“Anger:  The Challenge” (Part 4 of 4)
        “But I'm too stressed out to control my anger."
With that frank admission the man (let’s arbitrarily call him Tom) acknowledged his struggle with the Anger Beast. His negative environment at work and his family problems at home were definitely not cooperating well with him. As Tom described the multiple mistakes he had made and the miserable messes he was experiencing, I could see how his inner stress was at a high level. To make matters worse his descriptions reflected a style of self-talk that was igniting his inner stress into major anger explosions or “Tom Tantrums.” I could easily see why he was ready to learn how to manage the Anger Beast. 
Tom’s story is certainly not unusual. Stress overload or unmanaged stress presents a huge challenge to effective anger management. As we combine our stress with a certain type of unhealthy thinking (or self-talk), we compound the problem that confronts and challenges us. Let’s explore this important connection between our levels of stress and our styles of self-talk, along with the equation they create for the development of anger issues.
The Stress and Anger Equation

The expression of anger is usually related to the amount of stress we’re experiencing internally. If our inner stress level is high, meaning that we are very tense and tight, we’re much more likely to explode with anger than if our inner stress level is low. As an illustration, picture in your mind a red two-gallon gas can, a container commonly used for storing and transporting gasoline. What difference would we see in an explosion if the can contained one pint of gas in contrast to two gallons? Logically, the size of the explosion is in proportion to the amount of fuel in the can. Similarly, our anger explosion is also in proportion to the immediate event plus the amount of fuel (that is, stress) that is currently contained in our inner “gas can.” If we allow our inner stress can (or gas can) to get filled up and then we get angry about something, the resulting explosion could be fueled by everything in the can. This process may explain why someone’s anger outburst seems to be so out-of-proportion to the precipitating event. It’s like “the whole can blew up” in the anger explosion!
I recall talking once with a professional man (let’s refer to him as Sam) who struggled with anger outbursts at home with his wife and children. Sam’s personal assessment of his lifestyle revealed a pattern of continuing stress build-up throughout the day. He would attend a work meeting in which he put some stress/tension in his “can.” Then he would go straight into another meeting or conference in which additional stress/tension went into the “can.” On and on throughout the day Sam kept adding stress/tension to his “can” so that, by the time he left work to go home, his “can” was brimming full and was just looking for a place to explode. Predictably, his wife and children would say or do something that was a bit aggravating or frustrating to him, and he would trigger the anger and the entire “gas can” would blow up in the resulting explosion!
Here’s an important question to consider. Did the stress that had been stored up in Sam’s “can” blow up or explode all by itself? Or was something else involved? Let’s go back to the gas can idea. Suppose that I do have a literal gas can that contains one or two or even five gallons of gas. I pick up the can and walk around with it. I set the can on my lap while I rest in a chair. Will the gas automatically explode on its own? Probably not, even though it is a flammable liquid. The gas possesses the potential for an explosion, but something else is involved. But what?
Keep the gas can picture in your mind while you consider another idea. Suppose I give you a box of matchsticks and ask you to hold them for a while. Each match has the potential of starting a fire or creating an explosion. However, if you do not strike the match, then nothing happens. You could even strike the match and, while holding it carefully, watch as it burns all the way down to your fingers. Again, nothing bad happens (unless you let it burn your fingers). The match, even the struck match, does not itself do any real damage, even though it has potential for great damage.

