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Learn to self soothe for anger control

Jun 20, 2010

Have you ever been stuck in the middle of a situation which you can't get away from and your anger is highly triggered. Normally, if we are getting very angry and escalating the best choice in this situation would be to leave, just take a time out so you can calm down. But let's presume in this situation we can't leave. We are stuck there. An example might be riding in a car with someone and the other person is driving. Or we are in the middle of a very important meeting with a client. The client is upset but we need to keep our cool.

So how do we calm ourselves down in the moment when the other person is escalating and we are getting caught up in it. The answer is you SELF SOOTHE.

I took the liberty of posing this question to my anger management and domestic violence clients. Since this is just about all we talk about in our groups, I wanted to see how much they had learned plus see what fresh ideas we might be able to come up with. What follows is a summary of their answers.

BREATHE DEEPLY - It may sound silly but it works. It is a simple, quick method which can be employed instantly. The deep breathing gets more oxygen into your brain which helps you to think more clearly. Also, it is important to focus on the breathing. This has a meditative effect and takes you away from your escalating self talk.

ACCEPT THE SITUATION FOR WHAT IT IS - What gets us fired up a lot of times is a nonacceptance of the situation. Someone is yelling at us and saying things that upset us. We get upset because we decide that this is awful and should be changed. This usually causes us to escalate and become controlling. Instead we want to just accept that what is happening is what is happening. And decide that that's okay. We don't have to change the present. We can just BE in it. This doesn't mean we don't work for positive change in the future, but we stop trying to change the present. This attitude can make most "presents" much more tolerable, such as the present status of our relationships, the present status of the world or the present status of a problem we have. What is happening in the present moment is just something that is happening in the present moment. It will go away eventually.

DON'T WORRY - Worrying is about being in the future. The last answer was about awfulizing in the present. Worry is about awfulizing in the future. Sometimes worrying can be beneficial if it leads us to quickly setting helpful boundaries for ourselves and then letting it go. But most worry becomes a chronic pattern, a pattern of wanting to control what happens in the future, which of course is something that is impossible to do. So if we want to calm down in the present, we need to block our awfulizing self talk about the future. If we start to worry that our present situation will have some sort of negative outcome, we need to change our self talk to "we can't totally control what the outcome will be and that's okay" or "after it all calms down we can set whatever boundaries possible to control the outcome" or "we can't control the other person in the moment except by not adding any fuel to the fire".

BE RESPECTFUL - Even though the other person isn't behaving respectfully, we can calm ourselves by being respectful. This means not yelling, not using abusive words and not trying to control the other person. This means that we will not be doing anything that may cause us to escalate and we are increasing the chances that the other person will deescalate which,in turn, will help us stay calm.

PRACTICE PATIENCE - Allow the other person their moment to vent. Allow them to make their own choice as to how they express themselves. Again, as it is in almost all of these answers, practice non control.

PRACTICE EMPATHY - To empathize we must listen to the other person and try to understand them. Our purpose is to try to understand how they feel from their own perspective. We try not to put our own slant on things. We try to listen without prejudice. We put our own feelings on the back burner and block them out of our mind. Good listening skills take our focus away from our thoughts about ourselves which often cause us to escalate. Also, once we understand how the other person is feeling, whether we agree with them or not, our anger often disappears.

THINK OF WHAT WE WILL BE DOING LATER - This involves disassociating ourselves from the present and jumping in our thoughts to something pleasant we look forward to doing later. It is like taking a time out without leaving. This can sometimes backfire if the other person is looking for connection but may be necessary in highly stressful situations. In general it is usually best to stay engaged, but if needed, focusing away from an unpleasant experience to any kind of pleasant thought will probably help us calm ourselves.

SEE THE FUNNY PART - Pretend you are an outside observer looking in at your experience and seeing it as comical. There is a comical aspect to almost every serious situation, whether it be the way someone is gesturing or the overly zealous manner in which the participants are communicating with each other. When we get overly serious we really can be rather silly.

SELF MEDITATE - When getting upset start saying a relaxing mantra to yourself, or focus on the other person's tie and allow yourself in your mind to focus only on that one thing. This can help you put yourself into a meditative state in the moment where there is no anxiety.

COUNT - Count to ten or to one hundred or count backwards from one thousand. This is another effective method to focus your thinking away from negative, escalating self talk.

THINK - Think of what a rational uninvolved third party would probably tell you to do. Remind yourself that you will be accountable for whatever you do. Even if the other person is provoking you, you will still be responsible for your choices. And remind yourself that there will be consequences for your behavior. There always is some consequence for our actions. Ask yourself if you will be willing to accept that consequence.

RELIGION CAN HELP - If you know the Bible, you can refer to it's teachings for guidance. Many of it's teachings will guide you to a nonviolent, noncontrolling choice.

PRE REHEARSE THE PRESENT - If you are aware you are going to be in a potentially stressful situation you can rehearse in your mind what you would do and how you would behave in the most stressful scenarios. If you can imagine yourself behaving a certain way in a certain situation, you greatly increase your ability to behave just that way when the situation occurs.

PICTURE A STOP SIGN IN YOUR HEAD - Often the most deescalating thing to do is "nothing". Usually we think we have to respond, we have to do something, we have to say something, when in reality the most calming thing to do is just cease to react.

DON'T DEFEND YOURSELF - Defending yourself is the same as being defensive, which is the same as arguing. Defending yourself to the other person will almost surely cause you to escalate. In reality it doesn't matter what they are saying to you. That is only their opinion. You do not have to prove yourself to them. When you feel the need to defend yourself, say nothing.

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

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