I’ve been really paying attention lately to how arguments start.
I don’t mean the topic or the inciting words, though those certainly play a key role in when and how often two people fight. I’m particularly interested in discerning that moment, that exact point in any developing situation or conversation where it changes from a simple disagreement to a heated altercation.
In my own personal interactions, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the ‘point of no return’ occurs when one or both parties become angry. A button is pushed, the tone shifts and tempers flare.
It’s generally all down hill from there as harsh words are spoken, voices are raised, and accusations fly. Much time and energy is wasted on venting the anger and defending against the resulting storm, rather than on addressing the actual issue.
Before anger, an aware and connected couple can safely navigate even the most treacherous of topics and issues. But once anger is triggered, all the eye-gazing, hand-holding and non-violent communication in the world becomes about as effective as a fly swatter against a charging grizzly.
The emotion of anger is commonly referred to as a ‘secondary emotion’ because we tend to experience anger as a protective or reactive response to a more uncomfortable or overwhelming primary emotion, something such as shame, fear or pain. But many of us slip into anger before we even have a chance to identify or acknowledge our primary emotions, let alone address them coherently with our partners.
Anger, like fear, anxiety and trauma, also activates the fight-or-flight response in our sympathetic nervous system, and causes a series of physical reactions. Our breathing gets shallow and rapid; our heart rate increases; we get a feeling of being hot, particularly around the face or head; and we experience an increase in muscle tension in the upper body, neck and shoulders.
So how can we interrupt the escalation and take charge of anger before it consumes us, and give ourselves the opportunity to deal with our underlying feelings and needs?
Here are seven simple techniques you can use to interrupt your anger, and give yourself and your partner a ‘fighting’ chance at a more peaceful, and meaningful, resolution:
- Recognize, and accept, the feeling of anger. Pay attention to how your body reacts when in the grips of escalating anger. By simply recognizing that you are feeling irritation, frustration or mounting anger, you acknowledge what is happening, and give yourself an opportunity to de-escalate.
- Breathe. By taking a series of slow, deep, deliberate breaths, you can call off the fight or flight response before it takes hold.
- Cool Off. Literally. This is another physical method to calm the sympathetic nervous system. Try taking a cold shower or, if that’s impractical, splash a little cold water on your face, hands, and the back of your neck. Step outside if it’s cooler than where you are.
- Move Your Body. If practical, do some form of physical exercise to diffuse the effects of mounting anger. Even a few quick squats, pushups, or simply tensing and releasing your major muscle groups can help.
- Act quickly. If an irritating or frustrating situation arises, address it clearly and immediately before you have a chance to lose your cool. Don’t wait or allow the situation to fester.
- Redirect your brain. If you can identify situations ahead of time in which you typically lose your temper, you have an opportunity to script alternate responses that can disarm your anger response. For example, if you know that your partner’s habit of leaving dirty dishes out on the counter drives you crazy, have a mental list of your partner’s positive qualities and habits at the ready.
- Identify and acknowledge the triggering emotion. Once you’ve managed to interrupt or diffuse your anger, you’ll be able to more easily identify the underlying or triggering primary emotion (i.e. fear, sadness, shame) and take steps to address it.
We all get mad from time to time. Some explode and rage, while others quietly simmer. The key is to recognize your anger, and work to diffuse or disarm it before it has a chance to become a habitual response that can wreak havoc with your body and your relationships. Only then will you be able to identify the underlying emotions and issues that trigger your anger, and work to address and resolve them.