Overcoming Anger

How to break the cycle of arguments, put-downs, and stony silences.

When Anger is Sudden and Completely Unexpected: Understanding the "Five Ss"

Sudden, Unexplained Anger Can Ruin Even the Most Beautiful Day

Even the Best Day at the Beach Can Be Washed Out By the Sudden Storm of Anger

You are having a wonderful time. All is going well as you discuss a mildly irritating issue with your partner. Then suddenly you find yourself really angry---your voice intensifies and you act like an angry jerk. Your partner is just as surprised as you are by this unexpected outburst---and for such a trivial issue! What just happened? Below you will find five life events/experiences described in my recent book Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship (Guilford Press, 2010)  that have one thing in common. Each of them and in combination lower your resilience-your ability to be flexible and to roll with the punches. When one or more is present your ability to inhibit your emotions is compromised-it's hard to put the brakes on and your anger is intensified well beyond what is called for and proportional to the situation. Look over each of the "Five Ss" to see if one or more often applies to you. When one or more obtains, avoid provocative subjects or any discussion that has a potential for conflict until you are more resilient once again.

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Sleep

Getting sufficient sleep restores our ability to think clearly and respond calmly. Sleep deprivation tends to make people more irritable and less resilient. Recent research indicates that the average adult needs just over eight hours of sleep, while teens and kids need much more. Lack of exercise, an inconsistent sleep schedule, unresolved stress, certain medications, overuse of alcohol, medical problems like sleep apnea, and poor sleep habits are among factors that can interfere with a good night's sleep.

Stress

The pioneering work of Dr. Hans Selye introduced the term stress to describe the body's physical reaction, the "fight-or-flight" response, as it adapts to change and stimuli like noise and crowding. At high stress levels you are likely to be more irritable and less resilient. Too many tasks, unrealistic deadlines, any significant life change (including "good" events like vacations and moving to a new home), uncertainty, worry, and a low sense of control increase stress, pushing you closer to the danger zone when an unforeseen trigger occurs.

Substances

Alcohol, caffeine, and other substances we ingest can dramatically intensify our emotions. Unlike the popular wisdom, alcohol doesn't reliably make you feel happy and relaxed. If you're already somewhat irritated, sad, or anxious, alcohol will likely intensify your feelings because it depresses centers in your brain that ordinarily permit you to control (inhibit) your emotions. Caffeine increases your tension level and can escalate irritation and stress. Some drugs purchased over the counter (cold remedies, for example) can boost tension, so it is important to check for side effects. Many illegal drugs either reduce your ability to think clearly, boost your emotions, or are specifically linked to aggression.

Sustenance

Adequate and proper nutrition is necessary to maintain resilience and lower emotional intensity. When you skip meals like breakfast or lunch, your blood sugar level plummets, increasing your level of irritability and fatigue and reducing your ability to think clearly. Many nutritionists believe that too much sugar or junk food may increase the likelihood of mood swings that can affect your ability to cope consistently with the next trigger that arises. Eating well-balanced meals and ensuring you are getting necessary vitamins and minerals boosts your resilience so you can cope with whatever comes along.

Sickness

When we are ill or coping with pain, our resilience is reduced. Having a headache, stomach upset, or the aches and pains of a bad cold or flu focuses our inner resources on getting well, leaving little extra energy to cope with aggravating events. Some of us have chronic painful or debilitating conditions (e.g., low back pain, migraine headaches) that may tax our coping resources and distract us from being able to focus fully on important aspects of a triggering situation. Pain and discomfort increase our arousal, can create irritability, and generally reduce our ability to think clearly.

W. Robert Nay, Ph.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor at Georgetown School of Medicine, and the author of  Overcoming Anger in Your Relationship.

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