Do you have trouble with anger management, and find yourself caught in the same old emotional reactions?

Maybe you blew up at your spouse, only to realize after the smoke cleared that you might have overreacted just a tad. Or perhaps you weren’t invited to your uncle’s friend’s sister’s birthday party…and you behave as if that’s the slight of the century.

When you overreact to situations, or have problems with anger management, even the most minor snafu can cause you to storm out of the room, slam down the phone, or shut down entirely. It’s as if you can’t help it — the reaction is as automatic as a mallet to the knee.

Science Reveals That Anger and Emotional Responses May Not Be Your Fault
New research indicates that habitual, knee-jerk responses go way back to our childhood.

As youngsters, we learned to adapt to our families’ idiosyncrasies as a way of survival. In the past, psychologists referred to these coping mechanisms as “baggage,” but science has now shown us that these responses are actually hard-wired into our brains. And when our responses are ingrained, they become our filtering system for future incidents.

In other words, if something happens today that the brain reads as similar to something that happened in your 20s, your brain will respond as if it were the first time even though you may be in your 50s or 60s and beyond.

One Family’s Example: Response to Yelling
Let’s say a child comes from a home where the parents fight frequently. That child is going to associate yelling with bad feelings. As an adult he is likely to shut down when his spouse raises her voice, just like when he was a kid — running to his room, closing the door, and essentially blocking out the noise.

Does this mean that if you come from a family of yellers you are doomed to hide under your bed every time someone raises a voice? Not necessarily. Recent research indicates that the brain continues to grow throughout our lives, and old patterns can be released as new ones are formed in your baby boomer years.

Anger Management Help Is On the Way
The way to practice anger management and avoid knee-jerk reactions is to establish new brain connections. You do this by refocusing your attention to a different outcome or possibility.

But before you can foster these new connections in your brain, you have to be aware of the old brain triggers.

This easy exercise can help you improve anger management and start “rewiring” your brain to better control those over-reactions. Practicing this exercise will help you make positive changes in your life.

1.   Thinking of Alternatives:

o    When you find yourself projecting past experience onto a present one, try to imagine alternative ways to handle the situation. For example, let’s say you have lunch plans with a friend who cancels at the last minute. Immediately, you feel an overwhelming sense of hurt and rejection, which is how you always feel in similar situations. This indicates a past pattern! Be conscious of this and take a step back to recognize it.

o     Next, approach the situation from an entirely different perspective. You might try humor to deflect the bad feelings, thinking to yourself, “Gee, I guess it’s my deodorant.” Or you could choose the direct approach and ask your friend if you have done something to upset her. Or take the practical route and decide that your friend is just overbooked, overextended, or over-promised, and give her a get-out-of-jail-free card. (Hint: If you have difficulty coming up with alternative ways to handle the situation, think about how someone else — your mother, a childhood friend, or an admired acquaintance — might handle the same situation.)

2.   Plugging in New Choices:

o Next, replay the actual situation as vividly as possible: the phone ringing, the sound of your friend’s voice, the awkward goodbyes, and imagine yourself carrying out one of your new solutions. Maybe you decide that being understanding of your friend’s busy schedule is the best choice.

o  Replay the phone call and plug in your new behavior (the understanding you) rather than playing out your old behavior of feeling rejected and hurt.

Make the Anger Management Changes Last
Before long, you will begin to see a slight shift in how you feel. Every time you repeat this exercise you will refocus your attention on a new outcome. This will rewire your brain, make new neural connections, improve your anger management – and make positive changes in your life.

By Karen Sherman

Anger Management Institute of Texas is a certified Anderson & Anderson provider.

Anger Management Classes available 7 days a week in Houston, Texas.

Gregory A. Kyles, M.A., LPC, CEAP, CAMF
Director, Anger Management Institute of Texas
Diplomate, President of Texas Chapter
American Association of Anger Management Providers
Houston, Texas

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