Anger-obics Can Make Anger 'Work Out'

How to transform negative energy into a positive tool for anger management.

Anger-obics is not a crazed form of cardio engendered by being cut-off on the freeway, opening the credit card bill, or being unjustly accused by the boss. It's a set of techniques to defuse your anger and help you find a creative solution to the "flashpoints" we all encounter every day. But it's only one way to examine and deal with this volatile emotion.

"Anger is a basic physiological response to a threat," Lisa Tener, MS, a creativity coach and co-author, with Jane Middleton-Moz, MS, and Peaco Todd, MA, of Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor, tells WebMD. "When you are threatened, cortisol and adrenaline flood your system, the blood is rushed out to the arms and legs so they can punch or run, which means blood leaves your brain so you can't think as well."

W. Robert Nay, PhD, a private psychotherapist, clinical associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and author of Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships, and Express Yourself Without Losing Control, tells WebMD anger is also a function of unrealized expectations. "I could have a whole practice based on how angry people get on the Beltway," he says. "Their expectations are not met there."

Men and boys more often express anger as aggression, Nay says. They are more likely to turn fear and sadness into anger. "Look at girls," he says. "One may say she is scared and the other will continue the conversation about the fear. Boys will change the subject."

Anger also may have genetic components. Studies show certain areas of the brain produce rage in animals. But the physical propensity is still under study. If you think you have your "dad's temper," it may be a result of how your dad acted, not a genetic legacy.

"A lot of anger is learned," Tener says. "We develop the anger styles we saw as children. "It's not the anger itself but the expression of it that can be dangerous."

"I say childhood is portable," Karen Salmansohn tells WebMD. The author of 25 new "edgy" books, Salmansohn also wrote The Burn Your Anger Book, which invites readers to incinerate it page by page when they are "burning mad."

Instead of going ballistic, postal, or flying off the handle, Nay urges us to understand the anatomy of our anger. For instance, instead of full-blown rage, anger usually manifests in stages:

  • Passive aggressive. The angry person quietly withholds whatever the object of the anger wants. If the boss blames her, she stalls on a project. If a spouse wants to talk, he clams up.
  • Sarcasm. The angry person may escalate to sarcasm. If the other person complains, the angry person may turn it around: "Well, you can sure take a joke."
  • Cold anger. This is the silent treatment or minimal response. Maybe the angry person leaves the room.
  • Hostility. This is the toe-tapper in line, the feisty customer, or the time bomb waiting to go off at dinner.
  • Aggression. This is the stage where the angry person acts out physically, yelling, threatening, or laying on hands.

"You need to identify your own triggers," Nay says. "And clearly see your own thinking distortions." Such distortions include "thresholding" ("If she does it one more time..."), catastrophizing ("The Beltway was a total nightmare"), or personalizing ("How dare he cut me off?").

The next step in handling your anger, according to Nay, is to chart your pattern of arousal. How does your body react -- and why? The "Five S's," as he calls them, can play a role. They are sleep, stress, sustenance, substances, and sickness. These affect your ability to be resilient. You may say, "I can't believe I got so mad over something so small," but maybe you had a rough night, gobbled or skipped breakfast, and drank too much coffee." Voila! Overreaction.

Once you understand how you think and see how your thinking may be off-base, you need to learn to communicate thoughts, feelings, and needs effectively. "I call this assertive problem solving," Nay says. Some suggestions:

  • Actively listen to the other person.
  • Respond only with "I" statements. Say, "When I got home, you didn't even say hi. This makes me think you're angry." Don't say, "What's the matter with you today?" That's a "You" statement.

Sustain ways of making these changes real. "And figure out how to deal with a setback," Nay advises. "No one is perfect. You could relapse in a second. I know what I am supposed to do, but even I am snippy to my wife sometimes."

Tener describes Anger-obics as "moving your body to shift your mind." Think in detail of a situation with totally honked you off. Notice how your body is feeling. Is your jaw tense? Teeth gritted?

When you have an idea where your anger resides, focus on relaxing that body part the next time you get angry. Tense and relax that part. Breathe "into" it, exhale, seeing if a message comes to you about what the pain/anger is trying to tell you.

Or: The minute you get angry, try the Gratitude Attitude or send Golden Healing Light to the anger place. Ask for a message. If in doubt, focus on your heart.

Some other things to try:

  • Do a scarf dance with a light piece of cloth. The cloth represents your anger. Hold it on your nondominant hand. As it swirls, is it covering your face? Tangling you? As time goes on, it is getting calmer or wilder in its movements?
  • Try the Spiritual Warrior yoga posture. This is a warrior that does not fight, but installs peace and harmony. Stand a few minutes. Then say, "I am a strong, powerful man (woman). I do not need to use force to make my way in the world. I feel a strong connection to the earth below. I am strengthened by the connection to the sky above." Reach into the past for wisdom. Reach into the world as you take actions that are healthy and wise.
  • Walk on it. Write your grievance on a Post-It, stick it on the sole of your shoe, and stomp it away.
  • Clench your fist. Release. Stall for time. Tell the boss, "I will talk to you about this in a few minutes."

By the time you do all this, you may have forgotten why you were angry! But, Tener says, you may still need to examine the roots of your rage. These methods may only work in the short term.

"Mind over madder" is Salmansohn's phrase for the concept that you have a choice. "You can be mindful of anger on a daily basis," she says. You can stage it as Nay does. Or you can "fight" it or walk it away, as Tener recommends. Or, Salmansohn says, you can burn it up. Her book contains coupons. For instance, one might say: "I am burning angry at my present love because ..." You fill it in and burn, baby, burn (in a humorous disclaimer, she says she is not responsible if you burn the house down, but she does fully expect people to burn her opus to ashes).

Humor can often be the saving grace in anger management, these experts say. "Crack smiles before heads," is how Salmansohn puts it.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Lisa Tener, MS, creativity coach; co-author, Good and Mad: Transform Anger Using Mind, Body, Soul and Humor. W. Robert Nay, PhD, clinical associate professor, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.; author, Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships, and Express Yourself Without Losing Control. Karen Salmansohn, author, The Burn Your Anger Book.

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