In the hands of a master blacksmith, a piece of spitting, white-hot steel fresh from the forge becomes something useful, or even a work of art.
Anger is a bit like that piece of steel – handling it well takes wisdom, and often, years of practice.
“There are times when anger is a good thing,” clinical psychologist Greg Gibson told attendees at a recent Farmer-to- Farmer workshop on the subject of anxiety and anger.
“Sometimes our thoughts and emotions are right. If someone is chasing us with a gun, we recognize that the situation is dangerous and we need to run. This thought creates the anx iety and means that we can escape. It saves our lives.”
That’s part of the normal “fight or flight” reaction to stressful situations. When cornered, humans or animals crank their reaction up a notch: that’s anger.
“Now we might think, ‘I need to overpower this guy, or I might not survive,’” said Gibson. “That thought creates anger and aggression, which motivates us to fight.”
Problems arise when people see situations as threatening when they are not, or when people feel the need to attack or fight when there are other solutions.
“That’s where it becomes difficult, when our thoughts become negative habits,” said Gibson. “That’s where we develop anger and anxiety- based disorders.”
People who suffer from these disorders respond without thinking – almost by reflex.
“We get angry or get anxious because we are perceiving something as a threat,” said Gibson. “And quite often, we find that we are getting overly anxious, or overly angry. If that happens over a long period of time, we may find that we developed a bad habit in the way we’re looking at the situation.”
Cognitive therapy, for those who have difficulty handling their anger or anxiety, aims to help people recognize that it’s their reaction to stressful events – not the events themselves – that makes them climb what Gibson calls “Anger Mountain.”
Examples of flawed thinking include “catastrophizing” (automatically assuming the worst is going to happen) and “tunnel vision” (magnifying the risk of potentially negative outcomes, while minimizing the positive).
Likewise is the tendency to slap absolutist “labelling” on others, automatically assuming that they are “jerks” with evil motives, rather than simply indifferent.
“If we think that ‘everyone is an asshole,’ we take those labels, and keep them in our pockets,” said Gibson. “We label ourselves and others.”
Other indicators are “black-and-white” thinking, often including the words “always” or “never,” and their close relatives, “should” and “shouldn’t.”
People who have mastered anger, or who have at least developed skills in managing it, learn to challenge thoughts that lead them into the fire.
“What’s the worst that can happen? For many people, the solution to catastrophizing is reminding themselves that the world will not end,” said Gibson.
“What probably will happen; the pros and cons? Is it worth getting this upset about? If you’re stewing all day about that person being an asshole, you’ve just lost a day. Is it worth it? Do I let go, or hold on to this anger?”
Gerry Friesen, recovering farmer and host of the Farmer-to-Farmer workshops, likes to joke about his own “base camp” halfway up Anger Mountain.
He said he has learned to challenge his own habitual crankiness, which often manifests itself as road rage. Like alcoholics, people trapped in the anger habit can easily fall off the wagon, he added.
“When I drive, and it doesn’t matter what kind of spirits I’m in when I leave home, I get frustrated,” he said.
He has recognized he has a problem with anger, and a few days ago, he made a conscious effort to relax and slow down, keeping the needle at 85 kilometres an hour. But when a vehicle ahead of him slowed down to 70, and he couldn’t pass because of oncoming traffic, Friesen came close to blowing a gasket.
“Of course when the traffic was gone, what do I do? I tramp it. But why am I doing this? Now I’m wrecking my car. Relax.”
Taking a moment to think, before reacting with anger, literally saved the day, Friesen added.
“As you can tell, I’m a troubled person,” he said, with a grin.
– The next workshop in the Farmer-to-Farmer series, “Handling Farm Financial Stress,” will be held at the Brandon GO-Office boardroom on March 30, from 2 to 4 p.m. daniel. [email protected]
“Wegetangryorgetanxiousbecausewe areperceivingsomethingasathreat.And quiteoften,wefindthatwearegetting overlyanxious,oroverlyangry.Ifthat happensoveralongperiodoftime,we mayfindthatwedevelopedabadhabitin thewaywe’relookingatthesituation.”
– GREG GIBSON