WHAT TO DO WHEN ANGER HURTS THOSE YOU LOVEby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Cindy knew that she should back off and not say anything. But she was angry about her husband's criticism. He was always telling her what to do and she was tired of him disrespecting her. She was quite capable of solving problems herself but he was so controlling. She believed that he didn't care if he hurt her but only that she did what he wanted. As a result, she wanted to lash back at him and hurt him. Another part of her, however, knew that she was over-reacting and that he was just trying to help. Yet, her anger won out and she started yelling at him about trying to control her! This escalated into an argument and avoidance of one another the rest of the day.
Bruce had a stressful day at work. He was concerned about a project he was handling and that he needed to complete it in a timely manner because his promotion might depend on it. Yet, no matter what he did, everything seemed to go wrong. When he came home from work, his daughter and son were excited to see him and started clamoring for his attention. He tried to look at their drawings and answer their questions but they just wanted more and more from him. Finally, in frustration, he yelled at them to “shut up!” The children started crying and his wife became angry with him.
As these examples show, anger often hurts the ones we love. Neither Cindy nor Bruce wanted to lash out at their loved ones but they couldn't control their reaction. Many people who have problems with anger regret their actions but they continue to hurt those they love. They often make promise after broken promise to themselves to stop the angry outbursts. Yet, again and again, they vent anger against the ones they love.
The process of releasing frustration through yelling at someone, throwing or hitting something, and other physical methods is a powerful reinforcer. When you engage in these behaviors you release pent-up energy which is the adrenaline that has built up in your system due to stress. This process may involve the depletion of the glycogen (glucose) stores in your system and the release of endorphins in your brain.
What does this mean? And what does it have to do with reinforcing yelling and other non-productive releases of anger?
1) Adrenaline causes tension. Both muscular and emotional tension are created with the increase in adrenaline. When a person is stressed, the brain interprets the stress as a threat and it releases adrenaline to prepare for the threat. Adrenaline increases muscular tension so that the body is ready to react and it heightens the sensitivity to stimulation so the brain can quickly process information and make a decision.
Unfortunately, if you are not being threatened physically and do not need to run or fight, all this tension and awareness is an unpleasant experience. Therefore, when we are unable to react we experience internal stress. And most of the time in our lives we are not being threatened physically, but mentally, which results in the body physically preparing to run or fight when neither of those options are viable. Yet, the body is prepared and doesn't have a way of releasing that energy.
2) Glycogen is stored energy. Along with producing adrenaline, our bodies draw on the glycogen stores to be ready to face a threat. We experience the increase in energy, but again, since there is no direct threat, we experience all this energy with no release. When we are not in a physically active situation, we are likely to interpret this energy negatively as agitation or anxiety.
When a person engages in intense physical activity such as yelling, throwing, or hitting they deplete the glycogen stores. In other words, they are releasing the pent-up energy.
3) Endorphins relax and sooth the body. Engaging in the physical anger results in the release of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that have an analgesic, or pain-relieving, effect similar to morphine or oxycodone. When endorphins are released we are likely to experience increased relaxation and reduced sensitivity to stimulation.
For more information, read: A Brief Primer On the Biology of Stress and How CBT Can Help The combination of these processes in which increased tension and energy is followed by soothing relaxation and reduced sensitivity is often experienced as pleasurable. This experience of pleasure is reinforcing. Reinforcing a behavior causes an increased likelihood of engaging in the behavior.
Positive reinforcement is providing a reward that is likely to increase the behavior that is rewarded. However, the process involved in anger is classic negative reinforcement which is reinforcement of a behavior by the removable of something that is aversive. Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment which is APPLYING something that is aversive. Instead, negative reinforcement is REMOVING something that is negative or unpleasant.
In this case, the increased tension caused by the build up of adrenaline is unpleasant when there is no release of the tension. When a person engages in intense activity such as yelling, throwing, or hitting, they experience a reduction in energy and an increase in the soothing, pain-relieving brain chemicals. Therefore, the intense activity causes the REMOVAL of the unpleasant tension and over-stimulation.
The final result is that the individual's behavior of yelling, throwing, hitting is reinforced which causes them to be more likely to engage in the same behavior the next time they are stressed and tense. Even though they may not want to behave this way, the body's automatic reactions have been reinforced to release the emotional tension by engaging in the same behavior.
Even though this has become an automatic process, it IS possible to change this process. However, it is necessary to use methods that will prevent the automatic behavior. As with any learned behavior, these methods will require practice to create new behavior. The automatic angry reaction was learned at some point and then has become reinforced over time. It is possible to change that reaction by learning how to manage the behavior. I will discuss specific methods of change, but first let's look at how we plan to change the automatic process.
