Anger Management: Counting to 10 and Beyond

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From rude drivers to anonymous hackers to co-workers that make your job harder than it should be, it seems that everyone is getting on your nerves and you’re about to lose whatever hold you have left on your temper. What to do? Learn some psychiatry and behavioral science at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga.

“The familiar childhood admonition of ‘counting to 10’ before taking action works because it emphasizes the two key elements of anger management — time and distraction,” says Johnston.

“The familiar technique of counting to 10 not only provides the time needed for delay but also offers a distraction from the anger-arousing event,” says Johnston. “While busily counting, we are not mentally adding fuel to the fire of anger by mulling over whatever happened.”

Counting to 10 becomes an even more effective way of disarming anger if we also take a slow deep breath between each number, Johnston adds. “Deep breathing counteracts the fight or flight stress reaction that underlies anger. Deliberately taking a slow, deep breath not only brings a soothing sense of relaxation, but also helps us to focus our attention in the present moment.”

The “energy” of anger often leads to impulsive behavior that only aggravates an already tense situation, Johnston tells WebMD. If given enough time to cool off, however, most people can learn to control their initial impulses.

Three Keys to Defusing Anger

Once more relaxed and in control, Johnston says, we’re ready to “respond,” which is the key word in dealing with anger. “Don’t react,” says Johnston. “Respond. Make a carefully considered choice about the best course of action to take and guide your response by the three anger-regulating principles of empathy, compassion, and assertion.”

Empathy is the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view, Johnston tells WebMD. “Adopting an empathic stance opens the door to compassion by providing for a deeper emotional understanding of the source of conflict. Being compassionate in an anger-arousing situation allows for the deliberate choice of a tolerant but assertive response to resolving the conflict.”

Choosing to respond assertively is different from the impulsive reaction of acting-out anger, Johnston says. An assertive response is characterized by standing up for our legitimate rights, but it does so in a manner that does not violate the rights of others. “Assertive behavior is a direct, honest, and appropriate expression of feelings and beliefs that helps to establish understanding, consensus, and cooperation.”

Take One Step Back

To make sure you actually understand what you’re angry about, paraphrase or clarify what the other person has said to you, says DeAnna Beckman, MSW, LISW, executive director of the Center for Threat Assessment at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “This allows you to make sure you did not misunderstand the message,” she tells WebMD, “and it focuses your bullying other people because you’re not face to face with the other person, and it becomes a dehumanizing experience.” Too many hours on-line can also cause you to lose your social skills and graces for the “real world,” he says, because you have fewer “training opportunities” for interacting with other people.

Of course, we can’t avoid anger completely in our lives. “The key though,” says Kornrich, “is to catch ourselves at step one or two, rather than wait till we hit step nine or 10.”