GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Anger is a natural and normal reaction to life’s unavoidable irritations, but uncontrolled, it can escalate and end up damaging one’s health and relationships.
“Generally (anger) is unhealthy coping,” said Jill Calderon, a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of North Dakota.
And how we handle our anger is something we learned as children, she said.
“Usually, what we see in people who (express) anger when stressed or upset is that they have grown up in a home where that was modeled.
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“If you grew up with abuse, where anger was the predominant emotion in the home, you’ve learned that that’s how you deal with stressors that come up: by getting angry.
“Everybody can feel when something doesn’t feel good,” she said. But “those are learned behaviors. It’s a cycle.”
That’s not to say that people who were exposed to uncontrolled anger early in life automatically repeat that behavior as adults, she said.
“There are people definitely who made changes (due to) awareness. They get therapy and are conscious of how they treat their own kids.”
Children who grow up in abusive situations feel powerless, she said. If they received the brunt of the abuse, later “they use anger as a way to regain some of that power (to prevent) being taken advantage of or being put in a vulnerable position.
“They become this intimidating, angry type of person.”
The angry behavior becomes a habit, she said.
The first step to getting anger under control is awareness, Calderon said. Increased awareness gives a person insight into where the behaviors come from, she said.
“What we find under anger is hurt, most often,” she said. In her anger-management class, Calderon teaches aspects of mindfulness, a type of meditation that calms chaotic thoughts and feelings and focuses the mind on the present.
“It helps people get in touch with what’s happening internally,” she said.
When anger is escalating, the heart rate and breathing usually speed up. People can learn to notice and react to those physical signals by choosing alternative coping skills that can defuse a potentially emotional situation, she said.
In learning to harness anger, different things work for different people, Calderon said.
“For some, deep breathing really resonates,” she said. “For others, talking to themselves helps to defuse a situation in the moment.”
Living in a fast-paced society, “there’s not a lot of time for ourselves, that’s part of the problem,” Calderon said. “We walk around on autopilot and take (our anger) out on someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
Once you recognize that your anger is building, “you can take a bath, take a walk, ask someone else to watch the kids, so you can go for a drive.”
She recommends that, if you tend to be passive, instead of burying resentment until you explode, “speak up and express your needs and wants, but not in an accusatory way that makes the other person feel attacked. Let them know how you feel.”
An aggressive person “is getting their needs met through intimidation, not listening and not taking into account how they’re making others feel.”
A clear indication that you need help with anger management from a mental health professional is getting in trouble with the law, she said. “Another is if people — family members, co-workers, peers — in your life are pointing it out to you,” she said.