Most individuals who seek my help with anger voice the desire for a quick and easy fix to alter their behavior. This makes perfect sense. These expectations simply mirror the sense of time urgency we increasingly harbor in much of our lives. And, certainly, there are more pleasurable activities to engage in than dealing with the discomfort surrounding anger. As part of this hope, many seek out a one-size-fits-all strategy that they can apply to all varieties of anger arousing situations.
Many of my clients or class participants focus attention primarily on learning to quickly control their escalation of anger. Others recognize that their anger is related to their past and, subsequently, desire greater understanding of anger as it relates to that past.
Initially, few may recognize that exploring the message and meaning of their anger can provide them with invaluable self-awareness. They soon observe that gaining comprehensive understanding of anger and skills for practicing healthy anger enhances emotional intelligence and offers resilience to deal with all of life’s challenges.
With this in mind, I want to share some key strategies to help you respond to anger arousal. However, these practices require rehearsal long before you’re confronted by an anger arousing triggering event–long before the moment when your emotion overrides your reason. After all, how you’ve managed anger to this point is a habit that involves the interplay of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations-one you may have adapted over many years. Replacing old habits requires cultivating new ones as part of your automatic repertoire. Like learning to play a musical instrument, engage in sports, or changing any meaningful habit, creating change in your mind and body requires repetition.
I’ve coined the term B.E.A.R. as a useful reminder of effective practices to use during moments of anger arousal. All of these practices are intended to help you enable your reason to once again override your passion.
B – Breathe deeply.
This includes inhaling and exhaling deeply, with special attention to exhaling. Specifically, spend a little more time exhaling during each breath.
E – Evoke physical calm.
This calls for evoking calmness achieved based on the ongoing practice of exercises in physical relaxation and body scanning.
A – Arouse compassion.
Evoke your inner compassion to address the suffering surrounding your anger–the negative feelings, including anger, and the physical tension associated with them.
R – Reflect.
Reflect on the feelings and thoughts that precede your anger. Reflect on identifying expectations, distinguishing between those that are realistic and those that are more strongly based on wishes or hopes. And try to identify key desires that you feel are being challenged; i.e., the desire for connection, respect, harmony, trust, or security.
Practicing the following exercises will prepare you to effectively practice BEAR when the need arises.
Set aside a few moments each day to engage in deep breathing. This involves noting attention to your diaphragm as air enters your lungs and the chest rises and the belly expands.
E – Evoke physical calmness
A Body relaxation exercise: The following exercise is powerfully effective for increasing awareness and sensitivity to your body.
Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Gently close your eyes and spend a few minutes engaged in relaxed breathing.
Picture and feel the muscles of your forehead stretch slightly and release tension, as if the muscle fibers are saying, “Aaaaaah.”
Shift your attention to the muscles around your eyes and temples, as you picture and feel them stretch and relax, releasing tension.
Shift your attention and visualize and feel the muscles of your upper jaw stretching slightly as they relax and release tension.
Gradually, shift your attention in the same manner to the muscles of your lower jaw, your neck, shoulders, upper arms and lower arms, hands and fingers, your upper back and lower back, chest and abdomen, lower torso, upper legs and lower legs and then your feet and toes.
Upon completing this exercise, slowly scan your body from head to toes and notice what calmness feels like. The more frequently you practice this exercise, the easier it will become to evoke physical calmness and interrupt the escalation of anger.
A – Arouse compassion
Research in compassion focused theory and therapy finds that you can practice cultivating your inner compassion to strengthen your resilience for self-soothing– sitting with and observing your internal experience without reacting to it.
The following exercise highlights one strategy for cultivating and practicing self-compassion (Stop doing this exercise immediately if you become too uncomfortable).
First engage in relaxed breathing or the Body Relaxation exercise. Then, imagine being asked to play the role of a compassionate parent in a play. Envisioning this scenario is one way to access your “compassionate self.”
You’ll be asked, as part of your role, to show compassion to a child who is experiencing some form of emotional pain. Rather than reasoning with the child in an attempt to “fix” the feeling, try to help her simply sit with it. For example, you may picture yourself saying the following:
I know this is difficult to sit with.
It is a feeling that, like other feelings, is temporary. It will pass.
I’ll sit here with you.
You don’t have to do anything.
I’m not going anywhere.
Practicing this type of visualization exercise helps to cultivate both your awareness and intentionality to create a similar dialogue with yourself when you experience the anguish associated with anger.
R – Reflection
Being able to reflect during the moment of anger arousal depends on being sufficiently calm. The more you practice such reflection when you are calm, the more you will be able to engage in reflection during anger arousal.
Reflection involves trying to identify specific feelings that precede your anger, feelings identified by one word, i.e. threatened, ignored, discounted, shame, powerless or anxiety.
Completing an anger log can further your awareness of the interplay of your thoughts, feelings and body sensations that propel you into anger arousal. An anger log is like a structured journal. I offer one in my book and they are also available on-line.
When your anger is aroused you can learn to hit the pause button and consider more effective responses. With commitment and practice it is possible to develop the habits of mind that yield long-term rewards of stability, restraint and self-respect. It becomes possible to practice B.E.A.R.