Adjust Your Anger Management Style—Reduce Your Pain
By Dr. John Fry
Researchers published some very interesting findings this April in the European Journal of Pain regarding how much pain you feel when you’re dealing with angry feelings. The authors conclude:
“Our study suggests that anger and a general tendency to inhibit anger
predicts heightened pain in the everyday life of female patients with
fibromyalgia. Psychological intervention could focus on healthy anger
expression to try to mitigate the symptoms of fibromyalgia.”
Previous research has shown that inhibiting anger increases pain in other pain conditions, as well. It turns out that when you suppress anger, you’re actually more aware of it and are angrier inside. This internal churning then creates more pain for those with fibromyalgia.
Does that mean that blasting away will reduce pain? Not really. It’s not a good solution, because then relationships often deteriorate. Research on marriage has shown that if there is a harsh start-up to a conversation, 90 percent of the time that conversation will fail to resolve the issue. Couples who say five times more positives than negatives to each other have almost no chance of divorce, while couples with only twice as many positives as negatives in their interaction have a fairly high probability of divorce. So blasting away clearly hurts relationships. This increases the possibility of anxiety and/or depression, and we know from previous research that both of those states are predictors of more pain in the future. Then what’s a man or woman with fibromyalgia to do?
Below are five practical tips that I have found to be helpful gleaned from over 30 years of private practice as a psychologist in Orange County, California, as well as from giving over a dozen seminars on anger management:
"By handling your anger better, neither blasting away nor by 'eating it,' you actually can decrease your fibromyalgia pain."
1. Choose assertive over aggressive or passive ways of expressing your anger.
You’re not left with the two bad choices of aggressively blasting away or letting your anger eat you up inside. Many people aren’t clear about the difference between aggressive and assertive, and so they choose the passive approach. Pressure and irritability grow, and then they blast away. Afterwards, guilt takes over and they drop back into a passive role until the pressure builds again. Not a fulfilling cycle, is it?
Sometimes people choose the “passive aggressive” option and use sneaky aggression. This includes trying to make someone else feel guilty without appearing to be angry at them. An example would be saying within earshot of an unsupportive spouse, “People who don’t cut us fibromyalgia patients some slack are insensitive and uncaring.” This tactic just tends to make others pull away from us, though.
The assertive option has the best chance of resolving the issue, reducing your anger, and hence reducing your pain. Here’s a great way to understand the differences between aggressive, assertive, and passive. When you are aggressive, you are only expressing your own needs: “You are being a jerk because you don’t understand my pain.” When you are passive, you are only looking at the other person’s needs: “I’d better not bother him with my concerns. It will only rock the boat.” When you are assertive, you are speaking up for your own needs while still taking into account the needs of the other, taking into account both people’s needs:“I know you’ve been really preoccupied with work, and it must be hard to hear about my pain, but it makes me feel closer to you if you listen to how my day went. I’ll try not to belabor it.” When first learning to be a more assertive person, it helps to think of a way to say something where the first clause in your sentence addresses your listener’s needs, and the second clause expresses your needs.
2. Understand that anger is usually a secondary emotion.
Anger is almost always preceded by one of four emotions—impatience, frustration, fear, or—most commonly in relationships—hurt. It helps to ask yourself the question, “If I couldn’t feel angry, what feeling would I be left with?” Then try to express your feelings at that level. Many times it makes your feelings a lot clearer to the other person, and usually they have an easier time hearing you and responding with less defensiveness.
3. Look at your “self-talk” and clean up the distortions that make you angrier.
A situation, however difficult, does not automatically translate into your mood. Its how you interpret the situation, what you tell yourself about it, that in the final analysis determines mood. If you throw a pity party for yourself, you view other people as horrible for picking on you, a poor defenseless creature. Then you get angrier. If you exaggerate the other’s offense, using words like “always” or “never” instead of “usually” or “rarely,” you make the other out to be a much worse person, which fuels your anger further. If you assume the worst about other’s intentions, you miss the positives they are trying to express by telling yourself they don’t really mean it.
Any time you are angry, ask questions of your angry conclusions: “Are there other ways to interpret her behavior? Even though this hurt my feelings, has he been nice to me in the past? He did that once—does that mean he always will do it?” You may still be angry, but usually less so—and this gives you a chance to see the issue more in tune with reality, rather than as an exaggeration of reality.
4. Look at the needs behind the other’s position or behavior.
Most issues between people are not like a pie where, if I get 70 percent of my needs met, you will only get 30 percent of yours met. There are win-win solutions (and lose-lose solutions)! Instead of arguing your position and fighting the other’s position, look at your needs and theirs to see if there is another option that meets more of both sets of needs.
One way to increase the chances of understanding the other’s needs is simply to ask and then try to paraphrase their response back to them. It is easier to do this if you realize that understanding is not the same as agreement. You can understand without necessarily agreeing. If the other person feels understood, though not agreed with, there is usually less fuel to their fire. This increases the chances of a resolution, or at least of an accommodation where the rough edges get worn off of the disagreement so it is more tolerable to both of you.
5. Learn how to forgive, especially when the other has apologized.
My favorite quote on forgiveness comes from the late Lew Smedes, who was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary: “When you forgive someone, the person you most take off the hook is yourself!” Forgiveness, particularly when the other is trying to do better, releases you most of all.
It helps me to forgive another if I ask myself these questions—“Have I ever done something like that to another?” and “Do I need forgiveness for things that I have done?” While forgiveness is at the core of religious faith, it is also key to good relationships.
Another helpful way of looking at forgiveness is as giving up the right to hurt back. Revenge is really not sweet, because we have lowered ourselves to what we condemn in others!
In summary, by handling your anger better, neither blasting away nor by “eating it,” you actually can decrease your fibromyalgia pain. Try practicing these five tips for a week and see if you don’t feel better. I’m rooting for you!
Dr. John Fry is a psychologist in private practice in Newport Beach, California. He works with men, women, adolescents, children, and marriages. One of his specialties is working with fibromyalgia patients. His wife has fibromyalgia and he sits on the National Fibromyalgia Association’s Board of Directors. To learn more, go to http://www.drjohnfry.com/.