Anger is a perfectly normal and healthy emotion that does not need to be met with judgment. It is also something that people in addiction recovery sometimes misunderstand. While anger is normal, due to external influence such as parental authority in our developmental years or the general views of society, it is often condemned. Many people attempt to bottle up their anger instead of allowing it to be expressed and end up lashing out. Some tend to take their anger for others and redirect it towards themselves.
Much of our understanding of internalized anger and how it should be dealt with comes from our early years. Our behavior is to a large degree based on our earliest experiences.1 If, as a child, you witnessed anger expressed as violence, then violence would become the learned means of anger expression. If anger was observed to be unacceptable, it gets suppressed and may be experienced as anxiety.
Anger is healthy, but it can also be maladaptive.2 For many of us, anger usually arises when there is a perceived lack of control. While recovery emphasizes that the only control needed is in our moment-to-moment responses, too many of us have learned self-control through unhealthy, self-destructive means.
Anger management programs are available to help clients in recovery develop a healthier relationship with their emotions and learn how to respond, not react, to challenging feelings such as anger. In anger management, clients are taught to accept their emotions and embrace themselves as they are because any emotion that is perceived as “bad,” unacceptable, or unsafe can potentially undermine one’s recovery efforts.
One thing vital to early recovery is developing the ability to identify and experience the full range of emotions with self-compassion. As earlier defense mechanisms and behaviors begin to dissipate, emotions can seem overwhelming. Under the guidance of a trained anger management therapist, these overwhelming emotions can be brought under control so that they no longer yield the same unhealthy, destructive patterns of behavior.
Anger management is used in addiction recovery to help clients recognize sources of frustration and anger early enough to choose how they will respond. It also helps clients resolve those feelings in a way that is healthy and in control.
Some indicators that a person may be in need of anger management include:
Frequently feeling that anger must be held in
Frequent negative thinking
Persistent focus on negative experiences
Regular irritation, hostility
Frequent arguments with others
Threats of violence
Violent behavior – breaking things, reckless driving
Withdrawing due to fears of an anger outburst
In anger management sessions, clients work with therapists or counselors in an individual or group setting, depending on the needs of the client, to recognize and create a list of early warning signs. This list will typically include:
Stressors (things that trigger anger, such as frustration with a certain person, financial stress, work stress)
Physical signs (tight fists, clenched jaw, increased heart rate, poor sleep)
Emotional signs (wanting to hit or yell at someone, feeling like certain things can’t be said)
Anger management generally focuses on teaching the client effective and healthy coping skills in the face of anger or before it even comes up. The goal of anger management sessions is to teach clients the following3:
How to manage things that can exacerbate anger (poor sleep, unhealthy diet)
How to identify triggers and respond effectively
Coping skills for when anger is likely to be triggered
How to recognize when thinking has become driven by anger and how to correct it
Assertive (not aggressive) expression
Problem-solving skills (to use in frustrating situations as a better use of energy)
Effective communication (for anger diffusion and conflict resolution)
There is a range of benefits to learning how to better manage anger. Life can surprise us and throw us off balance, and if we are unprepared we may fall back into old habits of thought and behavior, such as aggression or relapse. Anger management can help clients in recovery by:
Improving communication skills
Improving health (by reducing self-perpetuating stress and promoting relaxation)
Reducing the risk of other psychological issues and harmful behavior (depression, substance use)
Channeling energy for better outcomes (anger can be used for reflection and motivation)
Fundamental to all aspects of recovery is a shift away from self-condemnation and towards free expression and self-compassion. Recovery does not happen overnight; it is a process of learning and cultivation of an identity that does not involve substance use. Over time, clients in recovery can become more accustomed to a life free from substances and move into a relationship with themselves that involves healthy self-regulation, trust, and complete self-acceptance.
1 Csathó, Árpád, and Béla Birkás. “Early-Life Stressors, Personality Development, And Fast Life Strategies: An Evolutionary Perspective On Malevolent Personality Features”. Frontiers In Psychology, vol 9, 2018. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00305. Accessed 20 Oct 2020.
2 Conklin, Laren R et al. “Relationships among adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies and psychopathology during the treatment of comorbid anxiety and alcohol use disorders.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 73 (2015): 124-30. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2015.08.001
3 Reilly, P M et al. “Anger management and temper control: critical components of posttraumatic stress disorder and substance abuse treatment.” Journal of psychoactive drugs vol. 26,4 (1994): 401-7. doi:10.1080/02791072.1994.10472460
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