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Taking Control of Anger

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People often describe anger as a wave that sweeps over them. Like the forces of nature that send breakers crashing to the shore, anger can surprise us with sudden, sometimes destructive force.

People often describe anger as a wave that sweeps over them. Like the forces of nature that send breakers crashing to the shore, anger can surprise us with sudden, sometimes destructive force. And at times, it can seem both inexplicable and unstoppable.

But anger is neither inexplicable nor unstoppable - although it can certainly feel that way for people whose anger threatens to take over their lives.

Although a "flare-up" of rage may seem to come from nowhere, counsellors and researchers generally agree that the emotions which cause us to fly into a fury - and even to lash out at the ones we love - are anything but fleeting. In the same way that ocean waves have their origins in a distant storm of wind and water, anger grows from a deeper emotional disturbance.

Ill Effects

"Anger is a healthy emotion when it is expressed appropriately," says Dr. Kathryn Jennings, who manages the Anger Management Counselling Practice (www.angeronline.com) in Toronto. "When not expressed properly, it can have devastating effects. Anger is at the root of many personal and social problems including domestic violence, physical and verbal abuse, and community violence."

The effects of anger are not limited to our personal and social lives, adds Jennings. Unchecked anger can tax a person's immune system, and can contribute to headaches and migraines, severe gastrointestinal symptoms, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.

The Many Faces of Anger

In The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life (Wiley and Sons, 2003), author Les Carter, Ph.D., points out that while it is easy to identify rage in volatile commuters, unruly children, and unresponsive co-workers, we may not recognize more subtle expressions of anger. For example, our anger may manifest itself in obsessing over loose ends, acting impatiently, or making overly critical judgments.

As well, angry silence or withdrawal can be just as emotionally harmful as overt violence. Passive-aggressive behaviour is characterized by emotionally abusive treatment of others through non-cooperation, evasiveness, and behaviours that leave others disempowered.

"A passive-aggressive person has become convinced that the way to protect his or her fragile ego is to be in control as fully as possible," explains Carter. "Rather than viewing relationships as a dynamic exchange of encouragement and understanding, they think in competitive terms. Others are not considered potential partners as much as they are potential adversaries."

Avoiding Pain

"Anger is a tool that people use to distance themselves from things that are hurting them," says Linda Duarte, a counsellor at Stewart and Associates Counselling and Consulting Services (www.stewart-assoc.com) in Vancouver. Duarte, who has a Master's degree in counselling psychology, teaches anger management techniques to individuals and groups.

"Issues of safety and control come up often in my work with clients," explains Duarte. "If someone feels threatened by something they are powerless to resolve, reacting with anger is one way to keep it at a safe distance. For many people, anger is the only coping strategy they may have for dealing with negative emotional situations."

Taking Control

Because anger often arises out of situations in which we feel powerless, it is natural for us to initially react to these situations by blaming others. However, blaming can only serve to worsen a situation if it allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our own emotional reaction.

"Learning to recognize your internal warning signs is critical," counsels Jennings. "Take a time out from the situation; that way, you don't respond in a reactive manner."

Once you learn how to temporarily defuse volatile situations by calming yourself - or physically removing yourself from the situation that is making you angry - the next step is to address the larger issues that are giving rise to your anger.

"You need to come back to what's causing your anger on a deeper level," advises Duarte. "We advise clients to count to ten in tense situations, or to use breathing to control their reaction, and these strategies do work. But if you're not addressing the deeper issues that are creating the problem - be it a lack of communication with your spouse or an overbearing boss at work - then in the end, you're running away from a problem that's not going to go away on its own."

If anger is causing recurring problems in your life, it can be difficult to look within yourself and face the fears or pain that you may have been running from for years. But you can do it. You have the power within you to take control of your anger - and your life.

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