Oklahoma Bar Journal
Dealing With Anger
By Peggy Stockwell
At one time or another, everyone feels anger bubbling up. There is nothing wrong with experiencing anger. It is a normal response when a person senses a threat or a social or professional slight. We all get angry at our spouses, our kids, other lawyers, judges, the traffic and any number of things. Anger can be caused by external events, such as being angry at a specific person, or internal events, such as worrying about your personal problems.
Anger is a natural emotion. When you sense a threat, your mind generates fear and anger. According to Mitch Abrams, Ph.D., an anger management expert and psychiatry professional at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University, “Anger itself is neither good nor bad.”1
There are different forms of anger:
Passive anger. People with passive anger act like martyrs and do not admit to their anger.
Aggressive anger. This type of anger can be physical — throwing things or verbal — yelling, cursing, etc.
Passive-aggressive anger. This type of anger looks passive but is really aggressive. Chronic lateness and intentional unsafe driving are examples of passive-aggressive anger.
Indirect anger. In this type of anger, the person does not talk to the person she is angry at — she talks to a third party instead.
There are different levels of anger as well. According to Melissa Bienvenu, “Low to moderate anger can even work for good, prompting you to right wrongs and make improvement. But it also kicks your body’s natural defenses into overdrive. When you sense a threat, your nervous system releases powerful chemicals that prepare you to fight, run and stay alive.”2
Anger is a subset of stress.3 Anger is usually a healthy human emotion. It is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage according to Charles Spielberger, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger.
Anger is also accompanied by physiological and biological changes. When you get angry, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up and the levels of your hormones and adrenaline go up.4 Additionally, a rapid response to anger tends to amp up one’s brain. It can quickly help you to know there is a potential threat, but it can also push you to make rash decisions in the heat of the moment. Anger has been linked to accidents and risky behavior such as gambling, drinking and overeating. It can also play a role in depression. Studies have suggested that holding your anger in may be just as unhealthy as blowing up.
According to Mitch Abrams, Ph.D., the problem is that chronically angry people spend too much time in this hyped-up state. Over time that puts too much wear and tear on your body, making you more likely to get heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other problems.5 Medical literature now says that stress can make us more vulnerable to diseases including psychological impairment. Medical research has shown that chronic stress is linked to six leading causes of death — heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, serious accident, liver disease and suicide.
At the least, unchecked anger can push away the people you need the most. Worse, it can turn into aggression or violence.
Some of the warning signs of an anger issue are:
- when it occurs too frequently
- when the intensity is too strong or
- when it endures too long.
Occasionally feeling annoyed or even angry is nothing to worry about, but getting angry at least once a day, holding on to anger for long periods of time or holding on to anger toward or at someone who died years ago are signs of anger issues. Anger doesn’t come by itself. There is always another emotion attached. Anger is often triggered by fear, powerlessness, frustration, pain from the past, feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, jealousy, seeking approval, hurt and manipulation and health.
An attorney’s stress begins in law school where they are taught to think like a lawyer and to be competitive for grades. Law students may become alcoholics or depressed and take that with them into their practice of law. This stress can lead to anger, anger at the profession, anger at ourselves and anger at other lawyers who sometimes feed further stress and negativity. We also deal with clients, and they are often angry.
Nearly 30 percent of the calls received by the OBA’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers program are due to substance abuse.6 This often represents an attempt to self-medicate stress, anger and depression. A number of studies indicate that lawyers suffer from substance abuse, mental disorders and mental issues at a higher rate than the general population.7
WAYS TO DEAL WITH ANGER
So, we need to learn ways to deal with our anger and our underlying stress and to stay healthy and maintain healthy relationships both socially and professionally.
The best way to deal with anger is to control it before it controls you. The Florida Bar recently devoted a special issue to mindfulness in its bar journal. In “The Art of Being Mindful in the Legal World: A Challenge for Our Times,”8 Judge Alan S. Gold states that “Put simply, excess stress can make us sick or sicker.” According to Time magazine, “Scientists have been able to prove that meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels in blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression.”9
According to Wikipedia, mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.
A more simplistic definition of mindfulness is being present in the moment. It is about obtaining a mind of calmness and clarity. It is also about silencing that voice in your head that is negative and distracting.
