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What to do with all that anger

ANGRY FIRST
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Whether it's the scandals in the Church, or everyday life events, here's how to deal with excessive anger.

Anger is one of the most common human emotions. It can erupt from something as minor as a stubbed toe or as major as rejection by a loved one. It can be as cerebral as it can be visceral. Children struggle to control it, and most of us struggle to hide it. 

For most of us, anger is a part of everyday life. Our days are full of mishaps and misunderstandings, and even when we know anger isn’t the best response (e.g., like when one of my kids accidentally knocks over a full cup), it can be difficult to stem the tide.

These days, many of us are feeling an increased amount of anger as the fallout of the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold in the Church. What has occurred seems so unfair, so unnecessary, and so contradictory to what our Church stands for. And yet, it is the reality we face — especially for those who experienced abuse firsthand and are still trying to heal from it. 

In light of all this, and even just with respect to our everyday challenges, it’s worth considering some simple but often neglected steps to address our anger. Before sharing specific strategies, though, it’s important to understand that any approach should target both how we are feeling (physically, emotionally), and what we are thinking (rationally or otherwise). Failure to utilize a two-pronged approach may limit our ability to effectively harness our anger and to use it as it’s designed to be used. As I often tell the kids I see in therapy, there is nothing wrong with anger — in fact, it can be very adaptive ― it’s what we do with it that matters.

So, for starters, when you feel anger surging, one of the best (and simplest) things you can do is take a break. This might mean getting up from the computer and walking to the bathroom, or intentionally pausing a heated conversation before responding in a way you may regret. The break is designed to both “head off” and reduce negative physical outcomes (e.g., increased blood pressure, heart rate), but to also give you increased time for lucid decision-making. So often, even just a few minutes (and sometimes a few days) can help you come to a clearer and more intentional state of mind, which improves outcomes on all fronts.

Beyond taking a break, it’s important to understand that there are active and “slow down” ways to attenuate anger. One of the best ways to channel anger is through physical activity. Although most of us can’t hop out of our chairs during work and take off on a run (although some can), building activity into our schedule, or just taking a run or bike at the end of a frustrating day, can help us better utilize the rage or frustration we might feel while we also engage in mentally “working things out.”  

It should be noted, however, that despite centuries of practice, research clearly shows that the idea of a physical catharsis is a lie. Punching your pillow may feel good at the moment, but it’s likely to only increase your anger until you use less aggressive and emotional techniques. Beyond active techniques, too, in some situations, “slow down” skills of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other strategies of mindfulness can be a great way to help calm the mind or body.  

But in order to do this, a third point of focus must be employed, which involves “reframing” our thoughts. With youth, I talk about the difference between “hot vs. cool” thoughts. Hot thoughts feed the fire of anger whereas cool thoughts help reduce it. As an example, let’s take the current abuse scandal. If you find yourself thinking in absolutist, furious terms (e.g., “The whole Church is just corrupt”), then it is likely you will continue to feel angrier and more upset. But if you frame it in more of a realistic, objective way (e.g., “It’s really upsetting how this was handled by specific Church officials”), then there’s a much better chance that the anger that remains will be more functional and self-preserving.

I’m not suggesting a Pollyannaish approach to our feelings, by the way. What I am saying is that if our thoughts are full of furious ideas, we can expect our body to be be full of rage, too. If we think something is an “absolute disaster” or “beyond ridiculous,” we can be assured that our perceptions will guide what happens next regardless of what the reality is. Thoughts matter more than we will ever know.

Finally, after utilizing all of these particular techniques, we’re left with one last serious consideration: Do we confront the subject of our anger, or just seek to let it go?

Some situations, such as the abuse scandal, mandate that we should confront the situation in the most effective, civil, transparent way possible. This is where anger becomes most adaptive, as it is simply unacceptable to “sit by” and let others be undermined or abused. But in other situations, such as when someone cuts you off on the highway, letting go becomes the best response, especially since we are so often guilty of this indiscretion ourselves sometimes.  

Most days, my own home with seven young kids is full of noise and disagreements (among the many positive things that occur). I am tempted to be angry a lot, and sometimes I give into these temptations despite my best judgment. But as I’m learning (slowly), there are some things I must take on directly, and there are some things I must let go. If I don’t, I’m going to be consumed by anger and frustration constantly, and my effectiveness and endurance in what I do and say will wane. This doesn’t mean I’m advocating a permissive course, as I fully know that this is not an effective strategy. But it does mean that I can’t make every situation into a crisis or a confrontation, and I must learn the difference between a behavioral expectation versus a developmental goal.

Ultimately, whether it’s a break, a run, a letter, or just a simple, regulated response, anger utilized in a noble way for virtuous purposes is a wonderful thing. But anger left raging out of control is wrath that seeks to destroy, including yourself. Don’t let that happen. 

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