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Mr Angry

30-11-2006

The Stirrer's psychologist Dr Mike Drayton opens his casebook to reveal a tale of everyday rage and offers a few tips on how you might avoid getting wound up yourself.

“There all the bloody same, aren't they? The bloody kids, the bloody teachers, the bloody management and the bloody government. They're all a bunch of prats”. Steve was probably the angriest and most irritable man I have met in a long time. Steve is a teacher who had “had a go” at one of his colleagues for ignoring an infringement of the school rules by a pupil. Steve had been sent to me for help with his anger, by his head teacher, who was very concerned about his behaviour.

People are generally becoming more angry irritable and intolerant of each other. In fact, later this week I am heading to Nottingham to do a training day for GPs on how to best help the angry guilty or ashamed patient (yes, I know it sounds like the title of a Woody Allen film).

What was it that made Steve so angry? Was it the teachers, pupils or management? No, what made Steve angry is himself and the way he sees the world. What makes you angry isn't other people or the world. It's yourself and your beliefs. For example, Steve had a strongly held belief that was something like, “if you break a rule you should be punished”. He felt this was true, regardless of the importance of the rule. This gained him the nickname of Meldrew amongst his colleagues and indeed he would be frequently heard to say, “I don't believe it”. This, and other beliefs he held (his “principles”) led him to feel irritable and angry much of the time.

Of course, anger can be healthy as well as unhealthy. It can be a great motivator for change. Apartheid would still be in force in South Africa if Nelson Mandela had not felt angry about it. However, it can also kill, not only the victims of angry people, but the angry person themselves. Repeated studies have found that expressively angry individuals (type A personalities) are up to 5 times more likely to have serious cardio-vascular problems than more relaxed and stoical people (Type B personalities). Not to mention the destructive impact of anger on the family and society.

So, how can we better understand the process of anger and violence? There are at least five stages between something happening and an angry or violent response.

The first of these is the trigger, or the event that provokes an angry feeling. Triggers can be minor irritations, like traffic jams, costs like losing a wallet or transgressions where another person is perceived as putting you down in some way, like getting cut up when driving.

The second stage is the persons perception or belief about the triggering situation. If like Steve, you hold the belief that “people have to obey all rules and be considerate”, then if someone cuts you up in the car then you might feel furious. If you hold the belief, “we all make mistakes and no-one is perfect” then you might say “Oh well” and not be particularly bothered.

Depending on what your belief about the triggering event is, you might experience strong feelings of anger. Whether those feelings get acted out in behaviour depends on the next stage.

We all feel angry from time to time. The thing that stops us thumping someone when we are angry are our inhibitions or brakes. These take two forms, internal (violence is wrong”) and external (“I'd like to smack him but if I do I might get caught and go to prison”). These inhibit the expression of the anger because we start to think of the consequences of any violent behaviour.

There you have it, understanding anger for dummies (no offence of course - I don't want anyone getting angry with me!).

So what can you do if your anger has got you into bother in the past? Well here are a couple of simple techniques.

The Red Traffic Light technique. What would happen if you went through a red traffic light? An accident probably and lots of hassle. Most of us know this really well and stop when we see a red light. So try to associate in your mind, the feeling of mounting anger or irritability with the image of a red traffic light. When you see the red traffic light stop immediately, shut your mouth and only proceed, with caution, when you have calmed down.

Triangular breathing: If you are starting to feel wound up, take a minute and:

1. Breathe in.
2. Hold your breath for about three seconds
3. Exhale as slowly as you can
4. Repeat three times.

This works. It is almost impossible to feel angry if your breathing is slow and calm.

While you are doing this try thinking, “Does this really matter? How important will it be in one/five/or ten years time?”.

Of course, none of this applies to football where absolutely murderous rage towards the other side is not only completely justified but positively welcomed.

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