Many people have had the experience of anger that goes out of control. What mechanisms are at work when anger turns to blinding rage? Researchers have termed this kind of response as reactive aggression and discovered that when one is engulfed in a rage reaction, the thinking part of the brain is not functioning well (Tyson, 1998). When a person experiences a reaction to what they perceive to be a frustration or a threat, the body prepares for action, not thought.

The goal for individuals who are tired of overreacting to problems with anger is to learn ways to outsmart the body's natural reaction. How can this be accomplished? It turns out that relaxation can put the brakes on reactive aggression (Tyson, 1998). When a person feels the beginning of a rage cycle starting, a focused relaxation period can restore the thinking area of the brain allowing time to process the possible courses of action besides aggressive behaviors.

It may sound easy, but in fact it is not. Most people who punch walls or strike out in anger in some other way say that it happens before they realize it. This is a challenge. Learning to tune in to one's own body to identify the early signs of a rage takes practice and often some outside support. It is possible to learn the physiological sensations that occur when a person is about to act out reactively in anger. Once a person has learned to sense an oncoming rage, then it is possible to attempt to avert it using focused relaxation.

Relaxation has been shown in research to be more helpful in reducing angry responses than other treatments (Deffebacher et al., 1994). The benefits of relaxation techniques are that the heart rate decreases, the breathing rate slows, the muscles relax, the blood pressure lowers, and the body temperature can even be lowered. When a relaxed state is reached, the tendency to act out aggressively is greatly reduced. Also, becoming relaxed restores the thinking center of the brain, which allows a person to weigh their options in the situation.

Another important step in reducing rage responses is to change the way that we think about aggressive acts. Society sometimes provides excuses for aggressive acts. Have you ever heard the expressions, “He / She was asking for it” or “ He / She deserved it”. These kinds of societal values lead some to believe that once provoked, they cannot or will not be blamed for aggressive acts. This is not an accurate representation, since society does punish aggression as a criminal act. Also, rarely does anyone who has been aggressively attacked either verbally or physically think that they are the one who needs to change. Motivating others to act kinder to us by attacking them decidedly does not work. The thoughts that accompany rage must be identified and changed to assure that aggressive acts are decreased.

People in treatment for anger outbursts can learn more positive thought patterns in order to be able to have better control of their actions. Thoughts like, “I can manage this situation. I know how to regulate my anger” can help an angry person put out a rage wildfire without acting out (Novaco, 1975). Once a person has rooted out the negative thought patterns and introduced more positive thoughts, which can be tailored to the person's needs, more control of anger can be achieved.

Pairing both relaxation and positive thoughts about handling conflict is more effective than either of these interventions alone (Novaco, 1975). People who learn to first relax to decrease the physiological response to angry feelings are better able to think in new ways about handling conflicts. These two steps take practice since the new ways of responding to anger are far from automatic at first. Support from a caring professional and support from a group of people who are trying to learn better conflict management skills can help.

Another big concern in learning better ways to manage anger is that frequently those in a rage are unable to identify with the feelings of the other person. Impaired empathy is frequently a component of rage reactions. Learning to stand in the shoes of those we are angry at can lead to a more cooperative way of solving problems. Once control has been achieved through relaxation and positive thoughts about conflict resolution, understanding the feelings of the other person can help one to open up in a non-threatening manner.

Finally, if a person has successfully headed off a rage reaction by relaxation, positive thought patterns, and empathy then he / she is ready to express feelings in a safe way. At this point, one can better articulate feelings and needs to the other person. This is the time for working out what each person in a dispute is going through. By this time, a situation that could have ended badly can be handled in a non-aggressive way. Communication is now open and not prevented by aggressive acting out. Graduates of anger treatment who have learned this series of steps to avoid rage responses can express their deep emotions to others and reap the benefits of open conversation when conflicts arise. Generally these steps can end the inevitability of out-of-control rage and provide a freedom to manage conflicts in productive ways.

Resources

Novaco, R.W. (1975). Anger Control: The development and evaluation of an experimental treatment. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, D.C. Heath. Reviewed by Konecni, V. Good news for angry people. Contemporary Psychology, 1976, 21, 397-398.

Deffenbacher, Jerry L.; Thwaites, Gregory A.; Wallace, Traci L.; Oetting, Eugene R. (1994)Social skills and cognitive-relaxation approaches to general anger reduction. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41(3), 386-396.

Tyson P.D. (1998) Physiological arousal, reactive aggression, and the induction of an incompatible relaxation response. Aggression and Violent Behavior 3(2), 143-158.

Author's Bio: 

Marcie Hambrick is the Director of New Leaf Outreach Anger Management & Counseling a community agency that uses scientifically proven techniques for assisting individuals and families to improve their relationships. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Florida State University and is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Georgia State University. See more about Marcie at http://newleafoutreach.webs.com and http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwsoc/gradstudents/hambrick.html