When it comes to anger, people have got a bunch of different flavors: mad, frustrated, ticked-off, peeved, annoyed, livid, irate, outraged, the list goes on.
But, what is anger, really?
Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of, "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction," views anger as, "the emotional energy within each of us that rises up when something needs to change."
The real problem lies in identifying what it is that needs changing.
This can present caregivers with a difficult conundrum. If your mother irritates you because her Alzheimer's is causing her to constantly complain, how can you change that? Your mom's your mom. She's acting the way that she is—in part—because of her incurable cognitive issues.
Since you obviously can't change your mom, what can you change? How do you make this difficult situation a bit more bearable?
The one thing you can always change—no matter the circumstances—is yourself.
Discovering how you interpret frustrating situations and express your rage can help you learn how to handle your anger more effectively.
What's your favorite flavor?
Knowing which flavor of anger is your go-to favorite can help you manage your response to frustrating situations:
- Reactive Rocky Road: Someone cuts you off on the highway while you're driving your loved one to their doctor's appointment and you simply cannot resist the urge to pound your horn and scream in the general direction of their vehicle. If you identify with this situation, you probably have what nationally-renowned relationship advice expert and author, April Masini, calls a "quick fuse" anger style. Frustrating experiences generally cause you to have an immediate, visceral reaction that generally involves yelling and slamming whatever door is closest to you. The problem with this form of fury is that it can make you act like a bully and, once you cool off, an out-of-control outburst has a tendency to bring on intense feelings of guilt. Masini says, "People with an inability to control their impulses will act without processing their thoughts. These are the folks who get into fights quickly." Unfortunately, this usually means that other people will avoid interacting with you for fear that you'll explode on them. Also, research has shown that people who display a reactive anger style are more prone to developing problems like heart disease.
- Volcanic Vanilla Bean: You keep turning the other cheek. Your Alzheimer's-stricken husband greeted you this morning with, "Who are you?" You found out your brother-in-law has been writing checks to himself from your husband's bank account. The pharmacist gave you the wrong prescription for your blood pressure medication. Up until now, you've buried your frustration, remained calm and taken everything in stride. But it's too much—you explode. You berate the pharmacist for being incompetent and not being able to do their job right. Masini likens this anger style to a volcano: there's an extended period of dormancy followed by a catastrophic explosion. People prone to this style aren't properly processing their anger. "Getting angry is normal," she says, "Holding it in until you explode is not productive."
- Passive Aggressive Peanut Butter Cup: Your sister bails on a rare offer to take care of mom for a few hours so you can go to the doctor and get some errands done. You tell her that it's fine—you didn't really need that checkup. The next time you see her she asks how mom is doing and you respond, "She's doing fine—for a woman who's family doesn't care about her." This passive-aggressive way of displaying your displeasure at your sister's inconsideration likely means that when you get angry, you pretend like everything is alright while engaging in subtle behaviors that indicate your anger. You may give the offending party the silent treatment or dole out backhanded compliments with a smile on your face. The problem with being passive aggressive is that it can cause you to hang on to your anger for a very long time. Holding on to anger and resentment for too long can cause a host of mental issues including depression and feelings of helplessness.
- Projecting Peaches and Cream: Your mother yells at you for overcooking her dinner. A minute later, you yell at the cat when he gets under your feet. This means that you may cope with anger by projecting it onto other people, pets and things. Masini says that people who project often do so because they are afraid of expressing themselves to whoever is angering them. Instead of risking your relationship with your mother, you focus your fury on a, "safer object," such as your cat. Projecting can severely damage your relationship with whomever you're off-loading your anger onto, and can also lead to a hefty amount of post-outburst guilt on your part.
Put your anger on a diet
Do you identify with at least one the anger types listed above?
If you can, then in the tradition of "eat this, not that" diet advice columns, here are a few relationship-friendly flavors of anger management for you to try:
- Count-To-Ten Cake Batter: It's a bit of a cliché, but there's a reason why counting to ten when you're angry is an oft-touted anger management strategy—it works. Masini says you can take this method a step further by removing yourself from the room or building where you're getting angry whenever possible. This tactic is particularly useful for those people who are prone to explosive episodes of anger.
- Direct Dark Chocolate: It's okay to admit your anger or frustration with a person's behavior, or a particular situation—as long as you do so in a relatively calm, direct manner. Tessina says that one of the best ways to express anger is to do so, "clearly and cleanly, without too much drama." This will be difficult, especially in the beginning. But with practice, you can develop the mental skills necessary to recognize, control, interpret and communicate your anger in a productive manner.
- Red Raspberry Rewind: To help you practice responding to frustrating situations, Tessina suggests going through an exercise called, "Rewinding the Tape."
- Envision a time when you got angry in the past. Picture all the details in your mind's eye. Where is it taking place? What are people wearing?
- Treat the scene like a video tape—let it play out once without trying to change anything. Simply observe how the events unfold.
- Think about what you would like to change about how the event played out. How might you respond differently to the situation to make it better? Tessina says that, in this step, it's important to remember that the only person you can ever really control is yourself.
- Re-play the successful mental version of the encounter in your mind over and over until you feel as though you could do and say what you are envisioning in real life.
According to Tessina the more you mentally rehearse yourself positively responding to anger and frustration, the more likely you will be able to productively handle such situations in the future. She also encourages people to use the technique to prepare in advance for a situation that has the potential to become frustrating or tense.
The more adept you become at controlling your anger, the more fulfilling your relationships will be. As Tessina points out, "Keeping your cool is a very important social skill. It doesn't matter who's right, who started it, or whether it's fair. He (or she) who ‘loses it' to win an argument actually loses everything instead."