Anger is one of the hardest emotions to deal with in recovery and can often be a factor that leads to relapse if left unchecked. What most people don’t realize is that anger is often what is referred to as a “secondary emotion” – it’s simply a reaction to another primary emotion. Looking at the chain of events that occurs when a person becomes angry can help in identifying the primary emotion that is being felt.
People usually become angry in response to some sort of threat. This threat can be toward the physical body (as in a fist fight), a threat to personal property (like in a car accident), a threat to self-esteem (name calling), a threat to beliefs or values (a difference of opinion in terms of what is right or just), or a threat of not getting what one wants.
Once a person has perceived a situation as a threat, the next event that occurs in the chain reaction of anger is the body’s physical response to the feeling of anger. Typical physical responses to anger include increased heart rate and blood pressure, a clenched jaw and/or fists, shortness or quickening of breath, and the face turning red.
The way in which the threatening event is interpreted leads to further feelings of anger. This stage of the anger chain consists of cognitive distortions that lead a person to jump to conclusions about a situation that can be inaccurate. For example, if someone were to bump into you at the grocery store, and you thought to yourself “Oh, he didn’t mean to do that, he accidentally bumped in to me,” you would not likely become angry. If you instead thought “That guy meant to bump into me, he clearly saw me standing here, and he is trying to start trouble,” your perception of the situation would then further your feelings of anger.
If anger is left unchecked, it is at this point that a person usually decides to act on their feelings of anger. Acting out behaviors can include name calling, physical altercations, yelling, threatening the other person, etc. In order for a person to successfully manage issues with anger, the chain of events must be broken before this stage is reached.
Finally, after the anger episode is over, the person has the opportunity to reflect on how the situation could have been handled differently. This is a key part of anger management, as this allows a person to come up with healthier alternatives to anger the next time a threat is perceived. The earlier the chain of events that occurs when a person becomes angry is broken, the easier it will be for the person to react differently and make a better choice. This is very important in recovery, as anger is a very common relapse trigger. If not managed in a healthy way, anger can tempt a person in recovery to alleviate these feelings by using drugs and alcohol.
Managing anger is a lot like creating a relapse prevention plan. The first step is to identify the triggers to anger, and work to uncover the true emotion that is hiding behind the mask of anger. Once the true emotion is identified, feelings of anger can be alleviated by focusing on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or even by doing something as simple as taking a walk or a hot shower. Managing anger in a healthy way can also help a person in recovery to communicate with others more effectively and develop patience and tolerance.
Jessica Parks is a certified alcohol and drug counselor in the state of Illinois and has her M.A. in art therapy counseling.Jessica Parks is a certified alcohol and drug counselor in the state of Illinois and has her M.A. in art therapy counseling.