Exerpts from The Anger Control Workbook.
Anger is a two-step process. It starts with the experience of pain. The pain can be physical or emotional—it could be a stomachache or fatigue, feelings of rejection or loss. The pain can be something that frustrates your needs or threatens your safety. The particular kind of pain doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the pain by definition is unpleasant and makes you want to put an end to it. The second component of the anger response is triggered thoughts. These are interpretations, assumptions, and evaluations of a situation that make you feel victimized and deliberately harmed by others. Trigger thoughts blame and condemn others for the painful experience you’ve suffered.
You might think of emotional or physical pain as the fuel of anger. It’s like a can of gasoline and your trigger thoughts are the match. Either of the anger components alone is harmless. Pain by itself doesn’t ignite rage, and trigger thoughts without pain are like a match without fuel.
Pain plus trigger thoughts equal anger. It’s a simple formula. Imagine that you have a headache and your fourteen-year-old starts nagging you about going to a party that will involve drinking. She keeps pushing, and your head keeps pounding. Her pressure and the pain in your head aren’t enough to get angry. You need a match—a trigger thought that says she’s an inconsiderate kid who doesn’t care about how tired you are. Now the anger catches fire. You’re hurting, and you have someone to blame. You’ve decided who’s responsible for your pain. The next words out of your mouth are loud and attacking. Your daughter stares at you like you just went nuts, but in reality it was a simple matter of putting the fuel and match together.
Once you get angry, trigger thoughts can also make it worse. They can escalate your upset by continually painting the other person as bad and wrong and deliberately out to harm you. Each new trigger thought pushes your anger a notch higher, until you end up saying and doing very damaging things. Pain begets trigger thoughts, which beget anger, more trigger thoughts, more anger, and so on. Your thoughts and angry feelings become a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
…Learning to relax is an essential element in achieving anger management. Remember, getting angry is a two-step process. First, physical tension or stress has to exist in the body, then it requires anger triggering thoughts to complete the picture. Half the anger battle can be won by simply learning to relax the physical tension that develops in provocative situations. It’s a proven fact that if you can relax your body, and keep it relaxed, it’s almost impossible to get angry.
…A feeling of deep relaxation can be experienced in lots of different ways. Most people describe tingling sensations, heat, or a pleasant warmth moving through their body. Others focus on feelings of heaviness or general lassitude. Everyone experiences relaxation in a unique way.
…A very valuable tool in combating stress is the ability to call up, at a moment’s notice, a peaceful, relaxing scene. Eventually, with enough practice, you will be able to conjure this scene as an automatic reflex, and it will help you to achieve better control when faced with a stressful situation.
It’s best to begin using relaxation imagery. The idea is to think about, and visualize in detail, a time and place where you have felt especially safe, secure, and perfectly at peace. It sometimes helps to begin the process by imagining that you are walking down a path through the woods, with many trees on the left and right. Eventually you see a light at the end of the path, and come to a meadow. Here is a peaceful clearing, where the sun is always shining, warming your skin, and the grass smells lush. You can hear the tinkling of a brook nearby.
Perhaps it’s just this meadow that you were looking for, or maybe you’ll want to follow the road leading to the beach, where the waves come and go, caressing the white sand. The salty smell in the air clears your mind, and the sound of the waves lulls you into a peaceful, almost hypnotic state.
Or, you can see in the distance a cottage tucked into the side of a hill, with smoke lazily rising from the chimney. It’s cozy in front of the fireplace. The smell of your favorite soup wafts from the kitchen and permeates the air, bringing back warm, nurturing memories.
Now it’s your time to create your own personal relaxation image. Perhaps one of the scenarios above triggered a memory for you. Or maybe a childhood scene, a time of innocence, will work for you.
Begin creating your scene slowly, with your eyes closed, sketching it in broad strokes like an artist preparing a major canvas. Visualize the scene and then anchor it to a specific time and place. Now start to fill in the details. Shapes and colors, the quality of light and shadow.
Next, add the dimension of sound: blackbirds cawing as they fly overhead, or waves washing up on shore. Perhaps you can hear a faint melody, a long-forgotten tune…
Now, explore the tactile qualities of this place. Become aware of the temperature, whether it’s warmth on your skin or a pleasant cool breeze. If you’re lying on the grass, notice the tickling sensation as the blades brush your ear when you turn your head. And remember the unique smells associated with this time and place. Fresh mown grass, bread just out of the oven, or honeysuckle on the vine…
Finally, pay attention to the emotional “feel” of this place. Become aware of ripples of calmness, the reassuring feeling of safety and security. A sense of peace and tranquility pervades the entire scene.
When you have finished creating this peaceful scene, stop for a minute and savor the experience. Just drink it in, memorizing all the components. Let all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings sink into your awareness. Now anchor the scene with a key word like “Catskills” or “Mariposa.”
Open your eyes and look around. Notice where you are in the real world. Now go back to the relaxation image. Use your key word. Allow yourself to become fully immersed in the scene. See it, hear it, smell it, feel it. Notice the accompanying sense of security, peace, and relaxation. Now come back to the room again.
With a little bit of practice, you will be ready to use this relaxation scene any time there is tension, or when a situation arises that is potentially disturbing or distressing.