Ways to stay cool when you get hot under the collar

It might be common to promote the virtues of clearing the air by venting your rage, but in most instances it makes things worse.

ARE you in the habit of lashing out? Do you lose the plot if you feel your partner’s not listening or a work colleague falls short on a team effort?

Are you fit to be tied when your computer crashes, you’re stuck in traffic or your food arrives lukewarm in a restaurant? Maybe somebody invades your space or treats you unfairly and you grit your teeth, say nothing but simmer away, later flying off the handle with those closest to you.

If so, you could be entering a danger zone. A new Australian study of 300 cardiac patients in Sydney suggests risk of sudden heart attack is over eight times higher after an angry outburst. This drastically higher risk applied to patients who said they’d been so furious they were ‘ready to burst’, with tense body and clenched fists.

Intense anger is a devastating force physically – it releases a rush of adrenalin and cortisol, sparking a rise in heart rate, blood pressure and sugar metabolism.

Yet, anger is a normal, natural emotion. Expressed healthily it can be a powerful, positive mobiliser. Bernard Henry, psychotherapist and founder of the Irish Association of Anger Management, says outrage can drive people to demand better treatment, to be taken seriously, to look for wrongs to be righted.

“Anger can generate creativity [so people] play sports better, are more competitive in the workplace, want to recover from illness, work out ways to win and achieve good results.”

Expressing anger “cleanly”, he says, reduces stress and helps prevent heart disease, cancer, ulcers, migraine and stomach disorders.

There’s nothing healthy about an adult exploding in a temper tantrum — being aggressive and violent. “Violence isn’t just physical – it’s emotional and psychological,” says Pat Dermody, a counsellor and psychotherapist who works in Cork’s Hazelton Clinic.

And there’s nothing clean about imploding – bottling up anger and turning it inward. This, says Dermody, is the person who labels themselves (‘I’m a fool’), who sees catastrophes (‘This is such a big disaster’), who filters out positives, minimises his own abilities, compares himself to others and who mind-reads.

“We know we can’t read others’ minds. But when we’re angry, we say ‘I know what you’re thinking’. We have a thought, project it onto another person, imagine they’re thinking it and respond emotionally,” says Dermody.

He cites road rage. “Somebody makes a mistake. Someone else takes it personally – ‘oh, look at that fool, he’s doing that to wind me up’.”

Dermody has had people come to his clinic seeking help with anger management, when in fact they don’t have a problem with anger — the person with the problem is their passive aggressive spouse/partner at home.

“The passive aggressor engages in behaviour designed to hurt – silent treatment, storming out, blaming. They say ‘I wasn’t doing anything – you’re the one who always gets angry’. They frustrate another to the point where the latter gets angry.”

Dr Eddie Murphy, clinical psychologist and author of Becoming Your Real Self, A Practical Toolkit for Managing Life’s Challenges, says it’s a myth that it’s ok to vent your anger.

“That actually escalates anger. It’s better to control it.”

But whether you flip out or fume inwardly, intense expressions of anger distort reality. We say things that aren’t real. We use over-generalising terms like ‘always’ and ‘never’, ‘everybody’ and ‘nobody’.

Saying ‘you never clean the bathroom after you’ has more emotive power than acknowledging the reality ‘you didn’t clean the bathroom twice this month’, explains Dermody, who cites another common untruth told in outbursts of rage – ‘you’re making me angry’.

What’s true, he says, is “what you’re saying to me is hurting me – what I’m choosing to do is to get angry and hurt you back”.

“Anger is triggered by hurt. It’s impossible to be angry without being hurt. Anger is a choice – it’s what we’re doing with our hurt.”

Giving free rein to your temper can be seductive. There’s an adrenalin rush, which can be addictive and hard to give up, says Henry. “It gives the person powerful feelings. But it’s an unhealthy way to feel powerful in your life – it’s an inappropriate expression that hurts you and people around you.”

Murphy says the top treatment for anger is assertiveness. “There’s aggressive, assertive and passive. You’re trying to hit that sweet spot of being assertive – saying what you feel without hurting others.”

He points to our ‘assertive bill of rights’— my right to say ‘no’, to change my mind, make a mistake, ask for what I want and set my own priorities. Other people have these rights too.

