“Sticks and stones may break our bones…”
There are so many possible ways to address the use of angry words with one another. In family therapy and in couples therapy, clients are encouraged to be attentive to their communication with one another to prevent the harm of angry words. Clients discuss potential causes of anger such as: a child being disobedient or rebellious, a child acting disrespectful or not listening, a coworker we feel was rude to us, a spouse does not complete a task we requested, a spouse feels unheard or undervalued, or perhaps we misunderstood a message our spouse, friend or coworker was trying to send us. Regardless of the scenario, the end result is suddenly angry words are flying out of our mouths intended to cut the other person down and convey our wrath. These words usually involve criticism or accusation statements and because we are so tuned into our own emotional response to the trigger, we are blind to the damage our words do to the one we use them against.
Anger can be an instant response to the immediate situation whether frustration, betrayal, or feeling disrespected, or anger can be the result of built-up frustration over time where feelings were stuffed down and eventually spilled out. In today’s social and economic climate, stress levels are high, and tempers are shorter. Unfortunately, this makes emotional regulation and taming the tongue more integral individually as well as within the family. Recognizing signs of anger is a great step toward preventing those words, learning, and implementing anger management techniques is equally as helpful, but it is also necessary to recognize how and when to make repairs for the words we do say when angry.
In couples counseling I was introduced to the concept of flooding. In counseling terms, according to Gottman and Gottman (2016), flooding is also called diffuse physiological arousal. This is the physical reaction to anger that occurs within the body. The effects of emotions are systemic within the body. In anger, we note that our body, and particularly our face becomes flushed with heat and others may notice our face turns red. We may also notice our breathing rate begins to increase. We can go into almost a tunnel vision depending on the level of anger we are experiencing, and we may feel as if our heart is beating faster. Some clients describe these symptoms as “my blood feels like it is boiling” or “my heart feels like it is about to burst, and my chest feels tight.”
My personal experiences with anger include what I have listed above. However, I have also noted that the anger emotion then begins to affect my ability to think rationally and logically about circumstances and depending on the level of anger I am experiencing, I may recall other instances of problems and conflicts that were never resolved which will then fuel my anger to greater heights. In counseling, particularly couples counseling, this can be referred to as the resentment or conflict bank. Deposits of unresolved conflict are made, and these same unresolved issues are withdrawn to be brought into a current argument. Unfortunately, this results in losing sight of the issue that originated the fight and so all the unresolved conflicts are re-deposited into the bank and no resolution is reached because emotions are running too high.
Many strides are being made in the discipline of neuroscience as it relates to counseling, but one of the major breakthroughs discovered in neuroscience related to trauma and anger is the involvement of the fight or flight response. Blair (2012) describes anger in response to threat as involving these structures and the fight or flight system and compares this threat response to responses found in those who suffer from PTSD. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk’s study using functional MRI’s (fMRI) also revealed that threat responses also result in deactivation—or decreased blood flow—to one half of the brain. Van der Kolk explains that the right brain is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual where the left brain is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. Normally, the two halves of the brain work together but the threat response is shown to deactivate the left-brain hemisphere there by decreasing the ability to logically consider and work through a problem. Becoming aware of the flooding sensation within the body allows us to then mindfully take action to calm the physical response and bring the logical and analytical side of our minds back online.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage anger, thus preventing the angry and hurtful words. Step one involves recognizing the physical response occurring within the body. This recognition is helpful as it then signals the need to take a timeout. Our suggestion is to remove yourself from the situation or stimulus to the anger and find a quiet space where you can begin the process of calming the physiological arousal. Some suggestions include taking deep calming breaths, listening to music, writing in a journal, dancing it out, or eating a piece of chocolate. Whatever the decision to calm the arousal, work to not think about the source of the anger while you work to calm your physical response. If, however, you find your mind has traveled back to what initially angered you, do not beat yourself up for the slip. Acknowledge the thought and intentionally return your mind to the calming activity.
Another way to manage anger, after calming the physical response, is to consider and implement possible solutions to the issue that caused the anger. In counseling we frequently ask clients to consider the issues and actions they can control and what is out of their control. Internal and external control is also applicable in identifying and considering solutions to the issue(s) we are dealing with. An example of this is to close the door to a messy area that we find irritates us. If as we consider control factors, we draw the conclusion that the situation does not have elements that we can control then we attempt to accept the situation as is and if possible, remove ourselves from the stimulus causing the anger.
Recognizing the physical change in the body in reaction to flooding is one of the most important factors to controlling angry words. Mindfulness and intentionality are key to learning to recognize and implement steps to control our reactions. These anger management tips are often the most underutilized and the unfortunate result of them is that we explode on others around us spewing forth words intent on demolishing our target to hurt them as we hurt. Examples of angry words include: “you’re the reason…” “you always…” “you never” even “you’re so stupid.” In the heat of the moment, we feel justified by our level of frustration to make these comments. What we do not see is how our words affect the receiver and their personal narrative.