Like any emotional problem, sometimes learning to deal with unwanted anger requires professional help. If you feel frustrated or angry often and nothing you’ve tried seems to help or if your anger has caused you problems at work, school, or in your personal life, you might want to meet with a professional therapist.
David Boudreaux is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Southern Mississippi, working with Dr. Eric Dahlen. For his dissertation, he is further validating a measure he created in earlier research which is intended to assess attitudes toward anger management. He is also developing a questionnaire designed to assess an individual’s level of intended engagement in controlling his or her anger (i.e., Reading self help books, viewing a video documentary on anger, investigating anger on the internet, seeking out professional therapy, etc.). He is pursuing a career as a psychologist at a Veterans Affairs Hospital.
1. What motivated you to want to study anger in the first place?
I could have easily joined our nation’s armed forces as a career path, but life took a different direction. Being that I still maintain a deep respect for the men and women serving our country, I decided to embark on a career that would help me serve the military population. I decided to go to work as a clinician treating our nation’s veterans. Therefore, I would have to build a vita that would support being hired by the Veteran’s Health Administration. With anger playing a prominent role in the presentation of many veterans suffering from PTSD, I thought becoming an expert on anger would place me in an excellent position for my career goal.
2. How do you think that studying anger now will help you with your future career plans?
We are always looking for better objective tests to help guide our treatment with various populations of interest. By helping to do this with the college population while obtaining my education, I’m hoping to prepare myself for such endeavors with the Veteran population. Instrument development can be an arduous process, and the unique factors of assessing anger have implications that may make the process somewhat more complicated. For instance, the typical individual presents to therapy for distress that he or she is experiencing. Due to the nature of problem anger, the individual experiencing that problem may or may not experience any distress or awareness that a problem exists. Instead, he or she may perceive others as having the problem.
3. What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?
I have worked to help develop and validate a measure of an individual’s attitude toward anger management. Research supports the idea that our attitude toward a behavior helps predict our motivation to engage in said behavior. The literature also tells us that, despite the need for anger management, very few individuals with that need present to anger management. If we can assess an individual’s attitude towards receiving professional aid with treating their anger, we may have a better chance of understanding how to motivate that individual to engage or remove barriers to treatment.
4. What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?
I think the largest misconception about anger that I have experienced is the thought that a well-directed cathartic release of anger is somehow therapeutic. In other words, conventional wisdom may tell an individual that, when angry, punching a pillow is a good way to “release” that tension. No research on anger I have seen or conducted supports this type of behavior as a way to reduce the experience of problem anger.
5. If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?
Anger is a natural emotion, and it can be a functional emotion. Just like physical pain tells us something is wrong with our body and should be addressed, anger tells us something is wrong with our cognitive and emotional experience of the world. To alleviate pain, we do not encourage the practice of more pain. Instead, we look for the source of that pain and do our best to remove it. The same could be said of anger. Practicing anger does not address the source of that anger. Anger is just an initial signal for a problem that should be identified and addressed, usually through relaxation techniques and proactive communication strategies.
I find that when I’m angry, it helps to find something to laugh about. Is that true or am I just fooling myself?
Chances are you are right that the humor is helping you in those situations. There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that humor and laughter are important coping mechanisms that can help people deal with a variety of psychosocial problems. First, though, it’s important to understand a little bit about what people find funny and why they laugh.
Humor is a particularly difficult concept to discuss and study for a variety of reasons. First, there are substantial differences with regard to what people find funny. Many types of jokes (e.g., puns, ethnic jokes, dirty jokes, slapstick) are not appreciated by everyone or even most people. Second, context matters greatly in that various aspects of the situation (e.g., who told the joke, the location, the circumstances) influence whether or not someone perceives something as funny. Consequently, something that would be considered hilarious in one situation may not be funny at all in another. Due to all of this, identifying the important elements of humor has been a challenge.
Ultimately, one of the best definitions of humor comes, not from a psychologist but from the author, George Orwell. Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay, Funny, but Not Vulgar, that “a thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order.” To put this in psychological terms, people find something to be funny when it is surprises them, forces them to think about things in a new way, and when they perceive it as edgy or daring. However, once something moves past the threshold from edgy to “offensive or frightening”, it is no longer funny.
