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This time of year is often the most challenging with us having spent more time with family members both close and distant that we would ordinarily do.

It’s also the time where we find ourselves saying and acting in ways we wouldn’t normally. It can be a stressful time that puts pressure on us both emotionally and financially and highlights the feelings, thoughts and things that we may have ignored throughout the rest of the year.

This may ignite our anger which as already mentioned often hides feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, dissatisfaction, etc…. and lead to resentment, arguments, which is why we see much separation and divorce at this time of year.

As counsellors we hope to offer the space to explore those feelings, and provide an opportunity to start fresh to decide enough is enough and begin the hard work that is needed to strengthen our relationships not only with ourselves but with those around us if we decide to.

Below are a few tips that might help you manage those feelings;

1) Watch our for landmines

Identifying our “triggers” (landmines) those things (people, comments, situations, etc.) that rapidly increase our emotional responses. For example, if you are triggered by criticism, you are likely to have an extreme emotional response to being criticized. Common triggers include perceived rejection, failure, abandonment, and loss. Identifying your triggers in advance is a form of exposing yourself to your triggers through the use of your imagination. This “imaginal exposure” actually can reduce how distressing these triggers will be when you are exposed to them in real life. Furthermore, identifying your triggers in advance allows you to plan how you want to respond when faced with this trigger.

2) Time and place

We are more likely to be triggered in certain circumstances, which include times when we are more likely to become triggered.. For example, I am more likely to be triggered when I am tired, hungry, or while drinking alcohol. So I make reasonable attempts to avoid situations that may trigger me during times when I’m more likely to become triggered. For example, if I have to talk to a friend about a sensitive topic, I do so when I’m rested, fed, and sober.

These two principles of identifying triggers in advance and considering times when we are more likely to become triggered can be useful for managing all extreme emotions, not simply anger.

Regardless of whether or not we identify triggers and times we are more likely to be triggered, we may still get triggered unexpectantly. So how can we manage ourselves in these situations?

While there are a ton of relaxation skills out there, some are more effective than others. These are the ones I recommend to people managing intense anger.

3) Cooling the engine

If you find your anger building STOP🛑 . You are heading for the “knee-jerk” reaction that often accompanies anger. Remove yourself from the situation if it is reasonably possible, it may also be useful to say something like “I don’t mean to be rude but I have to go calm down for a moment” and go for a walk. You are less likely to do or say something that you might later regrets.

a) Relax the body

Our body is wired to react first then think after in that way we need to address the body first.

Some ways you can do this cooling off are;

–    Splashing cold water on your face, taking a cold cloth and putting it on your face or the back of your neck, or taking a cold shower. You’ll learn that it is really difficult to stay mad when your face is frozen.

–    Take some breaths, one useful breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 breath where you breath in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and breath out slowly for 8 seconds.

–    Intense exercise and something called “progressive muscle relaxation” also can be very effective for calming our bodies.

According to Baranowsky, Gentry, and Schultz (2011, p. 127), when our fight/flight/freeze response is activated we are using our “sympathetic nervous system” and when we are calm we are using our “parasympathetic nervous system.” When the sympathetic nervous system parts of our brain are dominant our thinking is reactive, we have an increased threat perception, and we have diminished brain functioning. By contrast when the parasympathetic nervous system parts of our brain are dominant, we are more capable of creative problem solving, we have better decision making, and we are better at regulating our emotions. By relaxing our bodies we can shift from sympathetic nervous system dominance to parasympathetic dominance.

b) Relax the mind

Once our bodies are calm, we are more capable of communicating and problem-solving. We are then more able identify the thoughts causing our intense emotional reactions, challenge our responses away from the judgment and blaming we put both on others (How dare you call me lazy after all I do for you! I dont deserve this!) and ourselves (You shouldnt be acting like this! I should better at this!).

In this ways we can become more mindful and less mindless paying attention to what is going on in our mind, without judgement. Noticing, accepting, and let go of our anger inducing thoughts. It sounds simple but it takes practice. We can they be more open to communicating and getting across what we really want to say. To really use our anger to communicate effectively that which we feel.

Next time we will look at ways that we can communicate our feelings.

Stuart Davenport (MBACP) is an existential, person centred counsellor in training at The Eaves.

He is a passionate about helping address the situation of a person’s life and the challenges of the human condition. So that they can live a meaningful and satisfying life despite all challenges that we all undoubtedly encounter on our path.