Therapists have many wonderful tools and techniques that we use to help clients with their anger—indeed, this article will focus on just some of the many, many different ways that therapists can help. As you will see, some of these are common ideas that you may have heard of and even used yourself.
Before I share these ideas with the clients I work with, I ask them about all of the current ways, both positive and not, that they deal with their anger. I also like to examine what they have observed from family and friends, as we tend to react in much the same way as those around us. Even with management attempts that may not have been successful, it is still valuable to evaluate why the tool did not work, and to perhaps adjust to work better in different situations. Having more tools at one’s disposal enhances potential success.
Eventually, my clients will develop an actual “anger plan.” We start with whatever tools they can think of. They may have difficulty generating positive ways to address their anger, so, as homework, I ask them to check with family, friends, and co-workers to learn what tools other people use to help them more effectively cope with their anger.
First, I want my client to get all these ideas down on paper. More important is the reality check that this process shows: how others have perhaps struggled with their anger, as well as that fact that there are so many different ways to deal with anger. It reinforces that we can pick and choose what best works for us, knowing that there are many different tools at our disposal.
Deep breathing: Deep breathing is a wonderful way to help us manage our stress and emotions before they escalate. You want to take a slow, deep breathe in through your nose, calmly. Hold it for a second or two, before slowly pushing it out through your mouth. Take a few minutes throughout the day to practice, as you want to do this daily, and not just when you are experiencing anger. This will actually help manage potential outbursts before they arise.
Counting: I am sure we have all heard of counting to 10 before we act. This is not just something many of us tell our children, as we can all benefit from such wisdom. By slowly counting and focusing away from the stressful situation around us, we get those few pivotal seconds we need to sidetrack us from potential emotional danger.
Use those key seconds to remind yourself that you can choose a different path with your anger. If you can, close your eyes and take a deep breathe with each number you count. Keeping focus on your breathing will calm your body’s flooding chemicals as it helps slow the racing thoughts. No one but you decides how long counting will take, so keep in control.
Meditation: This is a word that tends to be foreign to many people. Meditation is not about standing or sitting in a certain position or pose; it is about sitting comfortably and relaxing in a calm and quiet area. You can meditate any way you feel comfortable. For me, it is emptying my mind of the daily stress, taking some deep breaths, and even imagining being at a special place, like laying out on the beach. Feel your surroundings: the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, and recognize what is happening in your body. This is a wonderful time to use positive self-talk to enhance the experience.
Self-talk: With everything going on in our lives and everything we need to get to, it is too easy to fail to stop and smell the roses. We need to acknowledge and appreciate our strengths and accomplishments—especially under stress, when that doubt may creep up. Reflecting on yourself and all the wonderful things about you, even saying them aloud, can help see you through. Thinking things in your mind is one thing. When you say it aloud, though, you take things into your brains in a different and powerful way. We all need to hear positives, and it starts with you.
When I might be wondering about a stressful situation, I can remind myself of how well I have responded to past ones. “I know I can handle it,” I might say. If any doubt comes up I say, “Ah, that was then. This time, I am going to do ________ instead,” and fill in the blank with new ideas or other things I have successfully used before.
Taking a walk or exercising: We all know the medical benefits of exercise, but there is so much more to it: exercise means giving your body more appropriate ways to get out energy that may get trapped in your mind and body.
Thought-stopping: Use this tool to undermine the negative, catastrophic, automatic thoughts that fuel our anger. As someone who practices cognitive behavioral therapy, I know how thoughts lead to certain feelings. If I can change the thought, I will indeed change the accompanying feeling.
Say, for example, the weather is starting to warm-up. If you wake up missing the cooler weather and think, “It’s going to get too warm for a jog or to be out in the garden,” you might feel discouraged. Conversely, if you wake up to this same weather and say, “It is so nice out. I’m looking forward to soaking in some sun,” you might feel excited, yearning to start the day. In this example, the situation didn’t change, only our thoughts about the day and subsequent feelings did. What this tells us is that the mind is a powerful thing, and how much control I actually have over how my day will go. So, if I tell myself, “If I get angry, I will be able to control it,” I am more hopeful and will probably have more success.
Time-out: As children, we may have heard this word and thought that taking a time-out meant we were in trouble. However, removing oneself from a potentially heated situation allows us to control what will happen next. We will not get into that next conflict, because we are essentially stopping it in its tracks. I have told my own boys, “Dad needs a time-out too, sometimes,” heading to my room to calm down. We need to create time and distance to allow ourselves even a few seconds to reflect: on what happened, and to examine the potential consequences of our anger had we continued the conflict. Sometimes, all we need is just a little distraction to take our focus off the negative, racing thoughts, like, “I can’t believe she’s saying this again,” or “Why does he always blame me?” which only reinforce more discouraging and problematic thoughts.
© Copyright 2010 by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT, therapist in Chino, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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