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How David Learned To Manage Anger

The most common problem my clients seek help for is anxiety, but anxiety is not the only emotional response to stress, and not the only problem my Stress Resilient Mind programme (using biofeedback and mindfulness to build resilience skills) can help. Another big area is anger management.

David, not his real name, was a thirty-three year old sales manager, doing well in his career, and with a new wife and baby, on the face of it life was looking rosy. But David came to see me about his anger problem. David had always been emotional, volatile even, and with the pressure he was under he was worried his quick temper was going to wreck things. His wife had told him in no uncertain terms that things needed to change.

At work David's temper had come close to ruining the high regard that his bosses had for him. At home, minor disagreements could quickly turn into short but explosive exchanges, that would leave David feeling a toxic mixture of guilt, shame and smouldering resentment. The real problem was David would get stuck in these after-effects for literally days, during which time he would be sullen and withdrawn.

In cases of anger and irritability it's very difficult to prevent the initial sparks of emotion from arising. Instead our first target was to work on David's ability to let go of post-row emotional cocktail. In the process of teaching skills that would help roll back the recovery time, I figured we'd probably change David's threshold for losing control of himself.

I saw that David's coping strategy involved being very harsh on himself, inwardly at least, creating a lot of guilt and shame. This is rather common – it's as though by punishing yourself you'll teach yourself not to let it happen again. Unfortunately, when it comes to controlling emotions, it usually doesn't work, and in fact can set you up for further volatility. Research shows that self-forgiveness is much more effective – which is not the same as letting yourself off completely, because David was able to reframe his goal into one of learning the skills of letting go of emotions quickly and easily.

We speak of letting go of anger, and it's not an entirely metaphorical expression. Anger and resentment (as well as other forms of stress) manifest as muscle tightness. Using muscle tension biofeedback, David learned to recognise he was literally holding on to emotions, and from there it was relatively simple to learn to release. Most people can learn to release muscles easily enough, but the hard part is persistence – we need to let go again and again, because the memory of angry exchanges is likely to come back to mind again and again. (Certainly that's my own experience.)

For David, reframing the goal in terms of recovery, or resilience, was a radical step, because it meant that instead of punishing himself, he needed to learn to feel good instead, and particularly in the sense of calm, peaceful contentment. We used optimal breathing training for this step. Calm contentment is a powerful resource because it lowers your threshold for emotional meltdowns. For David it was a bit of a novel experience – he was more used to feeling good in the form of excitement and joy, for example through playing and winning at rugby.

The biofeedback techniques gave David a little more mental space and time, which opened up the opportunity for more cognitive techniques (such as cognitive defusion) to be useful. For example, David was now able to take the perspective of the other person in his disagreements – something his hot anger hadn't allowed him to do. Even if he didn't necessarily change his own view, he saw a bigger picture, and that helped him let go.

David made rapid progress, and later we worked on using the same mind-body skills to help with giving up smoking.

If you think my Stress Resilient Mind programme might help you, you're welcome to contact me for a free initial consultation.

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