Recommended by Christian Counselors Five years into my marriage, I was at home waiting for my wife to return from her daily work commute. The weather and traffic were especially bad that day, but her delay was much longer than I had expected. There were no cell phones in those days and exiting a crowded freeway to find a pay phone without GPS was not as appealing as staying in the flow of traffic. My wife finally made it home safely, hours after I expected her – and the instant her foot hit the threshold of our front door she was met with kind words pouring out of a compassionate and relieved heart … not! Rather, she was met with harsh words pouring out of an anxious and worried heart that had suddenly been transformed by vengeful anger. “You don’t care about me … again! What is your problem?!” The volcano erupted, spewing all over. All consideration for my wife was lost in an instant.
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
The energy and time needed to repair the damage I had done could have been spent in more constructive ways. How can anger be managed, and directed so that it does not injure and tear down?
Anger is Morally Neutral
Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions and was angry at times. His followers are warned that they are not to sin in their anger. So it must be possible to be angry, and yet to remain constructive in our relationships. Anger is a physiological response to a real or perceived threat, and as such it is morally neutral. How we direct our anger determines whether it is destructive or promotes relationship, whether it is healthy or hurtful, vengeful or redemptive. This article is the first in a two-part series that addresses healthy anger management. In what follows, I present the first two important steps in anger management, together with accompanying activities.
1.) Awareness of Our Anger
Search me O God and know my heart.
Many people erupt in rage because they lack self-awareness. They are unaware of their escalating anger, or they fail to personally acknowledge it even though they experience it. Awareness of anger can be cultivated in a number of ways, including tuning in to our physiological signs of distress and arousal, such as an increased heart rate, a flushed feeling in one’s head, hyper-ventilation, or the sensation of tightening in the chest or core. An awareness of anger can be extended to rating its intensity and identifying typical behaviors. On a scale of increasing intensity from 1 to 10, we can ask ourselves: Where I am on that scale at this moment? Awareness grows when I can name the particular behaviors in which I typically engage when I am angry (e.g. pacing, raising my voice, slamming doors, drinking alcohol, driving fast). If I am unaccustomed to being aware of my anger, the daily recording of a few events, and the emotional triggers, intensity, and behaviors associated with those events in a journal or log can be a helpful exercise in increasing awareness. It can also be helpful to realize that anger is not actually a primary emotion, but a secondary emotion. Often our anger is a response to the primary emotions of feeling hurt or fearful or shamed. Asking the question: “What is underneath my anger?” and identifying the primary emotion can provide the insight needed to address it and to resolve our hurts with others.
2) De-escalating Anger
… be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.
Once we are aware of our anger, we can choose to reduce it by engaging in de-escalation practices. One such practice is self-soothing or calming oneself. Counting to ten before speaking or reacting, and deep breathing (taking several long, diaphragmatic breaths) are proven ways to lower blood pressure and distress.
Many people can de-escalate anger by engaging in prayer or by physically removing themselves from higher intensity situations. In relationships, taking a time-out can help one to de-escalate internal tension, gain perspective, and re-engage in conversation without hostility. This relational tool requires a mutual agreement that if one partner needs to de-escalate in a conversation, then she or he is allowed time and space to cool down before returning to the conversation at an agreed upon time. Taking a time-out enables energy to be released (more on this in the following article) as one searches for insight into the source of one’s hurt and anger, as well as its intensity. Demonstrating self-control builds trust, as does keeping one’s word to return to the person and the conversation, which makes this activity trust-building. Taking and honoring time outs is a way of valuing the other person and of working out differences. It says: “I care about you, our mutual concern, and how I handle my emotions.”
Cultivating an awareness of my own anger and taking the responsibility to calm myself are important initial steps in anger management. In my following article, I will discuss how we can express anger in healthy ways and use our awareness to resolve hurts and problems.
Christian Counseling for Anger Management
As a Christian counselor, I have seen people grow in self-awareness as they acquire the skills necessary to direct their anger in constructive ways. Christian counseling can provide a safe space in to acknowledge and seek to address your anger.
“Bomb,” courtesy of Gavroche, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Solitude,” courtesy of Joshua Earle, unsplash.com;