Anger and Stress Management Tips for Satisfying Relationships by Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

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Have you ever been annoyed and frustrated that everything you learned and practiced about managing your emotions failed you at the crucial moment?

It’s so disappointing when you have been to an anger management class, or spent time and money on CD’s, DVD’s and or coaches to help you master those intense feelings, only to find that you can’t access that learning when you need it the most.

That’s what happened to thirty-six-year-old Hugh a film distributor over and over again when he was out in public with his thirty-four-year old second wife June, a publicist. He was very much in love with June who was beautiful, smart and caring – so different to his first wife who only seemed interested in material things and never made him feel good as a person. Yet, at one of the many parties they attending, when June didn’t go to his side the minute he called her, he felt the blood rush to his head and an irritated voice coming out of him – getting angrier and angrier with each demand he made.

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He ‘knew’ she was just mingling and playing the crowds, but something inside him overrode that information, and he became belligerent.

His stress levels were through the roof and he couldn’t just stand there and wait. He pulled her away from the people she was with, castigating her for not obeying him as she should. June was mortified and made him sleep on the sofa. She didn’t speak to him the next day, and Hugh was left ashamed and scared that he might lose this wonderful woman.

Aware of his quick temper when he didn’t get an immediate response from her, June encouraged her husband to attend anger management classes.

She also bought him the latest expert DVD’s on handling anger productively. Hugh wasn’t keen, but he knew he had to do something drastic to make sure his life and his relationship didn’t go south. He learned some useful strategies in his 12 week class, and thought he had it licked. He’d practiced the skills in class and rehearsed them when he was out on the road, but somehow the emotional aroused in him when he didn’t get June’s attention immediately, just overcame all his learning and hickjacked him. The anger burst out, even though a couple of minutes later, he apologized and said he ‘knew’ he should have given her a signal that he was feeling insecure.

Topping up the classes with the CD’s made Hugh feel like he got a second chance, and this time he was going to conquer his angry outbursts. But despite his perfectly learned signals, breathing exercises and words to say how he felt instead of exploding, the anger erupted, as if against his will.

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Unbelievably anxious and frustrated that his genuine efforts at anger management were fruitless, he started to beat himself up

He got very concerned that June’s patience would run out, leaving him alone and unhappy. Hugh tried to beat himself up into being a calmer guy around June, until he realized he needed professional help. He first tried a life coach and the personal touch made things a lot better. He got to call the coach when he thought he would explode and get taken to a safer emotional place. After nine months, he ended the contract, believing he was cured. One month later, he was devastated when that same old explosive anger reared its ugly head while he was shopping with June, and she didn’t respond to his pleas to hurry up. He flew off the handle and embarrassed them both.

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 Disgusted with himself and angry as hell that all his learning and coaching hadn’t done the trick, Hugh went to therapy – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Now, finally he discovered the core beliefs that were being engaged when he blew up. He learned about the triggers that made him explode. And most of all he learned how punishing himself made things worse. He had a whole list of other ways to think that would prevent the anger from bursting out even though he knew it was inappropriate.

For the next six months Hugh was in seventh heaven. He was using his new found skills, and feeling successful. But one day he was upset when June said she was going on a two week business trip to promote a client’s book. Hugh got anxious. He knew there was no need to worry, but the stress got to him and all his skills flew out the window. He screamed at June for leaving him and accused her or not caring. He had gone ballistic.

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Accessing his skills was like getting blood out of stone!

So why did the CD’s, the coaching and the Cognitive Behavioral therapy not have a lasting effect?

Because as reported in  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, August 26, 2013, even the mildest amount of stress impairs the prefrontal cortex that tempers emotion with reason and judgment. All the techniques that Hugh learned in anger management class, the CD course and his Cognitive therapy were not able to withstand the effect that small amounts of stress can have on previously learned skills. Emotions win out, as the stress alters and or blocks the communication from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain). So Hugh didn’t stand a chance.

Things finally shifted for Hugh when he started attending therapy that focused on the emotional experiences that made him insecure and stressed. He found that he had to return to the source of the upset that stressed that as a child he could only express through anger. In his therapy Hugh made the connection between his mother always leaving him to talk to others, forgetting him in stores, at the county fair and so on, and his intense anger. The connection he made wasn’t just insightful. He felt it in his sessions when he was secure that the therapist wouldn’t do likewise. That’s when the stress diminished, and he was able to truly feel June’s commitment to him. Before he ‘knew it.’ Now he ‘felt it.’ It made all the difference. He and June are now much more stable. When those old buttons get pushed, he can use all the skills he learned but apply them at a feeling level – so that his rational and emotional brains synchronize and make him behave as he wants.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

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Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond