Using Psychotherapy to Defeat Anger

By Carol Goh  |  Published on 10 April 2021

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What is anger?

"Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage," according to Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger. When anger is felt, the body normally experiences all or if not some of the following symptoms:

- Faster heart beat
- Increase in blood pressure
- Unable to empathise
- Strong urge to lash out
- Feeling of ‘I lose it’

To suppress or not to suppress our anger

Often, we are troubled by the decisions whether we should suppress our anger or to let it out without restraint. Neither option is a wise decision. The adverse effects of restrained anger is borne out of a study by the Stress Research Institute of Stockholm University (https://www.stressforskning.su.se/english/research) which revealed that compared to those who released their frustration, men are five times more likely to have a heart attack or even die from one if they suppressed their anger. Similarly, a research conducted by Suls (2013) concluded that anger is found to cause several physical illnesses, notably heart problem.

Why is anger a big concern?

It is because it is an outburst that is so terrifying, intimidating and even terrorizing to victims. Anger can be disruptive and destructive in relationships whose consequences we cannot undermined. Anger hurts both the perpetrator and the victims.

A common scene of anger is road rage. Many drivers have shared that they are usually mild- mannered. However, once they hit the road, they are on guard to protect the lane they are travelling in. When someone cuts into their lane, their anger shoots up the roof which can cause preventable road rage or accidents.

Getting to the root of anger

Do you know anger is just a secondary emotion? Whenever you are provoked or triggered into anger, there are always underlying deeper emotions at play. Such hidden emotions could be:

- Past hurts
- Fear
- Not respected or valued
- Humiliated
- Feeling of little importance
- Not loved
- Not accepted
- Depowered

These primary emotions could be seething all these years within you and are often denied or suppressed. Basic anger management techniques are ineffective to address and overcome such deeper emotions. The source of anger could date way back to childhood and specific therapeutic techniques will be used appropriately to resolve those past hurts.

"Do you know anger is just a secondary emotion? There are underlying deeper emotions at play."

Underlying causes of anger

1. Family issues

a. Abuse (physical, emotional and sexual)

Experiencing abuse since young can scar the children even after they grow up. As they are unable to fight back when being abused, children will feel hurt and unconsciously allow the anger to seethe within them at a young age.

The anger suppressed since young will find its way out now and then no matter how old the children have grown. It will manifest as uncontrolled outburst in relationships with significant others such as spouse or children, thus perpetuating the abuse.

Joan’s (not her real name) mom passed away when she was 10 years old. Living with her dad was torturing as he will find reasons to beat her up every day. No matter how well she completed her housework and how well she performed in school, they were never good enough for her father. The constant beating took a toll on her, leaving her bruised physically and emotionally. She was badly hurt since young and had accumulated so much anger and bitterness towards her father over so many years that caused her to burst into uncontrollable anger by the slightest triggers in her workplace or at home.

"The anger suppressed since young will find its way out now no matter how old you are."

b. Comparison

In our society that focuses so much on academic results, parents may inevitably compare their children’s results among their older siblings, thereby setting the stage for sibling rivalry and enmity. Unknowingly, parents might think by making comparison, it will motivate their children to strive to do better.

However, the way their children comprehend and interpreted the intended messages differs greatly from the parent’s “good” intention. In fact, such comparisons always backfired, leaving the children feeling inferior and always not good enough for parents’ standards. These often lead to the children feeling they are not being accepted, which is a common cause of anger when they grow up.

2. School Issues

Some causes of anger in the school context are as follows:

- Being picked on by teacher
- Humiliated by teacher in class
- Isolated by classmates
- Bullying including cyber bullying
- Betrayed by good friends
- Ostracized by classmates
- Unfair treatment by teacher

Just like domestic violence, victims of abuses in school often cannot fight back and had to swallow the hurts with a huge sense of injustice brewing inside them. These students will often have thoughts such as “Why target me?”, “Why bully me?”, “It’s not fair and it’s not my fault” running through their mind.

