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CBT Anger Management Techniques and Strategies

Alexander Draghici ∙ Updated: 10/28/2020 Medically Reviewed 

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From a purely intellectual perspective, anger is a primal emotion that has played a vital role in our survival. Even today, there are instances when anger can be a relatively functional response.

For instance, this emotion drives us to take a stand against injustice or set clear personal boundaries when others try to impose their views and preferences upon us.

But anger can also be the spark that ignites a heated discussion, the cause of marital problems, or the reason why we can’t hold down a job.

Over the years, mental health professionals have developed numerous CBT anger management techniques and strategies to deal with this unpleasant emotion effectively.

The problem isn’t anger per se, but how we choose to react when we experience this emotion. The better we understand the link between irrational interpretations and ‘explosive’ reactions, the better we can keep our anger from getting out of hand.

 

Does CBT Work for Anger Management?

In essence, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a science-backed therapeutic approach that promotes rational thinking and offers clients practical tools to cultivate mental and emotional health.

Most experts agree that CBT is among the most popular and practical approaches for anger management. By exploring the thought-emotion-behavior triad, clients learn to identify patterns that take them from anger to disproportionate reactions.

But we don’t have to take their word for it.

A recent meta-analysis that gathered data from studies conducted on adult male offenders revealed some interesting results. [1] It appears that CBT-based anger management achieved a 23% risk reduction in general recidivism and a 28% risk reduction in violent recidivism. Furthermore, treatment completion can result in a 42% risk reduction in general recidivism and a 56% risk reduction in violent recidivism.

In short, CBT anger management programs and techniques prove quite useful in helping offenders rehabilitate and become functional members of society.

Another meta-analysis on the topic of anger management highlights CBT as the most studied therapeutic approach. [2] Although this particular paper places behavioral interventions above cognitive interventions, most counsellors and therapists tend to employ both strategies.

One particular population which often struggles with anger issues is people with intellectual disabilities. Cognitive impairment, coupled with poor emotion regulation, can result in physical or verbal aggression.

Studies suggest that people with intellectual disabilities can learn to exercise better control over their reactions by practicing CBT anger management techniques, but only under the supervision of trained psychologists. [3]

Overall, current scientific literature indicates that CBT anger management techniques prove relatively effective for a wide range of populations who are struggling to keep this emotion under control.

 

What is the Best Therapy for Anger Management?

As we saw earlier, cognitive-behavioral interventions prove highly useful for clients with anger issues. But CBT isn’t the only approach suitable for anger management.

For example, studies suggest that art therapy can help children deal with anger and build self-esteem. [4]

Given that anger issues are relatively common, most therapeutic approaches promote different strategies and techniques that help clients deal with unpleasant emotions healthily and functionally.

If you’re struggling with anger issues, one option is individual therapy. That means one-on-one sessions with a licensed counsellor or therapist who assists you in developing effective coping strategies.

Another option is group therapy, which involves attending regular group sessions – under the supervision of a trained professional – where you can interact with people dealing with the same problems. One of the advantages of group therapy is the sense of belonging that you experience when you realize that you’re not the only one struggling with anger issues.

What many experts encourage is a shift in perspective and the use of empirically supported interventions. [5] Instead of looking for the best approach, mental health professionals should focus on matching each client with a technique or strategy that suits his/her needs.

 

Anger Comes in Different Shapes and Sizes

 

Adaptive anger

Despite being an unpleasant and negative emotion, anger can sometimes help us navigate life’s unexpected hassles. It’s what experts call ‘adaptive anger,’ an emotional experience that mobilizes our internal resources and focuses them on overcoming obstacles.

For example, anger motivates us to protest when authorities and governments make decisions that are not in our best interest.

When it comes to situations when our priorities, desires, and needs are at stake, anger has two functions. On the one hand, it signals a mismatch between what we believe is best for us and what our environment has to offer. On the other hand, it drives us to look for alternatives, seek fair treatment, and demand justice.

 

Maladaptive anger

When anger reaches alarming levels, and its intensity clouds our judgment, we’re probably dealing with a maladaptive emotional response.

If left unchecked, anger can lead to impulsive or defensive attitudes that can impact our personal and professional relationships in a profoundly negative manner. It can also push us to make hasty decisions that we end up regretting later.

In general, maladaptive (or dysfunctional) forms of anger are accompanied by irrational beliefs, irritability, poor decision making, impulsive behaviors, inappropriate language, rigid attitudes, and, in its extreme forms, physical violence.

But not everyone dealing with anger issues will manifest their emotions in violent and ‘explosive’ ways.

Passive-aggressive behaviors

People with passive-aggressive tendencies express their anger in subtle ways, creating a tense atmosphere around them. If you find yourself around a passive-aggressive person, you’ll probably notice that even though things appear fine on the outside, there’s something that doesn’t feel right.

Individuals with passive-aggressive tendencies hate to be told what to do, become uncooperative when someone or something interferes with their goals, take revenge in a non-confrontational manner, spread rumors and gossip, and exclude others from their social circle.

Repressed anger

On the opposite pole are those who deal with unpleasant emotions by repressing them. When facing unpleasant situations that spark anger and dissatisfaction, they keep everything bottled up inside instead of expressing their feelings.

Unlike people who express anger through violence or passive-aggressive attitudes, those who choose to repress this emotion tend to implode.

In time, repressed anger can lead to severe psychological and physiological consequences like resentment, rumination, irrational beliefs, social isolation, gastrointestinal disorders, high blood pressure, and insomnia.

