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Anger: How to Moderate Hot Buttons

“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow”. - Chinese Proverb

We’ve been tested in unimaginable ways in 2020, and the chaotic and precarious year may have primed many of us for anger. Anger is often an outward expression of hurt, fear, and frustration, so it’s important to identify your personal triggers for anger and its meaning for you as an individual.  Many of us also have the additional trigger of having to manage a mental health diagnosis, and perhaps one in which the symptoms of prolonged or strong feelings of irritability, anger, and rage are present.

When working with individual athletes and teams within a Sport Psychology context, I often help athletes learn how to identify their anger thresholds and to implement strategies to stay in control. This same approach applies to me personally as well, so I’d like to offer some strategies and examples that I use in my own life that have been beneficial for me. My hope is that you may see a few that might apply to you as well and that they may prove useful to you too.

Identify your Anger Threshold and Triggers

When pain and anger happen, I’ve found it’s time to look within myself, and not around myself. When I’m angry, I’ve found that it’s helpful to be aware of my anger since once you’re aware of it, you’re no longer lost in it. You get to see it from the outside. Surefire anger triggers for me are certain family members, injustice/inequality in the world, glaring incompetence in a professional setting, and general arrogance in people. I do believe though, that a healthy level of anger means that we have a sense of right and wrong, that we know when we’re being treated unfairly, and that we’re willing to stand up for ourselves or others when we see or experience injustice. The key then, is to channel anger in a healthy and productive way, so it can help us overcome barriers to success and well-being, either personally or for others. Anger for me can be a bit of a tightrope walk between being productive or harmful.

Often, I can identify my anger by the way my body feels, and by identifying personal behavioral cues that indicate when I’m losing control of my anger response.  For me, pacing, loud and fast speech, and having my shoulders up around my ears are my own ‘early warning signals’ that soon I’m going to become overly emotional and accusatory.  A surefire way for me to develop an awareness of these signals is to keep a record of thoughts and feelings during my last bout of anger.

A Cognitive Strategy

I have several of my athletes create a ‘Hassle Log’; an index-card system in which they write down incidents that made them angry, document how they felt, what they did in the situation, and their plan to improve the next time. This old school approach works well since the physical act of writing something down versus typing it electronically slows the process and tends to improve chances for greater self-reflection.

I also use this system for myself as it helps me to monitor my anger and response patterns and to track my progress in dealing with anger-related problems. Many of us can predict situations that are likely to trigger anger by learning to be aware of situational cues that may set off an anger response. It may involve certain individuals, particular places or memories, or simply some of the logistics of daily life. Details that I include in my own log are: Where I was, what happened, who was involved, what did I do, how did I handle myself, (poorly to okay); How angry I was (explosive to mildly), and how I might handle the situation differently the next time around.

Physiological Strategy

Physiological arousal is central to the experience of emotion. Anger may include increases in heart rate and breathing rate, perspiration, muscle tension and more. One method of lowering anger levels is learning how to moderate this physiological arousal. Here are some that work for me:

  1. Diaphragmatic Breathing:This is an easy way for me to consciously focus on slowing down my breathing rate. I like to place my hand on my abdomen, take a slow, deep breath. Hold it for a few counts and then slowly exhale.  This simple deep breathing slows down my heart and respiratory rates quickly.

  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: I tighten a muscle group, hold it, and then relax, focusing on the differences I feel between tension and relaxation (specifically in my neck and shoulders) and realizing more concretely that I can be in control of how my body feels.

  3. Imagery: Using all 5 senses, I imagine a peaceful place to help deactivate my anger arousal response.

  4. Music: Since music is a powerful mood modifier for me, I turn to classical music, nature sounds, lullabies, and Irish ballads to quiet myself down and reduce potential anger before it starts.

Reevaluate your Thinking:

When we’re angry, there’s typically a lot of cognitive distortion and erroneous thought patterns in place that make problem-solving nearly impossible. I learn by doing, and when I learn to recognize the signs and triggers of my anger and how to redirect the arousal that accompanies it into effective strategies, I get a whole lot closer to actual problem-solving.

If this sounds like a lot of work to put in, it is indeed, and work that is never ending and constantly changing. It’s well worth it for me though, as I always walk away with this enduring lesson:

~ I never heal myself by wounding another in anger ~


By Pam Landry

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