by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D., author of the iCope Book Series
© 2014 Anthony R. Ciminero
From the book:
iCope: Building Resilience Through Stress Management
As you will recall from Chapter 1, stressors trigger the fight-or-flight response. Since many stressful events involve other people, each one of us is likely to have this fight-or-flight reaction in many different social situations throughout our lives. In order to deal with people in these stressful situations, we tend to develop a preferred pattern of handling ourselves when we encounter conflicts. These behavior patterns can be so strong that they appear to dominate the personality of some individuals.
Some people respond with aggression or some other type of hostile attitude when they are frustrated or stressed by others. Anger and hostility dominate their emotions. These individuals are likely to stand up for their rights, but frequently at the expense of others. They can be verbally or even physically abusive. This “fight” pattern sometimes does get aggressive individuals what they want. However, this also tends to chase people away or leads to counter-aggression from others. The end result is that the aggressive person has difficulty maintaining satisfying long-term relationships.
Another group of individuals tend to respond primarily with the “flight” reaction. Here the person is likely to shy away from conflict with others and to avoid confrontations at all costs. Fear and anxiety seem to be their dominant emotions. In extreme cases, the person might be too passive or withdrawn. These individuals seldom express their opinions, ideas, beliefs, or feelings. Because of this pattern, they are often taken advantage of by others. They often will give in to peer pressure to be accepted. It is not uncommon for a very passive individual to have occasional outbursts of aggression whenever the stress level builds to intolerable levels. After these aggressive outbursts, the person goes back to the basic passive pattern.
Although these two basic patterns (aggressive and passive) seem to be natural expressions of the fight-or-flight response, there is a more adaptive alternative in today’s society. This pattern, often called assertiveness or assertive behavior, involves a number of behaviors that help the individual cope with stress and deal more effectively with others. Assertiveness includes being able to:
- express thoughts, opinions, and feelings in an honest and direct way;
2. stand up for your rights;
3. make a request;
4. give positive or negative feedback to others, including family and friends;
5. accept positive or negative feedback from others;
6. express an honest opinion that is different from others;
7. not allow others to take advantage of you; and
8. say “no” when you want to.
Engaging in assertive behavior will not always get you what you want, although it will maximize your chances in most situations. However, even when assertiveness does not get direct results, there are some indirect positive outcomes. First, you become more active and less helpless in dealing with other people in stressful situations. This is a more healthy approach from both a physical and a psychological standpoint. Second, you are likely to improve your confidence and gain the respect of others since assertiveness appears to be more socially desirable than aggression or passivity. This in turn usually leads to more positive self-esteem. Finally, being assertive is likely to improve your communication skills that can prevent many future stressful conflicts. For those individuals who see themselves as too passive or too aggressive, it is suggested that you read one of the recommended books on assertiveness or attend a workshop or class on the subject in your school or local community.
Learning to be more assertive is a major social skill that will supplement your stress management efforts. In your problem solving exercises you are also likely to find that many alternatives can be some form of assertive behavior. This is especially important with your most significant relationships such as those with family members and close friends.
Anger management has gotten much attention in various books, TV shows, and movies. However, the issues, skills, and treatment approaches are virtually identical to stress management. As you know by now, anger and aggressive behavior are components of the stress reaction, specifically the fight-or-flight reaction. Clearly, anger management will require basic stress management skills plus additional attention to the situations that lead to aggression. There is also concern about the serious consequences that aggression creates in various interpersonal relationships. The reason the discussion is included here with assertiveness is because assertive behavior is another primary skill that an aggressive person needs to learn. Using our model of stress and assertiveness, what, if anything, is different with anger management?
In our basic model, the chronically angry or hostile person appears to be operating under a generally high level of stress. They may be close to their threshold on our stress scale such that small events can trigger a big reaction. When we hear expressions like “He really has a short fuse,” or “She is a hot reactor,” we can easily see how being close to our threshold can give others this impression. The person is likely to have outbursts of aggression, either verbally or physically. These are extremely negative coping responses that might only work in the short run to defuse a heightened emotional state. In the long run the consequences can be devastating in terms of the problems created in interpersonal relationships. An angry person is likely to seem threatening and unpredictable to others, which obviously is not helpful in any relationship.
Outbursts of aggressive behavior will also lead to other problems. Others will often start to avoid the angry person. Occasionally, the aggressive behavior will lead to counter-aggression which can escalate to dangerous levels. Intimate relationships can be destroyed easily. An educational or career path can also be ruined or stunted by inappropriate expressions of anger. Serious problems where the anger leads to legal problems, physical aggression, road rage, or disciplinary action at school require professional help as soon as possible. For those whose anger is not a danger to others, there are some recommendations that might help. The following guidelines are for those readers who need to control their aggressive behavior.
First, if you need help with anger management, you have to be exceptionally skilled in your ability to gauge your stress level (self-awareness). As mentioned above, it is likely that your baseline stress level is close to your threshold for aggressive behavior. Since you are vulnerable to small events that can trigger an over-reaction, you will benefit from learning to bring that baseline level down on a regular basis. If you are operating at a 7-8 stress level through much of the day, set a realistic goal of reducing that by 1 or 2 points. Some individuals can do this simply with more frequent practice of the breathing and relaxation methods. Take several one-minute breaks throughout the day to check your stress level and take a few deep breaths to bring your stress level down. This is important even when you are not consciously aware of any stress that is present. Other individuals may need the more active physical outlets by increasing aerobic activity or physical exertion throughout the week.
