By Sasha Lustgarten, MFT –
This is the second part of a two-part post on cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and anger management.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) leads us through a process whereby we learn to challenge negative thoughts and beliefs and replace them with either more rational and balanced thoughts or thoughts that lead to positive emotional responses. Mindfulness often involves a process of stepping back and observing yourself in order to increase awareness, insight, and choose a planned action.
Mindfulness – slow down the game
Often times when we are angry we respond impulsively to our environment and say or do hurtful things which we later regret. However, mindfulness practices allow for increased awareness and insight in the moment, which leads to greater self-control and empowerment.
Professional tennis and baseball players report a phenomenon in which they are so completely focused on the game that the action in the game appears to slow down, giving the player the feeling of having more time to react and see the ball more clearly. Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura, a neuroscientist, has conducted studies that imply that “the subjective passage of time may be influenced by preparation for action.”
Just like a professional athlete who is able to “slow down the game,” being mindful can give us an advantage of time and space. Mindfulness can help to slow down reactivity and develop instant control of behaviors. Being extremely prepared for an anger response may allow a person more time to respond and to choose a planned action instead of an impulsive anger response.
Separate the emotion from the action
Mindfulness and CBT can help to separate the emotion from the action – a critical step in anger management. First, we want to bring awareness to the entire internal experience and external stimuli before, during, and after anger. Then pay attention and learn about our process to understand it better. Eventually we can separate the emotion from the action that would otherwise happen impulsively. The slightest bit of extra time is all it takes to create an opening for choice regarding our actions. Instead of feeling powerless, we end up feeling in control of our actions.
Insight into triggers and warning signs of anger
To change an anger response and implement CBT, it is essential to identify triggers and warning signs. Triggers are events, communications, thoughts and feelings that set us off. Knowledge and awareness of triggers can help us to better prepare for situations that have led to an anger response in the past.
Warning signs are typically physiological changes that that alert people that an emotion is present. It is helpful to keep a log or journal that tracks the moment before anger arises, including any physical changes that you may feel. Many describe an adrenaline rush, increased heart rate and muscle tension in the shoulders or chest. Additional physiological changes may include swelling and tightening of arm and leg muscles, stomach turns, shorter breaths, or pupil dilation.
Mindfulness – name it to tame it
Experience the emotion, whether it’s anger or something beneath the anger, and name it; then wait for it to subside. Utilize relaxation techniques to cope with the feeling. If we can practice refraining from acting on an impulse (much as we do in curbing a mild addiction to sweets, for example), we realize that the internal experience will take place, whether or not it’s acted upon. Taking action doesn’t actually make the emotion go away. In fact, acting on our anger only reinforces the anger and strengthens its control. It only serves to distract us from the difficult internal experience. Instead, use mindfulness to fully notice and acknowledge your anger, and then choose to not act on it, and the emotion will eventually subside.
In the book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, world-renowned peace activist and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes an ideal and healthy relationship to anger. Anger is not something that one should fight or even vent, Hanh writes. Venting techniques such as screaming into a pillow or punching a pillow are actually ways to practice anger, which leads to more uncontrollable anger. The better and more effective approach to controlling anger is to notice it, be mindful of your experience in the present, and then add compassion and acceptance.
CBT leads people to transform thoughts
Psychological threats, such as negative thoughts and beliefs about self or others, can trigger anger. In such situations it can be helpful to approach the source – the thoughts and beliefs – in order to challenge the rationality of the thought process. Through CBT, we can learn a process to discard negative thoughts and replace them with meaningful and empowering thoughts. First, identify the thoughts that take place prior to an anger response. Then conduct a veracity test to make a distinction between hypothesis and fact. This will lead you to discover errors of logic that are being made. Next, substitute errors of logic with a more balanced and empowering way of thinking. Lastly, uncover a deeper understanding of the origin of the self-destructive thoughts (memes).
The final step in CBT is to explore the impact of long-standing memes created earlier in life that contribute to one’s negative thought patterns. Learning the source of negative thought patterns or beliefs can help to increase self-compassion and provide an opportunity to redefine the meaning of events experienced a long time ago. We are wired to create meaning of everything that happens in life. Often these meanings are created in order to help us survive or get through a difficult event or course of events in life. Although these meanings helped in the short term, they often run their course and eventually act as a barrier to continued growth and/or happiness. Through CBT, it is possible to challenge these core beliefs and create new meaning that is empowering in the present.
Sasha Lustgarten is a therapist and executive coach in San Francisco. He works with individuals, couples and teams to develop insight and emotional intelligence that lead to more effective communication, better relationships and enhanced leadership skills.