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How to Chill Out
Toni Vaughn Heineman

Q: How do you recognize that you’ve got a problem with anger?

A: Figure out whether the intensity of your feeling matches the situation that’s making you mad. If someone is a little bit mean to you, and you want to kill them, that’s a problem. Or if someone is extremely mean to you, and you only feel a little bit mad, that’s also a problem. Your anger should match the situation.

The second step is identifying what you’re really upset about. If you’re driving and someone cuts you off, and you want to ram your car into the other car, you’re probably upset about something else. You need to figure out what that is.

Q: How does someone develop an anger problem?

A: Often the problem is that, early on, a child doesn’t learn that there can be different levels of anger. If the people around that child were brutally angry over something very small or nothing at all, like a mother beating a child over a few dollars, then a child learns that if there’s something to be angry about, the only option is to be furious. The child also learns that he can’t be angry at all in return, or that the anger has to be put on someone else, like a stranger.

Q: So what can you do when you get mad?

A: You want to figure out some ways to help yourself calm down before you decide to take any action. One way to stay calm is to ask yourself, “If I take this action (like punching someone), will it get me what I want?” You want to try to act in your own best interest. If you’re mouthing off to a cop, you might want to say, “Wait a minute, he has a baton and a gun. Maybe screaming at him is not in my best interest.”

Q: What are some ways to calm down?

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A: The best thing to do is get out of a situation, either physically or in your head. If you’re in an argument, you can try to say, “I’m feeling really angry. Can we talk later when I feel calmer?” You can leave, go for a walk and swear to yourself if you want, or go for a run and feel a little better.

You can also try putting things into words. Sometimes in therapy, my clients will come late to an appointment on purpose. That’s one way of expressing anger. A better way might be to come in and say, “I was thinking of coming late because I’m so mad at you.” Then we can talk about why you’re mad.

I don’t care how mad you are, you can’t hit. Just like there’s no excuse for domestic violence, there’s no excuse for hitting someone else.

Q: How can therapy or anger management help?

A: Often in your life, something goes wrong and you don’t even know why. In therapy, you can figure out that it’s a pattern. Even after you realize you get too angry too often, it’s hard to change. Eventually, though, you think, “I need to change something, because if I don’t, I’m going to keep doing it again, and it’s hurting me to keep doing this.” After that, instead of just acting on how you feel, you can recognize what’s going on and change the way you react.

It takes a lot of work, because you’re learning those coping skills late. When you’re little, you learn certain habits. Now you have to un-learn the bad ones and learn new ones. You have to say, “I have a problem, and there’s nothing I can do to change that my mother beat me and she shouldn’t have, or that someone hurt me and it was unfair. I can change the way I treat people, and I can try to put myself in situations with people who will treat me well.”

Q: What about when you can’t react to anger in a healthy way, like your staff won’t let you go out and take a walk or you can’t avoid someone who’s mean?

A: No one should have to bear the burden of someone else losing control. But in an impossible situation, the only way to reasonably deal with that is to try to be a Buddhist and just let it go. If you let other people’s unfair actions upset you, it’ll make you crazy. If you’re powerless, the only way to have power is to tune out, to daydream, to remove yourself from the situation in your own mind. Once they put you in an incredibly helpless situation and you lose control, they have the power.