. Resume your day, carrying this calm, mindful attention into your next activity.

I really hope that helps. And if you would like to know more about mindfulness meditation, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan