science of us

Using Anger-Management Techniques to Cope With 2017

Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

Maybe I was feeling a little desperate. For the past several months — really, ever since the beginning of the new presidency — I’d been feeling flashes of a somewhat unfamiliar emotion, one I did not enjoy. Gradually, it dawned on me that I was pretty, pretty mad — and that I didn’t know what to do about it. I’d been angry before, obviously, but never for this long; anger, to me, was usually just a quick flash of temper, but this was becoming something chronic.

I’m far from alone. In recent weeks, spurred by the anniversary of last November’s election and the recent avalanche of sexual-harassment revelations, the internet has seen a flood of articles, mainly by women, about the anger they’ve felt. As Rebecca Traister put it last week, “The anger window is open.”

So when, back in June, I happened to hear a news story that mentioned “anger-management” therapy — Greg Gianforte, now a Montana congressman, had body-slammed a journalist and was set to undergo the treatment instead of going to jail for the misdemeanor assault — I was, despite myself, intrigued.

It wasn’t a therapy I’d ever really taken seriously before. I’d seen it as more or less a joke, something that hotheaded celebrities, like Courtney Love or Tommy Lee or Naomi Campbell, would noisily agree to in order to avoid jail time for some public outburst. Other than that, all I knew about anger management was that it was the name of an Adam Sandler–Jack Nicholson movie, and, later, a Charlie Sheen sitcom.

But there didn’t seem to be much else out there: While religious and recovery teachings might have sage advice about anger, secular mainstream society — where, for better or worse, I spend most of my time — seemed to be struggling to find a common-sense vocabulary to help people deal with the emotion.

So I started researching, and the more I learned about it, the more appealing the concept of anger-management therapy seemed. While anger has been studied far less than depression or anxiety — there is no anger disorder for adults listed in the DSM, the “bible” of psychiatric disorders — the existing studies on anger-management therapy have found it to be effective, at least for some types of patients. In a 2003 meta-analysis, for instance, noted anger researchers Raymond DiGiuseppe and Raymond Chip Tafrate found that, overall, anger-management therapy “produced reductions in the affect of anger, reductions in aggressive behaviors, and increases in positive behaviors.” Studies within the meta-analysis found lasting improvement — even the spouses or significant others of angry patients reported that the patients were less angry and aggressive after learning anger-management techniques. And if it could help them, I reasoned, maybe it could help me, too.

* * *

It wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of anger, necessarily. I just wanted to be better at being angry — more comfortable with the emotion, more prepared to handle it. As it turned out, that’s a tenet of anger management, too: that anger is not something to eliminate, just something to, well, manage. After all, it can have some positive effects: As Tafrate and Howard Kassinove wrote in their 2009 book Anger Management for Everyone, anger can serve as a sign that something is off in a relationship or circumstance, or motivate us to try to change less-than-ideal circumstances. It’s this motivating quality of anger that the politically engaged often allude to — it can spur us to real action.

But sometimes, anger feels like the opposite of motivating — it feels like it’s driving people away, like it takes up too much space to leave room for anything else. Here, from my foray into the world of anger management, are some therapist-approved techniques for coping.

Develop the terminology to describe your anger.
Even very basic phrases, like “Anger is something that happens inside your body” or “The first [elements of anger are] self-talk … images … and sensations in your body,” can help give people a road map to their personal emotional terrain, laying the groundwork for them to better recognize and respond to what they’re feeling.

It’s also helpful to identify your default reaction to anger. Anger episodes follow a pattern: There’s a trigger, then rumination over the trigger, and then, sometimes, the outward reaction. In Anger Management for Everyone, Tafrate and Kassinove note that people generally fall into two categories: “Innies” tend to “keep a lid on [their] anger and never express it,” while “outies” are more prone to aggression (yelling, lashing out, etc.). The goal of anger-management therapy is to move away from that dichotomy of either “holding it in” or “letting it out,” and instead to acknowledge and resolve it positively.

Get familiar with your anger-inducing thought patterns.
Once you understand triggers, you can start to analyze how you react to them. “Angry clients often have deficient repertoires of behaviors,” DiGiuseppe and Tafrate wrote in their 2006 book Understanding Anger Disorders, “and substantial automaticity for over-learned reactions.” In other words, “We have found clinically angry people are very verbally aggressive but very unassertive — no middle ground,” DiGiuseppe explains. “They’ll tell someone ‘Fuck you,’ for instance, but don’t know how to say, ‘Please don’t take my stapler without asking.’”

Even the non-clinically angry can benefit from a little introspection around the thought patterns that lead to their anger reactions. If you think you “can’t stand another minute” of, say, your child’s behavior, it can be helpful to work on “low frustration tolerance” and devise other ways to think about the situation: “Children may not know when I need to focus — their interrupting you is just part of being a parent. I can get through it.” If you tend to “awfulize” situations — “This day is a world-historic catastrophe” — you can focus on devising a more rational outlook. (You can learn more about which of your own thought patterns are linked to anger by testing yourself with the Angry Cognitions Scale, developed by researchers Ryan Martin and Eric Dahlen.)

When all else fails, remember this phrase: Avoid and escape.
“In the short run,” Tafrate and Howard Kassinove wrote in Anger Management for Everyone, “it might be better to avoid some people or situations until you develop additional skills to deal with them.” Therapists who work with angry people note that their patients often have trouble even understanding that they can avoid confrontation, and thereby make their lives more peaceable.

* * *

It’s worth noting that there are definite caveats: For one thing, good anger-management therapy can be expensive and hard to find. For another, most of the studies showing anger-management therapy to be effective included only people who voluntarily sought it out.

But most people in anger management aren’t volunteers; they’re court-ordered to attend therapy, which means these positive results can’t be applied across the board. (Those court-ordered classes are also often taught by people with anger-management “certification,” rather than therapists with Ph.D.’s). And there’s not yet enough evidence to say confidently that anger-management therapy works for more violent offenders.

Still, it’s hard to argue that there’s no benefit from focusing more proactively on the way anger can insidiously infiltrate your life. I’ll use myself as an example: Like so many people, I had been glued to a computer screen since last November. But slowly, I started to cut down on how often I read the news, my own version of “avoid and escape.” Yes, it’s important to pay attention, but sometimes it’s important to recharge, too. As I spent less time scrolling through my various feeds, I began to see more clearly how reading them had almost always left me feeling simultaneously thwarted and unheard — in a word, angry.

Stepping away, I seemed to gain oceans of time. I grant that I might not have used it more wisely, but at least I had it to use. Anyway, I was grateful.
After all, I had been inspired to look into anger management because I knew of few resources to draw on to help me cope with how I was feeling — but here, at least, was one.

Using Anger-Management Techniques to Cope With 2017