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Why it’s so hard to stop getting angry

Two steps to help you change the way you think and react

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Do you vow never to get angry again every time you ‘lose it’ and rage? Are you totally committed to that promise at the time? Then, when you next find yourself raging unreasonably at someone or something, you feel utterly disappointed. Your self-esteem spirals downwards and you feel heavy hearted and resigned to destroying relationships with those you love, or jeopardising your job. As a result, you start asking yourself ‘What’s wrong with me?”

This was my experience after each over-the-top raging session for many years. I thought I was a bad and dangerous person who would, eventually, be locked away. What I didn’t know then was how addictive anger is.

The addiction of anger

The first step to breaking the habit of behaving in an angry way is to understand that anger is an addictive emotion. It’s powerful and causes surges of adrenaline which over time become physiologically addictive. When you get angry the amygdala, an almond shaped part of your brain, detects a threat. As a result, hormones are released including adrenaline which triggers a state of arousal.

If you’ve experienced bullying, or abuse of any kind, anger feels good because the adrenaline rush helps you feel powerful. Potential bullies often back off when faced with rage instead of fear, so it easily becomes a habit. It’s well documented how addictive the
adrenaline rush is.

Thinking habits

The second step in learning not to rage is to start reflecting on what thoughts went through your head immediately after a push on your rage button. You can do this when you’re calmer and regretting the outburst. Remembering your immediate thoughts can help you
identify your thinking habits. Some thinking habits will help you see the bigger picture; you’ll ask clarifying questions and respond in a measured way. However, there are times when your thinking habits are unhelpful.

I broke my addictive habit of raging by learning which of the unhelpful thinking habits I frequently used. With this information I was able to notice when I was preparing my body for ‘fight’ and I could challenge and change my thoughts. This literally changed my life.

Once you’ve learnt which of the unhelpful thinking habits you use, you’re ready to start challenging your thoughts This process is used in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

The principle behind this incredibly effective process is that our thoughts drive our emotions, our physical sensations and our behaviour. So, in response to a situation that pushes our anger button, we immediately have unhelpful thoughts. Your thinking habits may have developed because of your life experiences, or been copied from parents or peers.

Unhelpful thinking habits in action

A work colleague makes a comment about your project and you immediately think, “that is so out of line”, “she thinks she could do it better than me”, “she’s always doubting my ability”. The first thought is a judgement, you’ve made a quick decision about what she
means, without asking questions to clarify. The second is a belief you can mind read but honestly, you can’t. The third is mental filtering, you only notice bad stuff – she praised your work last week but you’ve edited that out.

So your thoughts indicate that this colleague is a threat. Your adrenaline kicks in and you accuse her of being derogatory. Your jaw tightens and your body tenses. Using a harsh voice tone you challenge her and question who she thinks she is to judge your ability.

If this resonates with you, take the time to reflect on your thoughts. Work out which habits you use and try the thought challenge process. This is the start of retraining the way you think. This takes practice, it’s not easy to break a habit but it’s so worth the effort.

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