Mindfulness is an element of some Buddhist traditions. It is generally considered to have been initiated in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He defines mindfulness as, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Some studies have shown that mindfulness is correlated with well-being. Clinical physiologists and psychiatrists have developed a number of therapeutic applications using mindfulness for helping people who have a variety of psychological conditions. Many large corporations are using mindfulness training. Google has a mindfulness program. Even Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court finds it helpful to practice mindfulness. He states, “For 10 or 15 minutes twice a day I sit peacefully. I relax and think about nothing or as little as possible.”10
For people interested in mindfulness, I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books — particularly Wherever You Go, There You Are and The Mindful Way Through Depression.11
If you think yoga might be helpful to you, I recommend Yoga for Lawyers: Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All The Time.12 In Yoga for Lawyers, mindfulness has been associated with the following traits: leadership skills, attuned communications, emotional balance fear modulation, flexibility and response tactics, empathy, insight, heightened sense of morality and better interpersonal skills.13 In this book, lawyers can find tips about yoga, ways to destress and recharge, information about practicing mindfulness and the role of stress.
So how do we do it? We breathe. That sounds easy; we do it every day, all the time. We need to refocus our breathing to be mindful. Judge Gold, in his article, suggests the following:
- Sit with good posture and close your eyes.
- Notice your breathing; focus on the air moving in and out of your lungs.
- As thoughts come into your mind and distract you from your breathing, acknowledge those thoughts and then return to focusing on your breathing.
- If your mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to your breathing.
Another mindful exercise is called STOP; it stands for Stop. Take a Breath. Observe. Proceed.
It is recommended that one start by doing this mindfulness meditation for five minutes a day for a week and then try to add more time. This can be done everywhere and anywhere. You can sit at your desk and practice mindfulness or you can do it at the courthouse or at home. It is a matter of taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing and clear your mind of negative thoughts.
The following may be helpful to beginners:
- Pick a time each day to make it a habit.
- Close your door.
- Just do it. You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to do it regularly.
STRATEGIES TO KEEP ANGER AT BAY
In addition to the mindfulness techniques outlined, the American Psychological Association14 suggests the following strategies to keep anger at bay:
Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry people tend to curse, swear or speak in highly colorful terms that reflect their inner thoughts. When you’re angry, your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts with more rational ones.
Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by real problems in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced, and often it’s a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. The best thing to do in such a situation is to focus on how you handle and face the problem. Resolve not to get angry. Rather, approach the problem as calmly and rationally as possible.
Angry people tend to jump to conclusions, and some of those conclusions can be very inaccurate. If you’re in a heated discussion, slow down and think through your responses. The best way to express anger is assertively, using “I” rather than “you” statements. So, we should say, “I am angry because you didn’t return my call” instead of “You really make me mad.” Assertive anger is the method that communicates our feelings without violating the integrity of others.15
Sometimes our immediate surroundings can cause us anger. Give yourself a break. Take a walk around the block. Take a walk around the office.
In conclusion, anger is a natural response to stress, but a person must learn to handle anger and stress in healthy ways. Failure to learn healthy techniques for managing anger and stress constitutes a very serious threat to physical and psychological health. There are many techniques for handling anger and stress. One such technique involves the process of implementing the process of mindfulness and meditation to obtain a calm mind. Other helpful techniques include cognitive restructuring, problem solving, better communication and changing of environment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peggy Stockwell practices in Norman, focusing on family law. She is a certified mediator, arbitrator and guardian ad litem in family law cases. She has served on the OBA Board of Governors and many OBA committees including the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program, Awards Committee and Disaster Relief Committee. She is an active Cleveland County Bar Association member, serving on the Executive Committee for many years and as president in 2000. She gets mad a lot, so she understands anger.
1. Melissa Bienvenu, WebMD, “Why Am I So Angry?” 2009 WebMD LLC.
3. “Stress and Your Heart,” A.D.A.M. Inc., Feb. 14, 2016.
4. Kate Pickert, “The Mindful Revolution: The Science of Finding Focus in a Stressed Out, Multitasking Culture,” Time (Feb. 3, 2014).
5. Bienvenu, WebMD.
6. Oklahoma Bar Association Utilization Report, OneLife Employee Assistance Program, Jan. 1 - Nov. 18, 2016.
7. Butler Center for Research, Research Update, Hazelden Foundation, Attorneys and Substance Abuse (September 2012).
8. Judge Alan S. Gold, "The Art of Being Mindful in the Legal World: A Challenge for Our Times," The Florida Bar Journal, Vol 90, No. 4 (April 2016).
9. Pickert, “The Mindful Revolution,” Time (Feb. 3, 2014).
10. CNN Interview with Amanda Enayati, “Seeking Serenity: When Lawyers Go Zen,” May 11, 2011.
11. Jon Kabat-Zinn, www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/books-by-jon-kabat-zinn.
12. Hallie Neuman Love and Nathalie Martin, Yoga for Lawyers: Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All the Time, Chicago: ABA Publishing, 2014.
14. Controlling Anger Before It Controls You, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx.
15. Louisa Rogers in her pamphlet “Dealing with Anger.”
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 439 (March 11, 2017)