Feeling Angry? Relax, or Don’t

It’s almost become a cinematic cliché to depict anger management as a technique involving some variation of deep breathing or relaxation. In the 2002 comedy Anger Management, participants in therapy are instructed to chant ‘Goosfraba’ when they get worked up. In the recent film version of The Hulk, the irascible superhero is taught to moderate his anger by controlling his diaphragm…

While the paper bag technique for panic is considered a relic, many counselors and psychologists are still recommending much the same kind of thing for anger management. By way of example, I heard a leading psychologist provide the following anger-management advice on national radio recently:

“Step back mentally, detach from the situation. Say to yourself, ‘clear head, calm body.’ Take a deep breath. When you breathe out, let yourself flop…”

relax

Let me begin by saying: there are far worse things you could do when faced with a provocation. And I happen to like the first step, which is something more akin to ‘distancing’ than relaxation. But my reservation remains – to this and any other relaxation strategy that purports to reduce or eliminate anger per se: The physiological component in anger is a small, and often irrelevant, factor in anger management, and is given far too much importance in psychotherapy today.

Think about it. Much of the time, before getting angry you were calm to begin with. You were eating your breakfast in a sleepy stupor when the neighbour began noisily renovating his kitchen; you were calmly reading through your emails when you found out you’d been passed over for promotion; you were snuggling blissfully when your partner said, ‘You still haven’t called the plumber have you?’ You can be angry in a hammock; you can be angry in the bath. Physiological calmness does not stop anger from arising in the first place, so why would we expect it to have such a big part to play in reducing it after it’s arisen?

Physiological arousal does not in and of itself make you angry. Indeed, if it did, aerobics classes would devolve into angry mobs; lovers would become roused to rage as they approached climax; and roller coaster rides would incite mass murder.

Arousal levels have been shown to exacerbate pre-existing feelings of anger, but this effect is non-specific: they can just as easily increase excitement, sexual arousal or anxiety. And this is offset by the fact that many heart-rate increasing activities may also distract you from whatever you’re angry about.

You get angry, generally speaking, if and when you perceive wrongdoing or injustice. Your mechanic has overcharged you; your husband has lied; the kids are misbehaving, and so on. Why would deep breathing, in and of itself, be expected to change your feelings about these things? It might delay acting on those feelings, which is perhaps a good thing; but then again it may not, if you still feel getting angry is useful or appropriate (which anger-prone individuals too often do). Relaxing away your anger is a little like trying to relax away your political convictions, or your superstitions.

And relaxation when you’re angry is such an uphill battle. One glance at the offending email, one fleeting thought of your partner’s comments and the 40 minutes of deep breathing, incense sticks and meditation fly out the window.

Now, let me be clear about something: I don’t doubt that regular relaxation, especially if you’re prone to stress, is a good idea. So is any other form of stress management for that matter: a healthy diet, regular yoga and meditation practice, financial planning, and good sleep can all be of indirect benefit to anger-proneness. But my concern is that using relaxation to stop feeling angry is misguided. It’s targeting a symptom (arousal), not the cause.

And it’s targeting one of the least adverse of the symptoms of anger at that. In anger, people can do and say things they later regret, behave harshly, spitefully and impulsively towards others. They can form overly dark and paranoid views of those around them, and waste their precious time in arguments and defensiveness. They can suffer a burning, toxic feeling that saps the joy from their day, and the sleep from their night. In addition to all of the above, their autonomic arousal levels may rise. The latter, as you’ll agree, is not the worst of it.

Have you ever advised someone to ‘relax’ when they’re angry? It often doesn’t end so well. I feel there’s often something a little invalidating about targeting an angry person’s physiological arousal, rather than hearing them out and talking through what they’re angry about. Someone is expressing a complaint, and you effectively suggest they should be sedated! Imagine how that would go down at a complaints desk at IKEA:

“Excuse me, one of your staff spoke rudely to my son!”

“Ma’am you are visibly agitated. Allow me to offer you something from our range of tranquilisers…”

I’m not against relaxation or stress management. We could all do with a little more of it. But I’m not for it either when it comes to treating anger. What I’m for is addressing anger head-on: Going right to the angry mindset itself, and seeking to challenge the unique set of beliefs and expectations that cause anger-prone individuals to frame events as wrong, unjust, and unacceptable.

How do we do this? Stay tuned for future posts on how to attack anger at its roots.