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Managing Anger – Yours and Others

Managing how we express our anger is a fundamental skill needed to live peacefully with others. It is essential to managing conflict. If others cannot trust that you will speak to them calmly and rationally they often respond with withdrawal and avoidance.   Letting our anger spill over in angry words and voice is not productive nor is it healthy.

“Letting it (anger) all hang out” is considered by “psychologists … a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you are angry with) resolve the situation.”ix

This section will provide information on anger and its expression, tips for managing your own anger and how to respond when others are angry with you.

What is anger

Charles Spielberger, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger, describes anger as “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage”.x

Anger is an emotion we feel, like sadness, fear, joy, and happiness.

Anger is a feeling that is normal and healthy, and serves the function of letting us know when all is not right in our world.

 “Anger is caused by two basic things:

  • Frustration: Not getting what we want, especially if we are expecting to get it;
  • Feeling that others do not respect us or care how we feel.”

When we experience anger as a mild irritation it is relatively easy to manage our response. When it builds in intensity, depending on our experience and skill, anger can become increasingly difficult to manage.

The anger arousal cyclexi

The arousal cycle of anger has five phases: trigger, escalation, crisis, recovery and depression. Understanding the cycle helps us to understand our own reactions and those of others.

  • The trigger phase is when an event gets the anger cycle started. We get into an argument or receive some information that shocks us. We feel threatened at some level and our physiological system prepares to meet that threat.
  • The escalation phase is when our body prepares for a crisis with increased respiration (rapid breathing), increased heart rate and raised blood pressure, muscles tense for action, voice may become louder or an altered pitch, and our eyes change shape, pupils enlarge and brow falls. Take note of these things next time you feel angry. Your body stance may change as well.
  • The crisis phase is when our survival instinct steps in, the fight or flight response. Our body is prepared to take action. Unfortunately, during this phase our quality of judgment is significantly reduced and decisions may be made without the benefit of the best reasoning ability.
  • The recovery phase takes place after some action has resulted during the crisis phase. The body starts to recover from the extreme stress and expenditure of energy. The adrenaline in our blood leaves gradually. Quality of judgment returns as reasoning begins to replace the survival response.
  • The Post-crisis Depression Phase is the point when the body enters a short period in which the heart rate slips below normal so the body can regain its balance. Awareness and energy return to allow us to assess what just happened. We may begin to feel guilt, regret or emotional depression.

Tips for managing our own anger

Delay discussion until you are calmer

If you feel that your anger is at a level where it is difficult to control your words and tone, chose to deal with the issue at another time. You can say, “I don’t want to discuss the issue right now” and make arrangements to have the discussion at another time.

Actively reduce stress and anger

Take steps to calm yourself through relaxation, exercise, or discussion and develop a plan of action for addressing the problem.

What’s it all about and what do you want?

Analyze what the sources of your anger are – why has this situation triggered such a strong anger response?  This can be accomplished through personal reflection, by talking with a trusted friend or an Employee and Family Assistance Program Counselor (EFAP) about the situation.

Before talking to the other person(s) in the conflict, ask yourself,

“What exactly is bothering me? 
What do I want the other person to do or not do? 
Are my feelings in proportion to the issue?”xii

Spend some time thinking about the conflict and what your goal is in having the dialogue with the other person. The clearer we are regarding our intentions, the more likely we are to achieve the desired result.

General wellness has an impact

Physical fatigue, pain, alcohol, drugs or other recent stresses can lower your anger threshold. Don’t engage in difficult conversations at such times.

Know yourself

We all have sensitivities, based on past experience, which can make us more likely to get angry when faced with certain situations. The anger may not be warranted by the current situation but be a response triggered by past experience.

Consider whether you have a problem managing anger

If you generally have a problem managing your anger in appropriate ways, acknowledge the problem. Acknowledging the problem becomes the first step in solving it through self-reflection, discussion with trusted others, enrolment in an anger management course or assistance from an EFAP Counselor.

Examining “self-talk” is essential

Consider the idea that your perception of the event, person, or situation is creating the feeling of anger. While it can be difficult to accept, psychologists tell us:

“our thoughts cause our anger”xiii

For example, two people are stuck in their car in city traffic on their way home. One person fumes at the delay and questions why they have to put up with this while the other is listening to music and accepting the delay as a normal circumstance when you live in or near a large city.

The difference between the two people is in what they are telling themselves about the situation. To deal with angry feelings it is useful to examine what we are telling ourselves about the conflict or the other person.

Our “self-talk”, what we tell ourselves, has a powerful impact on our feelings and responses. Our “self-talk” is not always rational or in our best interest. Learning to examine our own thought processes and reactions is a powerful tool in managing anger.

Ask for help if needed

If after reflecting on the situation you find that you may not be able to discuss the issues without blame and accusations, it is recommended that you consider having a neutral person to assist. The expression of blame and negative judgments usually lead to more conflict. Assistance with conflict and anger management is needed.

Take steps to solve the problem

Suppression of our angry feelings, while sometimes necessary in the short term to avoid reacting in an aggressive and defensive manner, is not a healthy alternative in the long term. Addressing the problem directly in a calm manner, using effective communication skills is what will, in the end, resolve angry feelings.

Tips for responding to an angry co-worker

Decide whether to engage

Think about where the person is in the arousal cycle. If the person is already at the crisis phase their ability to think rationally will be impaired. Consider whether it would be best to delay the discussion until the other person is calmer. Saying, “I can’t discuss this right now. Can we meet later?” may be the best response. If you decide that the two of you can manage the discussion the following tips will be helpful in reducing anger and promoting dialogue.

Acknowledge the anger

Acknowledge that the other person is angry. Ask them to tell you what has caused the anger.

Stay calm yourself

Do not react if they reply in blaming or accusatory ways. Remember, when a person is experiencing heightened anger they will not respond to rational discussion until they have calmed down.

Ask about the problem

Ask them to tell you about what happened and what is it about the situation that triggered such a strong response. Remember, anger is caused by frustration at not getting what we want or a feeling that others do not respect us or do not care how we feel. Usually, when faced with a sincere invitation to talk, most people will become calmer as their frustration or their sense of being disrespected diminishes.

Don’t continue if anger builds

If the person does not calm down an invitation to discuss the issue at another time is appropriate. Do not remain in a situation where the other person is yelling at you, calling you names or making threats. Such behaviour requires the intervention of a supervisor and has no place at work.