What does all this mean for anger? Well, it means that people can use humor to change their mood and to think about things in a new light. By no means is this a new idea. In fact, Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, one of psychology’s leading anger researchers, wrote of the importance of humor in his 1995 book chapter, Ideal Treatment Package for Adults with Anger Disorders. In the chapter, published in Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment, Deffenbacher argues that using humor with clients might actually be considered a cognitive intervention, similar to cognitive restructuring where clients evaluate the types of thoughts they have which might be leading them to experience more anger. He suggests that, as part of cognitive restructuring, clients should try to rethink things in silly or humorous ways. However, he is quick to point out that anger is not always the answer and, if people use it, they should make sure it is (a) silly rather than hostile or sarcastic and (b) not designed to laugh off problems but “to take a brief cognitive step backward, perhaps laughing at themselves and their cognitions, to reduce their anger and then approach the situation again” (p. 169).
The next question, though, is why does humor work in reducing anger? There are actually a couple of simple reasons for the psychosocial benefits of humor.
Incompatible Mood States. Humor seems to decrease anger because, to some degree, the psychological state of finding something funny is incompaible with the psychological state of anger. In other words, it’s hard to be angry while, simultaneously, finding something funny. Even if it is just for a brief instant, when someone finds something funny and laughs, their anger has dissipated somewhat. This is actually very similar to the rationale for why relaxation is so valuable in treating both anger and anxiety. One cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. It is also why humor has been found to be such an effective coping mechanism for so many negative psychological states (e.g., stress, fear, sadness). Of course, as described by Deffenbacher, certain types of humor like sarcasm are less valuable because they do not necessarily lead to a different mood state but rather serve as an aggressive means of expressing anger.
Conflict Management. Humor has long been used as a conflict management strategy. It serves to lighten the mood, put others at ease, facilitate communication of difficult and angering topics, and even to help in the delivery of bad news. In fact, people laugh more often at something they say than at something said by someone else. It is not so much that they find what they are saying to be funny. It is that laughter can convey the lightheartedness that might be necessary to decrease tension and anger in a particularly challenging interpersonal situation.
Cognitive Shifting. Finally, as described by both Deffenbacher and Orwell, humor represents a different way of looking at things. When people get angry, it’s because they perceive the situation as unfair, unjustified, etc. Humor allows people to think about the provocation in a new light and, potentially, one that is less angering. Likewise, it also allows the angry person to think of themselves and their angering thoughts in a new way. When highly emotional, people sometimes think unreasonable, unrealistic, and, frankly, silly things. Taking time to recognize the silliness of your recent thought that the person in the car in front of you is a total idiot or that not being able to find your car keys ruined the entire day can help give you some much needed perspective and help you cope with frustrating situations.
Though there is a wealth of evidence supporting the value of therapy in addressing problematic anger, recent research in Behaviour Research and Therapy suggests that the brief-term therapy model often used in criminal justice settings may not work with violent offenders. The intervention under study consisted of 20 total hours (10 sessions, 2 hours each) with three modules defined in the article as understanding anger, understanding thinking, feeling, and doing, and managing and expressing anger. The results of the study indicated that while participants did better understand anger and its impact, they did not see a meaningful decrease in the experience of anger.
One of the study’s three authors, Dr. Andrew Day, identified two important points to take from this work. “The first is that not all violent offences and violent offenders are the same and that it is important to conduct an individual assessment of the causes and consequences of violence before recommending anger management.” He points out that “some violent offences such as armed robbery are often unrelated to anger regulation problems and as such the routine referral of violent offenders to anger management programs is unlikely to be a particularly effective strategy”. The second point, he says, is that “violent offenders may not respond well to this particular type of treatment. They may for example require longer in treatment given the multiple needs that offenders often experience (e.g., co-occurring mental health and substance use issues), and may have beliefs about themselves, others and the world that have developed since childhood and are, therefore, difficult to change.”
Dr. Day is quick to point out, however, that anger management programs work for most people. Likewise, he believes we should not give up on the notion of rehabilitation. “In my view it is possible to work constructively with these individuals to help them understand the causes of their behavior and to resolve conflict in ways that do not involve violence.” He says “there is a real need to develop better rehabilitation programs for offenders given that criminal justice responses that are based on punishment and deterrence are unlikely by themselves to lead to behavior change.”
If you have any questions for Dr. Day, he can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ryan C. Martin