Okay, now place the match near the gas can and strike the match. What will happen? In all likelihood you’ll be part of an explosion you just ignited, an experience you really don’t need to have. What caused the explosion—the match or the gas? Actually, the explosion results from neither one by itself but by the combination of both the match and the gas. When we join fuel with an igniter (the match) we’re heading toward an explosive disaster. 
How does the “gas and matchstick” example relate to anger management? Here’s how. Stress itself does not and cannot directly cause anger; it is just stress or tension. The potential is there but by itself no anger outburst occurs. If stress automatically and directly causes anger, then every human being who is stressed out would be having anger explosions. However, we realize that many people experience severe personal stress but they do not have anger outbursts. Clearly, something more than stress or tension is involved in the anger equation.
That something else is a trigger thought that becomes the matchstick that ignites the stress stored in our “gas can.” Specifically, the trigger thought is the same as the “B” in the “A-B-C Model.” When an event occurs, we process the raw data and assign a meaning of “unfairness” (or the equivalent) to the event. As a result of that particular meaning we become angry. The size of the anger reaction is usually related to the amount of unfairness we assign and to the amount of stress (or “gas”) we’ve stored up in our inner stress can. If the can is full when the anger occurs, the entire can could be ignited, causing a huge anger explosion. The connection is obvious:  the fuller the can the bigger the explosion. The resulting equation could be:  Stress + Trigger Thought = Anger Explosion.

The Management of Stress and Self-talk

To practice effective anger management we need to work toward the reduction of inner stress and the prevention of trigger thoughts. For most people these two efforts are difficult and challenging; understandably, they merit further consideration.
(l)  Emptying the stress can . . .
First, we need to keep our inner “stress can” as empty as possible so that, if anger is generated, the size of the total explosion will be limited. Ideally, we would do well to release our inner tension periodically throughout the day to prevent a build-up that could provide fuel for an anger explosion later in the day. Each person needs to develop and use a process for releasing the tension in ways that are appropriate and workable. This process must not harm other people or interfere with them in negative ways. Let’s recall Sam, the professional man described earlier. As a result of an assessment of his tension-building tendencies throughout his workday, Sam decided to experiment with a variety of tension-releasing techniques. He gave himself permission to take several “mini-breaks” at work during which he would assess his current level of tension on a 1-to-10 scale (10 being extremely high). If the tension appeared to be at a moderate or high level, he would use a brief version of a relaxation program he was learning to reduce the tension to a lower level. He determined to leave his work at the office and refused to take his briefcase (and the unfinished projects) home with him. Additionally, he discussed the tension issue with his wife and children and negotiated an agreement in which he would take about fifteen minutes to “wind down” upon his arrival home after work. For him a long shower was a marvelous tension-releasing and self-soothing solution. After his shower and a change of clothing into something comfortable he was less tense and more relaxed; as a result, he was less angry and better equipped for positive interaction with his family. Sam learned how to empty his stress can and, to everyone’s benefit, he began to practice effective anger management.
Your circumstances, including work and home, may be different from Sam’s situation. Thus, you may need to be creative and experimental about possible solutions that could work for you as you try to empty out your stress can or strive to prevent additional stress build-up. Techniques could include physical exercise (like walking, jogging, hitting a punching bag, doing yard work) or relaxing activities (like television, video games, naps, and reading). Other useful ideas can be found in books written specifically on Stress Management or on Relaxation Skills.
(2) Eliminating trigger thoughts . . .

Secondly, we need to learn and practice the skill of healthy “self-talk” that will eliminate trigger thoughts or “igniters” that combine with the stress or tension to cause major anger explosions. The trigger thoughts pose the main threat; eliminate those thoughts and the explosion does not occur. We need to identify the most common thoughts or beliefs we have that become our trigger thoughts. Then we revise them into alternative thoughts or beliefs that do not pose a threat to us. This revision process is the same as changing the meaning (or the “B”) in the “A-B-C Model” discussed earlier, and it is similar to the revision of our belief system explored in Part 2 in regard to button-pushing. 
The success we achieve in reducing our inner stress (or tension) and in preventing trigger thoughts will bring about an overall decrease in the frequency, intensity, and duration of our anger experiences. That decrease is good news for us individually and for our relationships.

