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Overcoming Reactive Anger

Jan 15, 2010

To explore this topic first we would want to define reactive anger. Reactive anger is anger we feel that we have no control over. It just seems to explode out of us. It is like a knee jerk reaction with no thinking involved. Again, as I stated, we feel controlled by it. If we are reactive we generally feel controlled by external stimuli. We believe what is happening around us is controlling our emotions. As we will learn later, this is a co dependent dynamic.

WHY DO PEOPLE HAVE REACTIVE ANGER? Two reasons. They either have an inherited tendency to be reactive or their life experiences have taught them to be reactive or both.

INHERITED REACTIVITY - All of us are born with certain personality traits. These traits may include things like activity level, consistency of mood, flexibility to change, intensity of reaction to positive and negative stimuli, distractibility, persistence and nervousness level. Three of these, flexibility to change, intensity of reaction to stimuli and nervousness level will tie in to how reactive we are to our experiences. Of course, all of these inherited traits are in turn shaped by our experiences which may accentuate or soften them. At any rate, we start out with these basic traits. A reactive child, for instance, will show themselves as emotionally sensitive, with possible quick shifts of emotion,and will be easily affected by what is going on around them. They will tend to be inflexible to change and nervous.

LEARNED REACTIVITY - Our innate personality traits are shaped by our experiences. This is what is meant by learned reactivity. If we start out with traits such as rigidity to change and nervousness, we will struggle more with normal day to day problems and either learn to cope with them or grow more rigid and develop compulsive disorders. If we experience anything traumatic we will be more vulnerable to developing disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or post traumatic stress disorder due to our inability to roll with the punches in life. If we are already nervous, we will become more nervous. If we have the inherited trait of rigidity, nervousness and/or sensitivity, we will naturally tend to develop the need to have more control. We will probably feel that we need to control others rather than ourselves because we won't see the problem as coming from ourselves. So all of these things, rigidity, nervousness, sensitivity and the need for control will make us more reactive emotionally. When something happens that triggers anger in us, we will tend to want to act on it right away rather then soothe it away, because we are feeling the discomfort of the anger is coming from what others are doing to us. We feel we must have control back immediately to find relief.

CO DEPENDENCY - Co dependency is a problem in people which stems from believing that the power is not within us, but rather in other things or other people. For example, co dependents are people pleasers because they believe that other people have the power, or co dependents become dependent on substances such as alcohol because they believe that alcohol has the power to make them feel better, not themselves. Reactive anger is a problem of co dependency since it comes from a belief that others have more power than us and are therefore controlling us. And when the reactive person feels controlled they will tend to panic and overreact to it.

1.To get control over our reactive anger we must first realize and accept that the problem comes from within us, not from others. We must accept that we have the power to change the behavior through internal change. We must stop blaming others for our behaviors. We must stop rationalizing our overreactions as okay.

2.We must understand the concepts of inherited and learned reactivity discussed above and take ownership of our own reactive traits. We cannot change until we take ownership.

3.Learn to be less reactive to your emotional triggers. What are emotional triggers? Everyone has them. When something happens and you have an unusually strong emotional reaction to it, this is a sign that you have an emotional trigger around this issue. You can compare your reaction to others' reactions to get a feel for whether your reaction is unusually strong. Or you can tell it is strong because it feels strong for you as compared to how you react to other things and it can linger for a while after the event before you feel normal again. Emotional triggers are unresolved emotional issues. The triggers for other people that you know will be different than yours. These unresolved emotional issues are often leftovers from childhood and center around some primary unmet need that we had as children or adolescents. It would have been almost impossible as children to not react to this unmet need and to not have it carryover into adulthood. As children we have very little power to resolve issues as we take all of our guidance and meaning from our caretakers. So these issues often cannot be resolved until we reach adulthood, develop an awareness of what they are and where they came from and then finally deal with them.

One example of an unmet childhood need would be childhood abuse. If we were abused as children, either physically or emotionally, we would be vulnerable to developing some of the following emotional triggers (not all inclusive): Reactivity to the feeling of:

shame (low self esteem)
loss of control (similar to helplessness)
abandonment & loss (includes jealousy)

As I stated above, we must learn to understand our own personal triggers and know that now, as adults, we do have power in our life and although our caretaker failed to meet some of our primary needs as children, it is no longer their job to do it. As adults it is our job to meet our primary needs. We need to start figuring out how to do that and stop looking to other people to do it for us.

4. Meditate. Truthfully, I know of no other method more effective for calming our inner selves than meditation. Those of you who have tried it know what I mean. It is not hard to meditate. You will successfully meditate the first time you try it. My next newsletter will deal with the mechanics of it in detail. In general what meditation does is calm the body so that it is relaxed and centered. Another way of putting it is you feel "comfortable in your own skin". Meditation also calms the brain and research has shown that it changes the chemistry of the brain. It trains the brain to be in the moment where there is no anxiety or stress. So if you can imagine what it would be like to feel completely relaxed all the time, it is right there available to you with a very simple process that costs nothing and is simple to do. You just have to take the time. Don't underestimate the effects of meditation. The internal quieting that you get from meditation is not just a momentary fix. It is a cure.

5. Exercise regularly. Exercise takes the tension out of your muscles. This is a big part of the relaxed feeling you get from exercise. In addition, when you do aerobic exercise your body puts off endorphins which are natural painkillers that promote an increased sense of well being. These physical effects on the body will relax you and greatly reduce the chance of an occurrence of reactive anger.

6. Think when you are angry. Instead of not thinking and going right into the reaction, make a commitment to thinking when you are angry. You can usually feel yourself tensing up or doing whatever it is that you do when you are starting to get angry. Catch your anger build up at lower levels and start the thinking process then. You can think about what the consequences might be if you react with anger. You can think about how you might feel about yourself if you react with anger. You can change your self talk during the build up from escalating self talk, such as "They don't have the right to do that" or "They need to be taught a lesson" to deescalating self talk such as "They are just trying to take care of themselves" or "They are not a bad person". You can think about the new you that you want to be, which is a person that remains calm under stress and projects an aura of calm to others.

7. Choose not to react. It is important to see reactivity as a choice. Focus on the learned part of reactivity which I talked about above. Know that if something is learned, than it can be unlearned. It is like forming a new habit. The more often you do the new behavior, the more the behavior is learned and the more you will become hard wired to do it. If you have triggering stimuli going on around you, choose to just stand in the middle of it and do nothing. You do not have to react to anything. You can choose to do nothing. Allowing ourselves to choose to do nothing will create a very powerful shift away from reactive anger.

8. Don't take things personally. What does it mean to take things personally. It means you make it about you. It means you believe some judgmental or harsh words someone says to you or about you. It means you allow whatever has happened to affect your self esteem. When I talk about taking something personally I always describe it as taking it to the next level. When someone says something mean spirited to us it is one thing for us to feel disappointed or sad, but it is another thing altogether for us to allow it to make us feel less about ourselves. Even if they are saying something that is true we can own it and take responsibility, but we don't need to shame ourselves in the process. Taking something personally is about shaming ourselves, lowering our self esteem and overreacting as a result. Shame or helplessness are the two feelings which are just about always present when someone overreacts with anger. We must work on our self image, our need for others' approval and our co-dependency issues to conquer our inclination to shame ourselves during interpersonal conflict.


Author: Lorraine Watson

Lorraine Watson is a licensed therapist in California with extensive experience in the areas of anger management, nonabusive relationship skills and trauma. She is the author of "Expressing Anger Nonviolently". The contents of that book can be viewed on our website at

Reference: "When Anger Hurts Your Kids", by McKay, Fanning, Paleg, Landis.

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