1) Recognize it. By recognizing and understanding the process that occurs when you react with anger, you are more likely to learn how to control it. When you take responsibility for your behavior rather than blaming others, then you can make decisions to respond differently. Recognizing your anger process allows you to identify triggers to your anger and to develop a plan to deal with those triggers before your tension has increased to an unmanageable level.
2) Prevent the build-up of adrenaline. Once you identify triggers, you can use methods to prevent the build-up of tension caused by adrenaline. If you prevent the initial release of adrenaline, it is much more difficult to become angry and react in physically hurtful ways.
3) Release the built-up adrenaline in other ways. If you are unable to recognize triggers and prevent the build-up of adrenaline, other methods can be used to release your tension. Learning to recognize when you are tense and knowing which methods work best for you will help you to release the tension more appropriately.
4) Use other methods to soothe your system. By learning how to soothe your system using methods that release chemicals that relax the body, you are more likely to contain angry reactions. Although not as much is understood about the biology of the relaxation response as is known about the stress reaction, researchers are showing that a chemical process occurs in the body to reverse the effects of stress and produce relaxation (Bhasin, et al., 2013). Therefore, using other methods to control this process will reduce the effects of physical tension caused by adrenaline.
1) Cognitive Restructuring. This is a psychological term meaning “changing thinking.” Adrenaline is released because your brain perceives the situation as a threat. If you change your thinking so that you don't perceive the situation as threatening, it is less likely adrenaline will be released. In the example at the beginning of this article, Cindy was halfway to managing her anger. She recognized that her husband probably was just trying to help her.
However, her thought process wasn't strong enough to counter-act the tension created by the adrenaline. To make her thought process stronger, she needs to work on it when she is not in the moment of anger. She needs to remind herself frequently that her husband is not trying to control her but trying to help her. By preparing herself in advance of a common situation, she is more likely to listen to that voice before she becomes out-of-control.
A good method for changing thinking is using the Cognitive Diary (Excel At Life provides a Cognitive Diary app and articles about changing thinking). By writing down situations that occur and how to think differently about them as well as reviewing your diary frequently, you are more likely to be prepared to think differently when a similar situation occurs. Typically, each person has specific triggers so that it is more likely that similar situations rather than unique situations will occur in the future. Therefore, using the Cognitive Diary allows you to be prepared to handle those future situations.
2) Physical release of tension. Identify some methods you can use to release the physical tension. If you deplete the glycogen stores and do not feel the agitated energy, you are less likely to respond with angry behavior.
Different methods may work better for different people. Exercise can release the tension more appropriately. However, exercise tends to work best if you are a regular exerciser. Otherwise, it may actually increase your physical discomfort causing you to be more likely to react in anger rather than less likely.
Specific physical releases that allow you to direct your anger can be beneficial. For instance, in the example at the beginning of this article, Bruce was angry with his boss and work, not with his children. So having a release that focuses on work such as hitting a punching bag that he imagines is his boss is likely to release the tension so that he doesn't direct it towards his children.
Some people throw things because it can be a good release of tension. However, it can also be hurtful if done around others or if you destroy things that are valuable to someone. Yet, you can get the same kind of release in a more appropriate way. For instance, you can have a stack of old magazines ready to tear up when you are angry. Or, you could hit a pillow with a bat. Or, you could have glass recyclables that you could break (you need to do this in a way that you won't hurt yourself). By having a private place to do this you can release the tension without hurting someone.
3) Engage in regular relaxation. The various relaxation methods help to increase the chemicals produced by the body to counter-act the stress reaction. Excel At Life provides numerous audios that you can download to learn these methods. These free audios teach guided imagery, breathing exercises, mindfulness training, and progressive muscle relaxation. In addition, Qi Gong videos are available.
The relaxation methods work in two ways. First, by regularly practicing relaxation methods you are more likely to maintain a greater state of calm. It will be more difficult to become agitated when you already have the relaxation response chemicals in your system. Second, the regular practice will allow you to become more skilled at using the relaxation methods so that when you are more agitated you will know how to calm your system more quickly.
Although I have briefly described these methods, the methods for controlling anger are not simply carried out. For instance, you may have heard “Count to ten before you respond” as a simple way of controlling anger. This is a fine method but it is really not so simple. It requires recognition of the triggers, prior practice with calming yourself, and ability to think differently about the situation.
Managing your anger so that you don't hurt the ones you love takes determination and practice. However, your practice will pay off in many ways. Not only will you be less likely to hurt the ones you love, but you will feel a greater sense of inner peace from these methods as well as less guilt from your behavior.
Bhasin, M.K., Dusek, J.A, Chang, B., Joseph, M.G., Denninger, J.W., Fricchione, G.L., Benson, H. and Libermann, T.A. (2013). Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways, PLOS ONE, 8, www.plosone.org, e62817
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Dr. Monica Frank