How to Lengthen our Anger Fuse

The amount of inner stress we’re experiencing can also affect the length of our “anger fuse.” In regard to anger we often hear the phrases “short fuse” and “long fuse,” referring to how quickly or how slowly an individual gets angry. The “A-B-C” model requires some amount of time for thinking through a situation (the “A” or event) before making a final conclusion and assigning a meaning (or “B”) to the event. In other words, we need to buy ourselves some processing time. When we have a “short fuse” and get angry very quickly, we thwart and hinder that process. So a great question is, “How can I lengthen my anger fuse?”
First, consider the opposite purpose. Suppose that I want to shorten my anger fuse as much as possible. (Work with me, please; just ignore my reason for wanting to do such a thing.) How would I accomplish that goal? Here are a few things I would do. I would deliberately become sleep deprived, knowing that insufficient sleep will increase my overall irritability. I would mess up my eating patterns and nutritional intake, thereby upsetting my blood sugar levels. I would purposely stop all physical exercise and all medications I might be taking for mood/anger management. These actions would no doubt increase my “I.Q”—referring not to my Intelligence Quotient but rather my Irritability Quotient! Furthermore, I would also try to label as many people and events as “unfair” as fast as I could, thus creating more potential for anger. I would try to use the word “should” as often as possible, make constant demands on others, and frequently jump to conclusions that everyone around me has negative intentions toward me. These efforts would definitely shorten my personal fuse, and, as a result,  I would tend to detonate my anger with the least bit of provocation.
Now consider the opposite goal. If I want to lengthen my anger fuse, I would do just the opposite of the things already identified. I would make sure I get adequate sleep and rest; I would eat regularly and nutritiously; I would exercise in a healthy manner. Furthermore, I would work hard to think in healthy ways, that is, using “could” instead of “should,” stating preferences rather than making demands, and clarifying other people’s intentions before jumping to negative conclusion about them. I would continue to take the medications that have been providing benefit to me. The predicted result?—a longer fuse! The lengthened fuse buys me the time I need for considering the event in question in terms of alternate meanings or interpretations. The use of a “long fuse” is definitely a useful tool that will help me to prevent unnecessary anger explosions and thereby protect myself and my relationships.
Concluding thoughts . . .

Sometimes people working on their anger management will inquire about the role of medication. “Is there a pill that will make my anger go away?” There is no magical medication that will do all of your anger management for you, assuming that you don’t want to be medicated into some type of zombie-state. You may want to discuss the potential benefit of medication with your Primary Care Physician. He may be willing to prescribe a medication designed to “take the edge off” of the anger or to help you stay more relaxed or calm. Some people use medication for a limited time during which they are learning to use other anger management tools. Once those tools are learned and are being used effectively, the medication probably can be decreased or discontinued.
Many people actually feel overwhelmed by their anger problems. The good news is that there are answers for anger. In this article and in the preceding three articles (Parts 1-4) we have explored four key elements in the anger management process: cost, choice, change, challenge. The cost of unmanaged anger is too high for us to be willing to pay. Thankfully, we have workable options simply because anger is a personal choice. We can choose whether or not to get angry. Because of that fact we possess the potential and we command the capability for making significant positive change, primarily by changing our beliefs that are related to the generation of anger.  Finally, we can learn how to deal effectively with the challenge of stress build-up and the associated problem of trigger thoughts. All in all, there is optimism and hope for anyone who has been struggling with and suffering from unmanaged anger. The Anger Beast is controllable and conquerable. The work involved in the conquest of the Anger Beast may seem intensive but the ultimate victory makes the effort indeed worthwhile.
I appreciate your desire to learn more about Anger Management. I wish you the best as you work at managing your personal anger.
And, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.
Note:  There are other resources about Anger Management available on this website. One related blog published during 2010 is entitled “Traveling the Tension Highway.” Our ability to manage our personal tension will help us grow in our effectiveness to manage our anger. This blog can be located in the Blogs section or just click here.
The effective management of anger and tension involves the usage of relaxation skills. Dr. Baker has made available on this website his relaxation program called “Your Relaxation Journey.” The audio program can be located in Audio Travel Guides. You can access the Audio Travel Guides by going to Home/Resources/ListofCategories/AudioTravelGuides, or just click here.
Also, if you’re looking for good books that deal with anger, check out the list of books under Home/Resources/ListofCategories/AngerManagement, or just click here.

VIDEO:  To see a three-minute television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses the taming of the Anger Beast, please click on the image to the right, or simply click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


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