Second, work more diligently on identifying your mental habits and irrational beliefs that set you up for anger. We have all heard the expression that other people really know how to push your buttons. If this rings true for you, it is highly likely that you do have certain irrational beliefs and/or mental habits that exacerbate your stress response. Often it is some comment or question that taps into a perceived flaw in you, or a perceived rejection from someone else. In other situations, others do not behave as you expect and this elicits anger due to a perceived failure on their part. As we learned in the chapter on rational self-talk, when we tell ourselves something irrational, the stress will be magnified. This is the mechanism that is typically operating when buttons are being easily pushed. For example, if someone makes a relatively harmless comment or asks a simple question, you might misinterpret the message. If someone such as your teacher or a parent comments on some task or responsibility that you did not complete, how would you react? Would you angrily tell yourself – and maybe even them – anything negative that would lead you to over react? Pay particular attention to comments or negative self-talk such as: “Do you think I’m stupid?”; “Who are you to tell me what to do?”; “You can’t control me.”; or “Do you think you’re so perfect?” These types of thoughts suggest that beliefs about needing to be thoroughly competent and perfect, beliefs about another person’s right to ask you a question or give you negative feedback, or beliefs about being approved by others are consciously or unconsciously making your anger worse.
Because there is a high probability that you harbor some of these and possibly other irrational beliefs (buttons) that inflame your emotions, you need to exert extra effort to challenge these self-statements. Look for the specific situations that trigger anger and keep copies of your Stress Analysis Chart available. Detailed written notes of your negative self-statements over a more extended time period will give you more opportunities to practice your rational self-talk in anger-provoking situations. This is an extremely important skill since you need to react quickly to those surprise bursts of anger that catch you off guard.
The third set of anger management skills includes various behavioral strategies to prevent or short circuit an angry outburst. The old adage recommending that we count to 10 when we are upset is representative of this major behavioral strategy: you need time away from the anger-provoking situation to use some other appropriate coping skills to get things under better control. The reality is that we often need to count much higher than 10! One of the basic skills here is the use of a self-initiated “time out” procedure. This is particularly important for your most important relationships where you can discuss beforehand what you are going to do with the time out procedure. If you discuss your strategy prior to implementing it, most people will find this to be a very positive step.
When you actually take a time out, it is best to let the other person know that: 1) you cannot continue with the discussion or the situation, and 2) that you will excuse yourself for a period of time. There is flexibility in how long you stay “away” and where you go at these times. To maximize the benefits for your relationships, it is best not to take these time outs for extended periods. No, you cannot go on week vacation for a time out! You want others to know that you will return within a reasonable period of time to discuss whatever led to the anger provoking situation. A general guideline would be to limit the time out to no more than an hour or two unless the situation is so volatile that you need extended time before you can handle the discussions. Also, it is generally recommended that you do not leave in your car (even if you have a driver’s license). It is sometimes helpful to do something physical during your time out: go for a walk or bike ride, do some chore around the house, or if you are at school, get permission to talk to a school counselor or teacher who you trust.
Since this is not like a child’s timeout, you can also listen to some music, play a video game, go online, or watch TV. This time out procedure can be a very healthy behavioral method to cope with anger and aggression. To work best, remember to discuss your new strategy in advance of your initial effort to use it in any close relationships. Keep in mind that others may see signals of your increased frustration and anger before you do. Therefore, it is also very important to give the other person the right to call “time out” if he or she believes it is necessary, and for you to honor these requests.
A fourth strategy is sometimes difficult to implement, but it can be very powerful in defusing anger. There is a well-established psychological principle that you cannot feel two competing emotions at the same time. For example, you cannot experience fear and relaxation simultaneously. Similarly, humor and anger seem to be incompatible emotions. To use this in anger management you need a particular thought or image that is so humorous that it puts a smile on your face or makes you laugh. If you can conjure up the funny thought or image when you are beginning to feel angry, the humor will help dissipate your anger. To be successful, try to use this method first when you feel mild irritations or frustrations to get practice for those times when you need to defuse more intense anger.
Finally, some preventive steps can help prepare you for high-risk situations. Many of us can predict some typical times or situations that frequently lead to frustration and anger. If you are aware of any of these high-risk times, it is recommended that you practice some of the coping procedures prior to encountering the situation. For example, if one of your teachers provokes anger, do your breathing exercises and rational self-talk before you go to class. This will help get your baseline level a little lower as you enter the stressful situation. Teens and parents often report that the most stressful time for encountering each other is shortly after they see each other at the end of the school/work day. In these situations you can avoid some of the difficulties by agreeing that after you say hello to each other, you will NOT discuss anything important until the last person entering the home has had about 20-30 minutes to defuse from daily events.
In summary, there are eight key recommendations for the person needing anger management:
- If the behavior is a serious problem for those at school or home, seek professional help in conjunction with the following steps.
2. Practice your basic coping strategies on a more frequent basis. Become highly alert and aware of your stress level, practice the relaxation methods throughout the day, and use the Stress Analysis Charts regularly to determine your irrational beliefs or buttons.
3. Implement a self-imposed time out procedure.
4. Have a list of behavioral options you can use when an aggressive reaction is likely. Although this often involves removing yourself from the situation until you are calmer, there may be other options (e.g., assertive behavior) that will help.
5. If you can, begin to use humor to help dissipate anger.
6. Practice the assertive skills discussed earlier in this section.
7. Read one of the books on assertive training and anger listed in the recommended reading list.
8. Implement some preventive steps that will help you prepare for high-risk situations.
Using these eight steps provides a well-balanced approach to anger management. Again, if the self-help strategies do not work effectively, it is likely that some consultation with a professional who specializes in stress and anger management will be helpful.