Recognizing Anger

Lesson 4

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Recognizing Anger

Lesson 4

As we mentioned before, a large part of anger management involves self-awareness. Put simply, this means having a greater understanding of what is occurring in both your mind and body. You have been working on recognizing your own needs and maybe even the needs of others around you. Hopefully you are beginning to draw connections between unmet needs and held beliefs about anger. We hope you are also getting a sense of some of the patterns of expressing anger you learned from childhood and past experiences, and your deeply ingrained ways of reacting to or expressing anger.

Conflict, frustration, pain (emotional and physical), disrespect, and unmet needs are inevitable, and so is anger. Anger management is not about getting rid of or suppressing anger. Anger management is about dealing with anger in a healthy, effective way. It is about using anger as a natural warning system, letting us know when something is out of balance, when a personal boundary has been crossed, or when we are hurt, and then using this knowledge to determine an action. This action could be any or all of the following: finding a way to take care of an unmet need, taking care of your body, working to heal an emotional or physical wound, doing something to change your situation, problem-solving your situation, challenging unhelpful thinking patterns or beliefs, or shifting your perspective (to name just a few).

Before you can take action, however, you must learn to recognize feelings of anger before they become too intense or large, and before you are about to express your anger in an unhealthy or destructive way.

Luckily, recognizing bodily symptoms and external triggers can bring awareness to you before your flare up and react. Increased self-awareness of anger can open doors to new ways you can handle a situation. You have now given yourself a choice: you could react emotionally or instinctively, or, on the flip side, you could respond thoughtfully and in a healthy way.

Recognizing Bodily Cues

Unhealthy expressions of anger tend to occur when we are acting mindlessly, with little awareness of our needs, feelings, or thoughts.   Our bodies offer a wealth of information and wisdom, often making us aware that something is off or wrong beforewe are fully mentally aware. Here are some ways anger shows up physically in our bodies, just to name a few examples:

  • Flushed face
  • Clenched fists
  • Clenched jaw
  • Crying
  • Knotted feeling in the stomach
  • Headache
  • Shallow breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling hands
  • Buzzing energy throughout arms and legs
  • Tightness in shoulders and/or neck

We like how Sentis frames a discussion of how stress and anger affect the body in the moment:

Consider the following:

Josef is at a friend’s party when he notices Julia, his ex-girlfriend, is present. They broke up a few months before because she did not keep her commitment to Josef. He is already feeling amped up by the party. Upon seeing Julia, Josef’s body stiffens and he crosses his arms across his chest. His stomach feels like it is in a knot, and his jaw clenches. Josef may not even be aware of what he is feeling, but his body is telling him something is out of balance. Before Josef’s mind has time to connect his feelings and thoughts with his past negative experience with Julia, his body has responded, letting him know that something is wrong. By taking a deep breath, he has a second to make the connection before he acts: leaving the party for a moment by stepping into the cool night air.

Recognizing Triggers

Everyone has different things that upset them. Recognizing the triggers to our anger creates awareness and the mental space to be able to plan ahead. It can allow you to react and not react. Triggers can be thought patterns, emotions, physical discomfort, physical stress, physical or emotional threats, or external events.

Let’s break down some possible triggers.  Here are four categories of potential types of triggers.

  • Emotional Triggers. Emotional triggers are emotions that seem to lay underneath our anger or that our anger sometimes mask. Some common emotions that seem to trigger anger are:  fear, boredom, frustration, hurt, irritation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, worthlessness, and confusion.   
  • Physical Triggers. Physical triggers can include pain, injury, illness, or discomfort.
  • Mental Triggers. Mental triggers include our thoughts and beliefs. These could be negative self-talk, rigid beliefs, or misunderstandings.
  • Environmental Triggers. These are things like stressful work environments, extreme hot or cold weather, traffic, etc.

Consider the following:

Patricia needs to be at work at 8:00 a.m. Patricia works approximately 20 minutes away from her home. However, every Wednesday morning a train blocks off the major highway she needs to take to get to work. Every Wednesday morning, she fumes as she waits and watches the train inch by, and the rest of the morning is spent in an aggravated state.

Instead of giving in to this anger, Patricia could use her anger as a warning signal that something needs to change. She could increase her awareness related to this situation, and take notice that being late creates stress for her and triggers her anger. This awareness then allows her the opportunity to make a change. Every Wednesday morning, she could leave ten or fifteen minutes earlier than she usually does, ensuring that she will not be stopped by the train, and ensuring she will be on time for work.

Exercise

This exercise will take considerable more time than previous exercises. Be patient with yourself while practicing and do not demand perfection from yourself right away.

The next time you feel angry, really try to experience it within your body. Does your throat close up?  Does your face turn red? Allow the anger to sit inside you while you explore it fully. Don’t push it out! Try to notice as much as you can. No detail is too small. It is important you do not react to this anger. Instead, allow it to be only an emotion within you. You do not need to take action – just pay attention.

Afterward, write down why you experienced the anger, and where you experienced it in your body. What triggered you to feel angry? Is this a common trigger for you? Does it connect to an unmet need of yours or of another? How can you plan to find an alternate way around the trigger?

Compose a list of possible triggers. Take time to think about these, and continue to add to the list. Do you feel angry thinking about someone else’s demands? Do you feel angry when your partner uses a certain tone of voice?

Also, continue to write down conflict you are witnessing or that you are involved with, still keeping track of needs and possible resolutions. When faced with a conflict, practice using an “I” statement from the previous section, such as, “When you don’t follow through on what you said you were going to do, I feel taken advantage of and discouraged.”

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