Counting to 10 doesn’t work when we’ve lost our cool and are letting fly. Our biological chemistry is against it. We go into fight or flight mode. The brain’s amygdala activates the limbic brain, which is responsible for feelings, behaviours, habits, explains Dermody.

Meanwhile, the brain areas that deal with facts and short-term memory (hippocampus) and processing of information (pre-frontal cortex) are suppressed.

“We’re not actively responding to what’s going on in the present. We’re reaching back into the past and reacting from a place of habit and behaviour.”

A very effective tool for countering full-blown rage, says Dermody, is a simple action: raise your eyebrows.

“Most people frown when they get angry. It’s a physiological process to protect our eyes. By raising your eyebrows, you’re opening a physical response. The amygdala says ‘what’s happening? I thought I was angry’.

It turns back on the hippocampus, which does the facts, and turns back on the pre-frontal cortex, which processes the facts. It might only give you a second or two, but this could be sufficient to choose whether you want to be angry.”

Another helpful strategy is to prepare ahead when you’re calm how to manage your anger when feelings run high. Agree with your partner a buzzword that you’ll call – this will mean you both respectfully leave the argument with the intention of returning to the issue after an hour when tempers have cooled.

Dermody recommends doing something you’re used to doing in peaceful times that will change the tone. “Many couples don’t express how they feel about the other person. If they make the habit of saying to the other person why they love them, they might then – [in an altercation] – say ‘I hear what you’re saying, I can understand you’re angry, can you tell me something you love about me’.”

Murphy suggests self-talk tools — things you say to yourself before, during or after a volatile situation. “Before it, you say ‘This is going to be rough but I have a plan — I’ll be able to handle it’. During it, say ‘Stay calm, breathe easy’. Afterwards, say ‘I managed that well — I felt angry but I didn’t lose my cool’.”

Anger management, he says, is about identifying your triggers, lengthening your fuse and managing to prevent the explosion.

Ways to stay cool when you get hot under the collar

Anger management tips

  • Practise seven-11 breathing. Breathe in very slowly for seven seconds. Breathe out for 11.
  • Try to identify the feeling beneath the anger.
  • Is your anger out of proportion? Anger is often a response to a historical situation as much as to a current one.
  • Adjust or lower expectations, including those you have of yourself. It’s ok to make mistakes.
  • Be assertive. Rather than flare up, put yourself in another gear and take ownership of your feelings. Tell people you’re feeling angry and why. Talk slowly and clearly. Use the word ‘I’ to make it about you, not about them.
  • Deal with potentially volatile situations by appointment. Instead of blowing a fuse when somebody gets to you, arrange a time and place for a chat about the issues.
  • Slow down. Do fewer demanding tasks and spend more time relaxing.
  • When angry, avoid situations/people that annoy you.

The different faces of rage

Passive aggressor:

You don’t feel able to express something that matters. Maybe you believe others will think badly of you if you do. So you don’t open up, you go into yourself. However, the feelings still emerge in negative behaviour — you make things awkward for the other person.

You sabotage stuff that’s important to them. Instead of saying ‘Can we have your brother and his wife over for just Saturday morning rather than the whole day?’ you sulk and dampen the mood for the duration of their visit.

Person with a sore point:

If during childhood you were told you fell short in some area of personality or ability, the vulnerability may remain. As an adult you may perceive a slight where none is intended. Perhaps you harbour hurt because, as a child, your parents said you were ‘always lazy’.

All it may take for you to explode in temper is your partner coming home and saying ‘Oh, no, is the dinner not on yet?’ Your disproportionate reaction is current, but driven by past hurt.

Volcano:

You explode, rant and thump the table. You’re unable to manage your emotions or express them coherently. Instead of trying to maintain a connection with the other person, you aim to dominate them, to force them to do as you wish.

Person who transfers anger:

Instead of getting angry in the right place with the right person — where your anger first arose — you let your rage loose on someone who hasn’t done anything to upset you. Perhaps at work you feel overlooked, your opinion never taken on board, but you stay schtum.

You think maybe you’ll lose your job if you assert yourself. So you go home in a foul mood and take it out on your partner, raging about inconsequential stuff.

Person who criticises:

Every now and again you give your friend a list of her ‘faults’. You pride yourself on being honest and upfront. The truth may be: you perceive in her traits you don’t like in yourself — anger at yourself is turned outwards.


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