Controlling the Escalation of Anger

When anger goes out of control the consequences can be devastating and irreparable. When people have a destructive angry episode, there is a series of steps involved in the escalation of the interaction. We should aim to stop the escalation before it spirals completely out of control. We can learn to break into this chain of behavior at any point to prevent anger from reaching a destructive level, although the interventions are more effective at the earlier stages of the sequence.

First there is a triggering event. All of us have different events that can trigger anger, but in most cases the event is something that serves to make us feel threatened.

Next the event is interpreted. It is our interpretation of the event that can send us instantaneously into an angry state. If the event taps into our unresolved issues regarding rejection, humiliation or being controlled or abused, we are likely to interpret it as a threat. If we rely on rigid patterns of thinking involving “shoulds,” “musts” and “ought tos” we are likely to justify our anger. In order to break the chain of anger at this point we need to go immediately into a more flexible mode of thinking so that we can interpret the event in a positive light and with compassion.

Third, we quickly have a physical reaction to anger with a rush of adrenaline which causes stress, quick movements, fragmented thoughts, and a need to take action. To intervene at this point, we should breathe deeply, work on calming ourselves and refuse to take destructive action. If necessary, it may help to leave the situation entirely to calm down.

Then, we go into a stage of automatic negative thoughts
which increase our perception of being harmed and justify our physical reaction. These thoughts usually involve self-righteous beliefs and a desire for vengeance. There is often little logic associated with these thoughts. We engage in name-calling, threats to the other person, self-justifying statements, assumptions that we are being threatened, and catastrophizing. At this point, observe your thoughts and statements – and simply refuse to engage in this stage of the process. Breath deeply, count to ten and avoid saying anything inflammatory.

Examining our anger often means taking a journey into our past, into our inner lives. Our anger is a mirror of the injustices which have been committed against us in earlier years. It reflects our fears of vulnerability – our rejections, our invalidations. Coming to terms with anger means resolving these old issues and then facing life anew – with flexibility, compassion and true integrity.

In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.