Ben (not his real name) was tiny size when he was in primary school. He was constantly laughed at for being small size. To make matters worse, he did not like the sports that most guys enjoyed playing, which are soccer and ball games. He preferred to go to the library to read and was not as active as other boys. As a result, he was being taunted for behaving differently from the boys. He felt humiliated and was angry but could not vent it out as he knew with his size, he cannot beat them. He has learned to just suck it up and suppressed his emotions deep inside him, setting up the stage to be easily provoked once he reaches adulthood.

Analysis of the killers in the many school shootings incidents in US has revealed that these murderers have often suffered injustices all these years that their only resolve is to turn to violence to get back at those who have caused their sufferings. They have been made to feel a deep sense of humiliation, shame, injustices, rejection when young, fueling their intense anger towards society at large. Not able to get help and understanding, they took action on their own to avenge the perceived injustices that have made them feel inferior and outcast.

In the book Capture by David Kessler, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Susan Klebod, described the somewhat similar trajectory taken by their sons - the inability to fit in at school, the social ineptness, and the progressive alienation and isolation.

3. Work issues

Anger at work can result from the following scenario:

- Overworked by superior
- Not able to say no to colleagues or superiors
- Being openly criticized
- Passed over for promotion
- Being made the scapegoat
- This list of hurts in the workplace can go on and on.

Over the years in the workplace, we may collect and pile up the hurts suffered and are not able to find a venue to defend ourselves. We develop feelings such as not being respected, and that life is so unfair. All these accumulated underlying feelings are the perfect catalyst for frequent anger outburst. Unfortunately, most of the times, these outbursts often happened at home and directed at our loved ones.

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Pete (not his real name) was in the army when he met a terrorizing superior who taunted him and punished him for the slightest mistake he made. He was often made to feel that he caused his platoon mate to be punished for his mistakes. Whenever he tried to defend himself, what he received was more punishment. All he could do was to suppress his bitterness and anger deep inside him.

When Pete completed his army stint, he started working in a hospital. One day at work, he heard a patient who spoke and sounded like his superior in the army. Instantly, he felt his anger rising fast and fierce. Fortunately, before things could get worse, he managed to get away to calm himself down. It was then he realized that the anger that was long suppressed has reared its head when it was triggered and waiting to pounce on any potential ‘attacker’. That was when Pete realized he needed to seek help, for he feared the consequences if he were to vent out his anger at work.

4. Marriage issues

Anger with your spouse could result from the following situations:

- Spouse have extra-marital affairs
- Domestic violence: physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Spouse not meeting your expectations
- Having conflicting parenting style

Our family is supposed to be our safe haven. It is depended upon as a place to seek refuge when we are troubled. However, when there is spousal abuse in the marriage, the home is no longer a safe haven. What makes such situation worse is that we will have to face the predator every day. This serves only to aggravate the sense of helplessness and constant feeling of being trapped in the marriage, fueling the anger that could only grow over time.

On the other hand, if we discover our spouse having extra-marital affairs, the sense of betrayal is enough to send our anger shooting to the roof any time of the day. While reading a self-help book or talking to a close friend may help, if you find your anger issues continue to linger and grow and affecting your life, the next step you should consider is to seek professional help.

Anger control and management

To counter the point of anger, below are some common ways to diffuse anger of the moment:

- Taking deep breaths
- Distracting yourself by focusing on other things
- Getting away from the anger situation
- Talk to someone
- Solve the problem at hand
- Seek clarification
- Use humor

However, as mentioned earlier, the above techniques may treat the symptoms but not the root cause of anger. These techniques are not sustainable in controlling anger. It may work the first few times, but anger can still be triggered. To better control and manage anger, real work has to be done to address the root source of anger in order to eradicate it from within.

"To resolve anger, real work has to be done to address the root source of anger to eradicate it from within."

Controlling anger using RENEW program

In Emotional Wellness, I have developed a proprietary program called RENEW to help my clients to effectively control and manage anger.

