It may seem as though everyone around you has got a short fuse these days — maybe even you. A Northern Virginia psychiatrist says you’re not imagining things, and she has some tips to help manage anger.
“It does seem that people are more irritable or prone to anger,” says Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.
“When we’re looking at this current climate — lingering effects of the pandemic, ongoing stressful events that we hear about on a regular basis — there are some reasons why we would be seeing that more people are either angry or prone to anger.”
Why People Get Angry
The first thing to understand, she says, is: “Anger in general is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a feeling; it’s an emotion, just like happiness or sadness. It serves the purpose of protecting boundaries and protecting against injury. But when it’s persistent, and when it leads to aggression, or continued anger and irritability, that’s where we get into issues.”
Anger happens for a reason, “whether it’s valid or not,” she says, and two of the big ones are stress and uncertainty.
When you feel anger coming on, Patton-Smith says, “Stop; take a break, and try to remove yourself from a situation that is either making you angry, or [when] you see someone who is angry.
“Trying to take a break or take some calming breaths can really reset things so that the portion of the brain that we want to react is able to appropriately react.”
She adds that she understands that “is something that is not easy.” Like most skills, anger management is not something you can just pick up when you need it, she says.
By the time someone is angry, “they’re using the emotional part of their brain — the amygdala, the hippocampus. They’re using that fight-or-flight [instinct]. It is not that front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, where we’re doing our executive functioning and are able to really stop before we act.”
Meditation as an Anger Management Technique
Patton-Smith suggests meditation to calm the brain and body: “Practicing, when you’re not angry, how to be in a more balanced, calm state can help significantly in slowly changing that pattern of behavior or that reaction to stress and or uncertainty.”
That’s hard to do if you’re already angry and haven’t practiced at all, “but when you are feeling somewhat uneasy … some cleansing breaths, just to reset, or some time to think about something positive and remove yourself from all other thoughts, is a way to kind of clue back into your body and help your brain begin to say, ‘OK, things are OK; we don’t have to react.’ It’s not something that can just happen right away. Just like if I wanted to go out and run a marathon today, and I’m not a runner of a marathon, I won’t be successful in that.”
Anger Management Advice for Parents and Kids
Kids have a hard enough time controlling their emotions, and Patton-Smith has specific advice for them, as well as parents.
Parents “have to be the example,” Patton-Smith says. “If they’re angry, and showing a lot of emotion, kids are seeing that. And so parents have to model behavior that is appropriate and positive.”
She says it’s important to label your feelings, adding that even adults find this difficult sometimes. “Talk about how to verbalize when you are feeling angry, or frustrated, or depressed.”
Patton-Smith says that she sometimes works with kids who are clearly angry who immediately deny it “because especially kids, they know, ‘I’m not supposed to be angry.’ But when they take a break and kind of think about what they’re feeling, usually there’s some sort of reason why they’re why they are stressed.”
That’s the first step to connecting situations with emotions, Patton-Smith says, and that’s how a child — or an adult, for that matter — can start to either avoid a particular situation or figure out in advance how to deal with it in a more productive way the next time it arises.
Reduce Uncertainty by Creating Structure
Patton-Smith has additional advice for parents trying to curb angry outbursts by their children: “It’s helpful to set some sort of structure,” she says. “If we have a household or work situation, or school situation, that just seems kind of uncertain with no kind of stop or start, that can increase anxiety and precipitate the brain telling us something’s a little off here. It can also cause angry outbursts.”
House rules such as bedtimes, meal times, exercise times, and more “are very helpful in just overall regulation,” Patton-Smith says, and that can help “decrease some of those wide shifts in responses. If I’m sleeping well, and I’m eating well, and I’m exercising, I may not react as wildly as I would if I’ve had no sleep, or if I’m deprived of glucose because I haven’t eaten in a while.”
She also advises creating a culture of looking at things in an empathetic way: “Try to get the person that got angry, once they come to, ask ‘How would you respond if this thing happened to you?’”
But again, the key with anger management is to think ahead: “Typically, when someone is angry, or in an episode, there are many things that have happened to cause that along the way that were either unrecognized, or there wasn’t the ability to help de-escalate the situation.”
Feature image, stock.adobe.com
For more health news, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine’s Health newsletter.