Anger-management

Healthy ways to release your anger

Everybody gets angry – it’s a normal human emotion, like sadness, fear or joy. And there is nothing wrong with anger, despite its bad reputation and the damage it can cause. Like all emotions, the problem is not the anger, but the ways we either try to suppress and swallow it, or let it come spilling out, harming ourselves and those around us.

One of the main lessons I teach my clients in schema therapy is how to feel, express and so release their anger. And that’s not easy, because most of us have a problematic relationship with this most volatile of emotions – we may have grown up in a family where anger was never permitted expression, so we learned that anger was scary and shameful, to be kept inside at all costs. This means we now swallow our anger, which is not good for our health, physical or mental.

Or we might have grown up in a family that expressed anger too freely or even violently, with lots of screaming, breaking things or hitting. So again we are now probably afraid of anger, seeing it as threatening and unsafe, because we associate bad things with it. We may either have learned to hold it in, or followed our family’s example and now explode all over the place (using attack as the best form of defence against other people’s threatening behaviour), raging at other drivers or screaming at our partners/kids. This too is not good.

Healthy anger-release

I only have two rules for anger expression with my clients:

1. When expressing anger, they don’t hurt themselves.

2. When expressing anger, they don’t hurt anyone else.

Bearing these rules in mind, here are two ways to let your anger out safely and healthily (releasing all the energy from your Angry Child mode, which is the part of you that is so furious). First, try writing an angry letter to the person that has hurt or upset you. This may be your boss, partner, friend, colleague – or a person from the past, such as a critical parent. Write it on a blank Word document, allowing yourself to say whatever you need – swear as much as you like, use capitals and exclamation marks. Don’t censor in any way. When you’re done, print the letter and tear it into tiny pieces or burn it, imagining all that hostility and frustration leaving your body as you do. (And remember this letter never gets sent! It’s just for you and to release all that bottled up anger energy).

Second, get a towel and twist it until it’s really tight. Then keep twisting, saying ‘I am so angry with you!’, ‘I am so *!**!** angry with you!’ over and over, twisting the towel util your arms get tired (this should be hard work!). Make sure you stick with ‘I’ statements and the way they have hurt or upset you, rather than just blaming or attacking. You will eventually find that all the anger drains out of your body and you feel tired. And other feelings might bubble up too, like hurt or sadness. Let them be there and have a cry if you need to. This will help you feel better (and be soothing for your Vulnerable Child, which is the part of you that feels all the hurt, pain or fear that lies beneath the anger).

I hope that helps – if you would like to know more about schema therapy, or ways of working with your anger, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

How to deal with difficult emotions

If you want to understand how we are meant to feel emotions, look at a small child. When kids feel their emotions they really feel them! If they are angry, they will shout and scream and have a tantrum. If they are sad, they will cry. If they're scared, they will run away, or hide behind their mum's legs until the threat has passed. Now, I'm not saying that as adults we should indulge ourselves in tantrums, but neither should we repress or swallow our feelings.

Sadly, as we grow older we tend to stiffen up. We learn that (for men) it's not OK to cry when we are sad, or to tell our friends if we're going through a rough time. Or (for women) that being angry or assertive is unacceptable. We start to feel bad for feeling bad. We learn to hide our feelings, sometimes even from ourselves. Or we use a substance (alcohol/weed/cocaine/food/cigarettes) or an activity (gambling/hours spent on Facebook/gaming/shopping/sex) to numb or avoid uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, sadness, loneliness, anger or hurt. And the message we are giving ourselves is that emotions are somehow bad, wrong or even threatening.

Let's go back to the kids. Watch a child getting angry: they feel the anger, intensely. Then they release it, verbally and physically. Then they seek a trusted person to soothe and comfort them. And then... the anger is gone. They see a butterfly and chase after it, utterly delighted and distracted, with no trace of the anger left in their body or mind. This is how we are supposed to feel, process and seek solace when we experience strong emotion. I have started summing it up for my schema therapy clients with a simple formula:

1. Feel it. If you're sad, be sad. If you are angry, let yourself be angry. It's just an emotion and can't do you any harm – in fact, the only harm we can do is if we try to avoid the emotion (leading to problems like addiction or anxiety disorders such as OCD).

2. Release it. If you are sad, and alone, have a cry. If you're angry, write a (never-to-be-sent) letter to the person you're angry with, then burn or tear it into tiny pieces. Vent the emotion and let it go.

3. Get soothed (by yourself or a trusted person). Just as children need soothing when they are upset, so do adults – we're just not very good at doing it for ourselves or seeking it from those we love and trust.

Learning to detach

One of the unconscious ways we learn to suppress or avoid our feelings is by detaching, which involves a psychological process called 'dissociation'. This is something we all do, to a greater or lesser extent, but will have learned to do a great deal if we suffered trauma, abuse or neglect as a child. Dissociation is an unconscious process in which the brain shuts down to protect us from overwhelming stress. It's a bit like a fuse blowing on a circuit board when there is a power surge, to stop electrical devices getting fried.

If we dissociate a lot as a child, it becomes an automatic process that we over-use, shutting down when we feel any kind of difficult emotion. This leads to us developing a 'mode' called the Detached Protector – one of the most common modes in my clients. We may feel numb, empty or spacey when this mode is triggered. We might also feel disconnected from other people, even experiencing strange sensations such as feeling far away, seeing the other person as very small, or feeling like there is a glass wall between us and the world. These are all common symptoms of dissociation.

None of this is bad or wrong – it's just what we learn to do to protect ourselves from overwhelming pain or stress. Part of my job is helping people unlearn this unhelpful coping strategy, feel their emotions as described above, and learn to build up their 'emotional muscles', so they feel stronger, more resilient, and can live a rich and fulfilling life. After all, emotions – the full range, both those we like and the ones we would rather not feel – are what make us human.

If you would like some help with your uncomfortable emotions, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

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