Anger and Addiction: A Deadly Combination

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All of us have experienced anger at one time or another. In many ways, anger is unavoidable. Anger stems from unfulfilled or unmet expectations. If I’ve done a good job on a project at work, I may expect my boss to acknowledge and praise me for a job well done. If this does not happen, my unfulfilled expectation may leave me feeling angry. My anger may be directed towards my boss, my job or even myself. The anger may also be directed toward all three of these.

Any time there is a gap between our expectations and reality, we leave the door wide open to admit anger. However, once we recognize this anger, we are faced with a choice: do we accept or decline this anger?

Typically, we are inclined to see anger as immediate and ourselves as out of control. An alternative view is to see anger as energy that arises when our expectations conflict with reality.

Anger is not a comfortable emotion to experience, and recognizing when it occurs is key to every recovering addict. As addicts, we tend to want to numb these emotions by using drugs or alcohol. Short-term, this solution seems to work, but long-term, it solves nothing and only adds to the problem. The goal for addicts is to know how to deal with anger without turning to drugs or alcohol for relief.

Here are 4 steps to deal with anger without self-medicating.

1. Weigh your options.

The first step in dealing with anger is to recognize choice. There are a myriad of things we don’t control: the weather, the past, other people, intrusive thoughts, and physical sensations, even emotions. But there is something within these that we absolutely do control: our ability to choose. We choose what to do in response to the weather (get an umbrella!), what we learn from the past, how to respond to other people, and what we do in the context of intrusive thoughts, emotions and sensations. Importantly, we can choose whether to focus on the things we don’t control, or the things we do control. I suggest the latter.

A useful technique in recognizing such choice is a simple cost-benefit analysis. Envision someone who handles anger in a way that you respect and admire. Call him Mike. What words would you use to describe his style? Cool, calm, and collected? Easy-going? Assertive? Controlled? Accepting? Forgiving? Whatever word applies, write it down. But it has to be someone whose manner you respect and admire.

Afterwards, ask yourself four questions: What are the disadvantages or costs of anger? What are the advantages or benefits? Then ask: Do the benefits of anger outweigh the costs? Are they about equal? Or do the costs of anger outweigh the benefits?

2. Accept the circumstances.

We all have rules and expectations for our own and other people’s behavior. We even feel the weight of other people’s rules sometimes. The result of unmet expectations is anger, guilt, and pressure. We say things like the following: “She should listen to me,” “He should stay out of my way,” “I should have total control over this situation.” But the fact of the matter is that sometimes people don’t listen, they get in our way, and we don’t have the control we would like over the outcome of our actions.

As someone who loves to cook, nothing bothers me more than finding that my roommate has left a pile of dirty dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher. When I see the dirty dishes, I automatically think: “He shouldn’t have left this mess for someone else (me) to clean up.” Needless to say, this evokes some strong feelings of anger.

This is the stage where I realize my choice in handling the situation. I can choose to ignore the mess and hang on to my anger; choose to express my anger by throwing the dishes at my roommate (not recommended); or choose to accept that I ultimately cannot control what my roommate will do, talk to him and ask him to take care of his dirty dishes. By calmly discussing the problem with my roommate, I allow myself the opportunity to let go of the anger and seek a more productive solution.

3. Act according to your values.

Finally, we can act in the direction of our values. If you’re not sure what your values are, ask yourself these two questions: 1) What do I want in the long run? 2) What constructive steps can I take in that direction?

The fact of the matter is that people do ignore your wishes and intrude. What constructive actions can you take when that happens? You can continue to respect privacy, be truthful, fair, and principled in your interactions with others. In short, you can be part of the solution, not the problem.

From the above example it can clearly be seen that my roommate and I do not share the same values with regards to the dirty dishes. While it’s unlikely that I’ll change his values in this regard, I can handle the problem in a way that pays respect to my own values and seeks a solution that we can both live with. I have to accept the fact that my roommate may never change in this regard. Can I live with this fact or is this something that must be changed? Perhaps I need to find a new roommate or a new apartment. Regardless of my decision, the main point is that I need to find a solution that doesn’t keep me trapped in the feeling of anger.

4. Seek professional help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be an effective method of therapy for addiction and many other mental health issues. It provides insight into the reasons for the negative emotional states such as anxiety, depression and anger. It then provides the client with concrete actions that will retrain the thought-process to deal with these emotions in a more effective and healthy manner.

Typically, we are inclined to see anger as immediate and ourselves as out of control. An alternative view is to see anger as energy that arises when our expectations conflict with reality. It is energy to deal with this discrepancy. And our most important decision is what to do with this energy. Breaking anger into steps can enable us to recognize control, and give us more choices regarding both intervention and prevention.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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