When UC Irvine professor Raymond Novaco was a graduate student en route to a doctorate in psychology, he observed that much of his field focused on depression and anxiety.
But he was brought to understand other mental health issues that he says were largely overlooked at the time. His decision to focus his research on anger, aggression, and violence was also informed by his martial arts training, through which he learned techniques for maintaining a calm and controlled demeanor while defending himself.
Decades later, Novaco is the leading authority on anger whose work has significantly advanced the field. He is often credited with coining the term “anger management” and has primarily focused on the assessment and treatment of people with severe disorders and histories of violence.
(No, the concept of “anger management” didn’t come from an extremely dumb 2003 movie starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson. It was a psychotherapeutic program for anger prevention and control that helped many real people in the real world.)
In my last column, I discussed the apparent increase in anger in our society over the past few years – amid the pandemic and a politically divided climate – as each day brought news of new outbreaks of rage and threatening behavior.
I included comments from Novaco, who explained that anger is a natural reaction when people believe they are being attacked, but that problems arise when anger is uncontrolled or out of proportion to the perceived danger – which he called a “dysregulated anger.”
But I wanted to know more, so Novaco generously agreed to a second interview, this time to discuss the treatment and response side of the issue – in other words, what can be done when anger becomes deregulated.
He immediately cleared me up on an important point that, in hindsight, should have been obvious to me.
Learning to manage or control anger isn’t just about reacting to an outburst of anger after it’s gotten out of control, when negativity fuels even more negativity, he noted. Rather, it is crucial that people learn how to prevent the onset of anger or “how not to get angry in the first place”.
One of the therapeutic goals is to help people understand that their anger often boils over because of the way they frame things in their mind. Certain beliefs and attitudes can become exaggerated, and even the smallest perceived slights can lead to heightened feelings and reactions.
It is possible to teach people to identify possible triggers and help them reframe their cognitive processing so that they don’t give them so much importance.
Another key component of effective therapy is a cost-benefit analysis, Novaco explained.
In fact, this is an important first step because to successfully treat dysregulated anger, the patient must be fully engaged and willing to change. And that will comes when they realize that the cost of their behavior is greater than the needs they believe can be met by holding back their anger.
“A simple thing a therapist would do is say, ‘How would your life be different if you didn’t get so angry?'”
Another crucial part of treating anger issues involves a difficult and delicate process of making a patient feel safe and comfortable discussing their anger and other related emotions – fear, sadness, feelings of abandonment or trauma, for example.
When teaching patients coping techniques, Novaco again draws on his knowledge of martial arts, as the breathing and systematic muscle relaxation techniques that are part of the martial arts canon can help reduce arousal. . He is also a great advocate of meditation.
Once patients have acquired certain coping skills, Novaco can guide them through a progression of increasingly challenging situations so they can try these techniques. It’s a long and potentially cumbersome process, but one that can lead to significant progress toward healthier responses.
Novaco also has some advice for everyday people who find themselves facing an outburst of anger and hostility.
Personal safety, of course, is paramount, so if another person appears to be out of control and potentially violent, establishing a safe buffer zone and knowing where exit routes are is crucial, he said. declared.
Beyond that, it’s important to project a sense of calm and control.
Don’t use the word “anger,” he said.
“Most people who are really agitated can be aware on some level that they are out of control. Don’t upset them any further. Listen. It is not important that you can correctly identify his emotional state. Say, ‘I see you’re upset. Tell me what’s bothering you. Listen and repeat what they said.
The insight offered by Novaco, I believed, was a combination of professional expertise, extensive research, decades of experience and common sense. We would all do well to heed his wise advice.
After all, the world could certainly do with a little less anger these days.
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