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Moderating the Anger Response Through Training

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You probably can't hit a baseball as well as Albert Pujols. Why? Certainly major league players were born with some level of physical advantage over the rest of us, but most of their skill comes from training – relentless training, year after year.

Imagine a baseball coming toward you at a hundred miles per hour; that's less than a half second from pitcher's hand to catcher's mitt. Decide whether to swing, then decide how to swing, and then actually swing the bat – all in less than a half second. Does Albert think about swinging the bat? I doubt it.

That quick a reaction has to be instinctive. Instincts are something we are born with, right? In this case, no. The instinctive response Albert now has to the approach of a fast moving baseball is the result of years of training.

Most people think anger is an instinctive response, and that some people were just born with the temperament to get angrier faster than others. That statement is half right. Anger is an instinctive response. We respond to an affront with anger in the same time as a pitched baseball reaches the batter — essentially instantaneously — much too quickly for conscious thought to be called upon.

The instinct of the anger response can be trained in the same way as a batter's response is trained: through conscious repetition, visualization, and coaching. Visualization is seeing the event we desire to master in our mind's eye. We see the approaching baseball or the antagonistic action as if it were real, and then mentally practice our response.

During his training, a baseball player strives to make each swing better than the last. The repetition of a faulty swing would be worse than useless. It would ingrain bad habits. The same is true of emotional responses.

If we allow ourselves to continue to have the same angry responses, we just entrench our anger habit, but if we strive to moderate our anger response over time — through consciousness, visualization, and coaching — we can train ourselves to respond to events as we choose, without anger. You can't magically be free from anger tomorrow, but you can put yourself on a training program that will reduce the frequency and intensity of your anger response day-by-day and year-by-year.

My training advice for moderating the anger response is:

1. Consciously practice responding with a little less anger each time a situation provokes you.

2. Practice visualizing aggravating situations and rehearse the response you choose to make to such events.

3. Have patience. It took you years to get so angry. It may take years to reduce anger down to a minor twinge.

4. Understand you can never completely eliminate the anger response. Minimizing anger requires lifelong conscious practice.

The preceding advice is intended for those who are quick to anger, and who display their anger outwardly, but what about people who don't appear to anger? Some people who don't show anger have trained themselves to moderate their anger response, but many others internalize their anger rather than expressing it. While withheld anger may save family and friends from having to endure an outburst, unexpressed anger is even more damaging to its owner than is anger that is verbalized and acted upon.

For those who suffer from repressed anger, there must be an intermediate stop along the path from anger to freedom. First the anger must be expressed. While I believe most people can significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of their anger responses through the training steps above, overcoming repressed anger is usually not a do-it-yourself proposition.

Professional counseling — often including the physical expression of anger in a controlled environment — can reveal and heal the childhood traumas which triggered the lifelong habit of repressing intense anger and hostility. Once a person is able to express their anger, it becomes imperative to immediately begin moderating that response with the goal of feeling no anger, either repressed or outward.

The view that there are benefits to anger has become common, but I believe that statements such as, "When anger is channeled and controlled, it can be a catalyst for much positive change," represent a distorted view toward the anger response. The argument goes that if we didn't get angry, we would become pushovers, but the assumption that we can have values and stand up for those values only by getting angry is faulty.

The opposing view, with which I totally concur, is, "The conventional wisdom is that anger, if used constructively and expressed rather than held in, is a healthy emotion. But while it may sometimes look good and play well with our friends, anger is now known to be quite detrimental to us physically and psychologically." We don't need anger to be assertive any more than we need a stiff drink in order to stand up for our beliefs.

If someone doesn't repay a loan to me, I can be assertive in demanding the repayment, or I can bring legal action to recover the money, at least as well if I am not angry. More important is that I will be far healthier – both physically and emotionally.

Anger is a destructive emotion that becomes instinctive over the years. Through conscious training, the anger response — whether in the form of outbursts or repressed — can be moderated over time, until it is virtually eliminated.

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About Jonathan Lockwood Huie

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Tell this to our friend, Ruvy. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’d make a case for “feigned anger,” because it does serve its purpose to express moral indignation, e.g., with an idea of turning a person around. But of course since it’s feigned, you’ve already licked the problem.

  • http://www.dreamthisday.com Jonathan Lockwood Huie

    Roger, I agree with your point about the usefulness of appearing outraged for the purpose of getting someone’s attention. For better or for worse, it proves to be an effective strategy. That it works is telling about human nature. Another argument for the sheer uselessness of genuine blood-pressure-raising anger.

  • http://michaeltalksbehavior.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Fascinating article. Thank you for sharing. We all know people like this and suffer from their ongoing wrath over every perceived slight or we are these people ourselves.

    Well written and highly interesting.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Yeah Roger, Ruvy just needs to “moderate” ie supress his anger. No need for him to be pissed just because all the neighbors are trying to kill his people, and that a big part of the rest of the world blames the Jews for Muslim wickedness. Cause all the making nice, forbearance and so forth have done Israel SO much good.

    Hey, maybe sometimes supression of anger isn’t the answer, but a good old fashion pissed off killing binge against the rats attacking you.

  • http://www.angermanagementworld.com Ras Reed

    A well written article that should be read by everyone who is unable to control his or her temper. I agree with you on the power of visualization. If we few moments to visualize the result of our anger, we will know how to react appropriately.

  • grant

    Loved the article and am inspired by it!