 

How Do Therapists Deal with Anger?

Anger is an emotion that can trigger reactions on all levels.

Physiologically, anger puts us in “fight or flight” mode. That means rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, tensed muscles, clenched jaws, and other bodily sensations.

Cognitively, anger is accompanied by a set of irrational and maladaptive thoughts that contribute to erroneous interpretations. Some examples are: “This is unacceptable,” “I can’t tolerate this,” “This isn’t fair,” “Is he/she for real!?” or “If he/she doesn’t shut up, I’m going to go crazy.

As for behaviors, maladaptive anger can lead to poor decisions, impulsive actions, physical or verbal violence, crying, substance abuse, or even self-harm.

 

Discovering the roots of anger

The first step in anger management is to discover the root of the problem.

People who are dealing with anger issues tend to encounter problems with other emotions as well. That means one explanation could be the lack of healthy emotion regulation strategies.

Furthermore, depression or anxiety could be the underlying problem. In this scenario, we could argue that anger is a cry for help.

To discover the root of your problem, the best course of action is to talk to a counsellor or therapist who can assist you in this ‘tangled’ and sometimes painful process.

 

Identifying triggers

Every person who manifests anger through violent or inappropriate attitudes has a set of triggers.

By encouraging you to identify your triggers, a licensed counsellor or therapist can help you become less reactive to situations or contexts in which you find it difficult to keep anger under control.

In some cases, the best thing you can do is simply avoid those triggering situations, at least until you manage to build effective coping strategies.

 

Cultivating awareness

During the first sessions, one of the main goals will be to develop self-awareness and better understand how your erroneous interpretations can lead to hasty decisions and anger outbursts.

The problem with anger is that it often clouds our judgment and impairs our ability to exercise restraint long enough to figure out a healthier way to express it.

That’s why self-help strategies don’t usually work for people with anger issues.

 

Promoting alternative responses

Depending on which triggers make you lose your temper, a therapist can help you identify and implement a personalized intervention plan comprised of strategies that work best for you.

In general, CBT anger management techniques are designed to tackle the problem on all fronts. More specifically, the strategies you adopt in therapy focus on the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional level.

 

Effective CBT Anger Management Techniques:

 

Cognitive restructuring

The way you interpret an event that triggers anger and dissatisfaction will inevitably dictate how you react.

Through cognitive restructuring, you learn to interpret the situation differently, thus changing how you react to anger.

The goal isn’t to erase anger from your emotional spectrum or find a positive way to look at things. As we discussed earlier, there are times when anger is a justified emotion.

However, if you figure out a way to examine the context rationally and manifest emotions in a functional and socially acceptable manner, anger could become the driving force behind a proactive attitude.

 

Mindfulness

A recent study published in The Journal of Research & Health revealed that adolescents dealing with anger and anxiety could benefit significantly from a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques. [6]

Using mindfulness practices, adolescents can exercise present-moment awareness, facilitating a better understanding of their worry-filled thoughts. That allows them to exercise control over their reactions.

But mindfulness is not just for angry teens who shout and scream whenever life doesn’t go their way. People of all ages can learn to observe their feelings (both pleasant and unpleasant) and refrain from intense emotional reactions.

Instead of letting anger consume you (and everyone around you), take some time to understand and tame this ‘wild’ emotion.

 

The ‘Calm Down’ Kit

The ‘Calm Down’ kit is a set of practices or objects that help you cultivate a state of calm after a frustrating and stressful event.

Using the practices from your ‘Calm Down’ kit, you can prevent yourself from reaching a point where you risk having an angry outburst.

From meditation and relaxation techniques to inspirational messages, journaling, and music, make sure you always have two or three coping tools for when anger starts bubbling on the surface of your consciousness.

Long story short, there’s an entire arsenal of CBT anger management techniques that you can use to regain control and express anger in healthier ways.

All you need to do is contact a mental health professional who can help you figure out which strategies work best for you.

 

References

[1] K. S. Henwood, S. Chou and K. D. Browne, “A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of CBT informed anger management,” Aggression and Violent Behavior, vol. 25, pp. 280-292, 2015.
[2] A. H. Lee and R. DiGiuseppe, “Anger and aggression treatments: a review of meta-analyses,” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 19, pp. 65-74, 2018.
[3] P. Willner, J. Rose, A. Jahoda, B. Steinfert Kroese, D. Felce, P. MacMahon, A. Stimpson, N. Rose, D. Gillespie, J. Shead, C. Lammie, C. WoodGate, J. K. Townson, J. Nuttall, D. Cohen and K. Hood, “A cluster randomised controlled trial of a manualised cognitive behavioural anger management intervention delivered by supervised lay therapists to people with intellectual disabilities.,” Health Technology Assessment, vol. 17, no. 21, pp. 170-173, 2013.
[4] R. Alavinezhad, M. Mousavi and N. Sohrabi, “Effects of Art Therapy on Anger and Self-esteem in Aggressive Children,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 113, pp. 111-117, 2014.
[5] J. L. Deffenbacher, E. R. Oetting and R. A. DiGiuseppe, “Principles of Empirically Supported Interventions Applied to Anger Management,” The Counseling Psychologist, vol. 30, no. 2, 2002.
[6] K. Badpa, M. Shirazi and A. Arab, “Effect of mindfulness based on cognitive-behavioral therapy focusing on anger management regarding anxious thoughts among male students,” Journal of Research & Health, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 220-226, 2019.

 

About the author 

Alexander Draghici

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for several mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems: anxiety disorders and depression.


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