Anger Management for Adults

"Anger is brought on by triggering events.  We each have our own triggers.  One of 
the first steps in managing anger is identifying what these triggers are." -Dr. William Gardner

Anger Management for Adults
by Dr. William Gardner

Emotions are big red flags that something is wrong or a bright flash that something is 
good.  Generally speaking, emotional responses are internal reactions to thoughts.  
The emotions are there to alert us to the presence of something that we need to 
pay attention to.  Anger is just one of these.  It is an alert to danger, to the idea that 
something is wrong or that something needs to change.  Sometimes anger is a positive.  
It can motivate us to make changes to a system that is unfair or needs to be challenged.
For instance, if not for anger over tea prices we would not have had the American 
Revolution.  When we get angry, and manage it, focus it toward a goal, great change 
and improvement can occur.

But, this is not what we think about when we think about trying to manage out of control 
anger.  The kind of anger that needs to be managed is the kind that we describe as 
being pissed off, seeing red, furious or in a rage.  This kind of anger can be destructive, 
can hurt the people we love, cause ourselves tremendous harm and can ruin our 
relationships and careers.  Uncontrolled, unfocused anger can cause us to physically 
hurt ourselves, it can damage our belongings and it can cause us to waste time and 

How do we identify our anger?  
It may seem simplistic, but the first step in working with anger is identifying that 
you are angry.  Sometimes people come out of a rage and, only then, do they realize 
they were in it at all.  One way to think about anger is to see it on a bell curve.  With the 
X axis representing time and the Y axis representing level of anger. We all have our 
own baselines for feelings.  When anger starts, we move up the left side of the curve 
moved too far up the left side of the curve.  For many people looking back at anger from 
the right side of the curve offers the best insights into their anger experiences.

Anger is brought on by triggering events.  We each have our own triggers.  One of 
the first steps in managing anger is identifying what these triggers are.  For some 
people they may be triggered by being awakened too early, others may be triggered 
by being out of milk for their morning coffee or by being blocked into their driveway 
by a neighbor’s car and unable to get to work.  For each of us the triggers are unique.  

  1. A first step in working to manage your anger is to make a list of triggering events in order to become aware of them.  This is a living document and you should be updating it as you realize that your anger is being triggered. Recognizing that a specific triggering event, like the driver blocking your way for instance, will alert you quickly to the idea that this is a time to be checking in with your level of agitation.
  2. The next step to identifying your anger is to pay attention to the way your body feels.  When you think back to the times you were angry can you think of what your body was doing?  Often people talk about feeling hot, their breathing becomes rapid and shallow and some people find that their fists or jaws are clenched.  Being aware of what your body is doing is a great way to check in and keep anger in check.  Again, creating a list of physical sensations and keeping this list in mind is a way of staying focused on managing any escalations of your temper.
  3. The next step is to pay close attention to your behaviors.  When you think about anger and the way it impacts you, what you are doing?  Do you have any tells?  Shouting is big one.  Often if you are shouting it means you are already pretty far along the curve.  What comes before shouting?.  Some people start to speak very quickly, or tersely before they erupt.  Others will stop talking all together.  Some people become physically aggressive.  Not necessarily to the point of hurting people but maybe slamming doors, being generally annoyed and snippy at crowds of people.  The list is endless and differs per person.  Other tells you may not expect that alert us to anger are when people become clumsy, forgetful and lose the capacity to make sound decisions.Keeping track of these behaviors, or tells, can inform you that you are becoming angry.  

So what do you do about your anger?  
To many people anger is a response to a threat.  When 
we feel a threat our “fight or flight” response is triggered.  This does a few things to 
us.  It initiates many of those physical and behavioral issues mentioned above and it 
minimizes our ability to think clearly by shutting down the regions of our brains that are 
responsible for higher level thinking.  

  1. The first step in managing this is to work to calm ourselves and reactivate those portions of our brains.  The fastest way to do this is to change our breathing.  When you first realize that your anger is building, start square breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.  This is done by taking long, slow, deep breaths continuously inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, exhaling slowly for 4 seconds and waiting for an additional 4 seconds to start over.  The entire breath cycle should take just 16 to 20 seconds.  You want to repeat this cycle for 1 minute, or 3 cycles.  It often has a very relaxing impact.  This is not a skill that can be learned on the fly, it takes time and should be practiced when you are calm.  It is something that needs to be muscle memory.  Again, part of the problem is that our thinking blurs.  Having this skill readily and easily available to you when you first notice things will be helpful.
  2. Increasing your exercise has many positive impacts on your overall health and wellbeing including increasing your capacity to manage your emotions such as anger.  A common technique used to manage anger and other emotions is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation.  This is a technique that helps to both increase our awareness of what is happening to our bodies while helping to relax and decrease our agitation.  The technique is fairly straight forward and can be done almost anywhere in just a few minutes.  Starting with your toes and working your way up through the parts of your body, your feet, your legs, buttocks, abdominal muscles, shoulders, and up into the muscles in your face, you flex or squeeze each group for a few seconds and then relax and repeat.  With practice, this skill, like the breathing,becomes easier and even automatic.

This is not a complete solution for managing anyone’s anger.  We each experience
different types and degrees of anger and no single technique will work for everyone
every time.  As mentioned at the start of this article, our emotions are driven by our
thoughts.  There are a wide variety of cognitive tools that a trained therapist can utilize 
to help to address those thoughts. Most of these treatment protocols begin with steps 
similar to those described above.  If after trying these initial techniques, you find that 
your anger is still a problem, you should consider seeking out a professional who can 
tailor a treatment to your specific needs.

Dr. Gardner is a clinical psychologist based in the Financial District of San Francisco.  He combines Cognitive Behavioral Treatment techniques with a warm and personal style.
He specializes helping individuals work through anxiety, depression, anger, grief and the effects of traumatic events.

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