Police are called to a home for domestic violence. The police arrive to find a couple screaming and threatening each other. Things are broken in the home because they were throwing household objects at each other. Often people come into counseling and describe a story like the one just told. As I therapist I often wonder, “How did it get to this degree of aggression?” When the spark that ignited the fight is discovered it is often a relatively small problem or it is some comment that was misconstrued. Why do small, often solvable conflicts, turn from a lit match to a huge, and blazing house fire? How can these violent eruptions of burning anger and rage be prevented?
Remember the fire drills when you were in school? We were given instructions to drop what we were doing, get in an organized line and follow the teacher outside. We weren’t supposed to talk to one another—though we rarely obeyed that one. Then, after we were given instructions and walked through them, we would wait. Wait for some time during the day when the fire alarm would go off and we would DROP WHAT WE WERE DOING and follow procedures. Whatever current project or discussion that was going on before the alarm had to STOP. You put down books, scissors, crayons or whatever you were engaged in and started to follow the drill procedures.
When a conflict arises—the fire is sparked—and people start becoming upset what often happens is they feed it with gasoline. They open the windows and give the fire oxygen! When anger is “sparked” or triggered the most important thing that needs to happen is getting the fire out RIGHT AWAY. Think of anger triggers (“sparks”) as a fire alarm. You STOP what you are doing and start calming procedures. The sooner calming starts the chance of escalation is greatly reduced. When people escalate to rage, they stop thinking rationally. There are loads of long medical terms that are used to describe the physiology of the brain when angry that could be used here, but how about this: just think about the times when you or someone you knew became enraged. Then ask: “How well were my problem-solving skills working during the rage?” “How well was I able to edit the content of my speech so I was not just blurting out whatever came to mind?” We have all seen ourselves or others have a temper tantrum and knew it was anything but a calm, well-thought-out and rational event.
What is the solution to avoid the rage fire? Conflicts often escalate because one or both parties are trying to prove a point and/or win the fight. This creates an “I-just-need-to-say-this-one-thing” situation that continues on and on. My suggestion to people is to get training in anger management by a counselor or find good resource materials online or at a book store—there is plenty out there! These resources help you to:
• Identify your anger triggers
• Learn how your body feels when you are starting to get angry
• Find things to do to calm your body down (breathing, relaxation etc…)
• Know when to walk away
• Discover calming activities that work for you specifically
• How to terminate a conflict before it erupts (WAY before)
Learning these techniques are great, but they are MEANINGLESS if not practiced. As a therapist I often teach people these coping measures only to have them come back and say they had a big fight with someone. I will ask, “Did you try the coping skills?” Many times people will say, “Oh they didn’t work.” I will ask why and they are not sure. Or they may say, “I tried to calm down, but …..” When I investigate the event it USUALLY turns out to be that the person waited too long after the fire alarm went off in their body. The angrier a person gets the harder it is to calm down. I often say to people, “When your house catches on fire you don’t keep baking cookies do you?” The only thing important when the house is on fire is getting to safety and getting the fire PUT OUT. When our body fire alarm signals it is time to say, “I’ve just been triggered. I can feel myself getting angry. I need to start calming procedures.” Then GO DO THEM! The key is doing the procedures right way and avoid the “just one more thing” scenario.
– Dave Chatel, MA, LLP