Managing Anger

June 24, 2002|by Chris Copley

Everyone gets angry. It's as ordinary an emotion as happiness, grief and frustration.

But when your child spills milk all over the breakfast table, or some jerk cuts you off as you drive to work, or your spouse goes out after dinner and doesn't say when she'll be back, anger can build.

Most people can keep their anger in control most of the time. But when anger builds to uncontrollable rage, a person can injure loved ones, break household items, or even lose a job or get in trouble with police.

Expressions of anger are learned early in life, according to anger management counselors. Clinical social worker James "Jamie" Gregory, MSW, of Shenandoah Valley Medical System in Martinsburg, W.Va., says a child sees her parents get angry and learns from that behavior, whether that is loud, emotional expressions of anger or suppressed periods of silence.


How anger works

"Fixing" a person's uncontrollable, angry behavior may seem next to impossible, but it really isn't, Gregory says. The key is a person's internal dialogue, the interpretation he or she adds to an event.

"I have people pay attention to what's happening internally with them," he says. "When I have a couple in counseling, I get to know them. I see their patterns of interaction.

"The wife makes her expression, say, and the guy feels belittled. He experiences physiological changes: shoulders tense, stomach knots, breathing gets shallow, fists clench. He's going to blow. Before they've gotten too far into the anger cycle, I interrupt them. At that point, they've got some options."

Options include leaving the room, taking a fast walk or venting emotional energy on inanimate objects - whipping a towel onto the floor or a footstool, going to a driving range and smacking a basket of golf balls into the next county. The point is to express the energy on something that can't be hurt before returning to the people who can.

The blame game

Licensed clinical professional counselor Carl Benedict leads an anger management group with The Mental Health Center in Hagerstown. He says one key element in the pattern of anger is blaming others.

"Before you get angry, certain things happen," he says. "The formula is kind of the same for everyone. First, we become angry when we're under a lot of pain or a lot of stress - internal stress or external stress. Second, you feel victimized by someone else.

"You have a combination of emotional pain and stress and add to that the thought that it's someone else's fault. You get angry. A plus B equals anger."

Judith McLean, counselor and minister of Family Life Counseling in Hagerstown, sees a lot of blaming when couples come to her for marriage counseling.

"They come to me and say they are victimized by the other person," she says. "Nearly everybody - 99.5 percent. It's not very flattering."

McLean says she does see clients break through.

"Sometimes I see the lightbulb go off," she says. "People get to the bottom - what makes them angry over and over again, what stimulates them. Once they have that awareness, you can teach them not to react so quickly."

Group sessions and private counseling give people with uncontrolled anger the tools to manage their emotion and reduce the damage it causes.

Dealing with criminal anger

In Pennsylvania, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge John Walker says some people who pass through his courtroom get into trouble because anger is a big part of their life - maybe too big a part.

"In life, you need to let a fair amount of things bounce off you," he says. "But some people can't do that. They get involved in things from domestic abuse to picking a fight in a bar."

When Walker sees someone in his court with "a short fuse," he sentences them to attend anger management classes as part of their probation after incarceration. The classes, typically group sessions, are designed to train offenders to understand and control their anger.

Cindy Vordenbaum, MSW, LICSW, clinical director for Cumberland Valley Mental Health Center in Waynesboro, Pa., oversees therapy for some criminals sentenced by Walker as well as self-referred clients. She says the sessions work best for those individuals willing to admit their anger is causing problems.

"It's like the guy who says, 'I don't have a drinking problem, but I've had 14 DUIs.' Something got you into therapy. We need to find out what it is and how to deal with it," Vordenbaum says. "If people come for anger management, it's because something has happened or something may happen to them."

Judges throughout the Tri-State area sentence offenders to anger management classes offered by a variety of public and private agencies.

The Washington County Health Department offers both individual and group sessions, according to licensed graduate social worker David Washington, who leads eight-week group sessions for the department.

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