Below are some psychotherapy techniques used in the RENEW program to help you resolve your anger and to prevent it from being easily triggered in the future:

1. Acceptance

One of the steps used in the RENEW program in resolving anger is to accept that you have this emotion and be willing to talk about what is bugging you. This action signifies courage to own the anger; the start of a new journey that reflects inner strength in you. This step enables this inner strength to be a springboard to a renewed life that is no longer controlled by your emotion.

Acceptance of anger is counter to common belief which is to suppress our undesirable emotions. Suppressing anger only turns this negative emotion into extreme pressure in a pressure cooker that is just waiting to blow up. Furthermore, if anger is suppressed, repressed or destructively expressed, it can become a gun turned against the holder and end up hurting ourselves even more.

2. Identify the underlying issues

Another step in the RENEW program is to help you identify all past issues that form the root cause of your anger issues. We will work together on these issues and gradually release them from controlling you during the therapy sessions. Depending on the nature of the underlying issues, therapeutic techniques will be used appropriately, as described below:

a. Gestalt technique

Often hurt people hurt people, people who are hurt turned to hurt others, esp our loved ones. This technique engages the client to “talk” to those who have hurt them in the therapy session to release pent-up anger suppressed over the years. I will ask clients to visualize the party involved being present in the room and having the opportunity to vent it all.

b. EMDR

This technique works on the hurts (including those happened many years ago since childhood) and to desensitize the emotions that are still alive in the body. Those unpleasant incidents may have long passed, but our body remembers the emotions in the present. Hence, when an anger is triggered, we are reliving the past in the present. Desensitizing such emotions can help to control the cause of your anger.

c. Inner Child technique

We all have our inner child which is still very much alive in us no matter how old we are at the present moment. Unpleasant incidents happened in the past have hurt this inner child in us. As a result, this inner child will rear its head whenever similar triggers appear in the present. The inner child has to be healed to put to rest the hurts experienced in the past.

d. Schema therapy

This technique identifies life traps accumulated along life’s journey. With the therapist ‘speaking up’ for the client and ‘standing up’ to the perpetrators in a safe environment, clients felt heard and opinions expressed. This is done without involving the people concerned and using visualization to invoke past scenes.

3. Letting go

Inevitably, resolving anger may result in forgiveness of self as the victim as well as the perpetrator(s). The forgiveness referred to here is not forced. A research study conducted by Hirsch (2012) found that forgiveness of self helps in ameliorating inward and outward anger and also suicidal behaviour. Forgiving others may be helpful, but of equal importance is to forgive yourself. To some people, it might be easier to forgive others than self. That is when therapy comes in helpful to disentangle and let go of the string that still binds and suffocates you.

In the RENEW program, you will be guided systematically on how to forgive yourself and your perpetrator(s), empowering you to let go of the past hurts and attaining peace with yourself.

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Resolving anger starts by identifying the roots of your past pains and hurts. With the use of appropriate therapeutic techniques in the RENEW program, anger can be resolved and desensitized. You will learn to forgive others and yourself and start to live a life free of pain, guilt, and shame.

Anger can be overcome, not just controlled. Begin to free yourself from this long-term pain by seeking the right treatment.

Your life can be renewed.

Book Recommendations

1. Angry Men and The Women Who Love Them by Paul Hegstrom

2. Anger by William Gray

3. Boiling Point by David Stoop

4. Capture by David A Kessler, M.D.

5. Forgiving What You’ll Never Forget by Dr. David Stoop

6. Healing the Angry Brain by Ronald Potter-Efro

7. How to Forgive When You Don’t Feel Like It by June Hunt

8. How to Really Love Your Angry Child by D. Ross Campbell, M.D.

9. How To Really Love Your Teen by D. Ross Campbell

10. The Anger Solution by John Lee

11. The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, PH.D.

References:

Hirsch, J.K., Webb, J.R., & Jeglic, E.L. (2012). Forgiveness as a moderator of the association between anger expression and suicidal behaviour. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 15, 279 - 300.

Suls, J. (2013). Anger and the heart: perspectives on cardiac risk, mechanisms and interventions. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 55 6, 538-47.

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