Our psychology intern, Brett Wallace, wrote, Anger Management Techniques That Work, to assist you privately in learning to manage your anger and painful emotional experiences. By reading the article, you will learn about Diaphragmatic Breathing (DB), Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) and Mindfulness. Each strategy is discussed with empirically based research confirming that each technique is effective in enhancing your ability to manage your emotions and anger. The article was edited by Dr. Justin D’Arienzo, Licensed Psychologist (Forensic and Clinical Psychologist) and Anger Management Expert.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Training: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a common tool used to decrease stress and aggression. One does PMR when they isolate each muscle group first by contracting or squeezing it for five to ten seconds and then relaxing it for five to ten seconds. One typically begins with the toes and feet and then progressively works up toward the head clenching parts of the face like the jaw and forehead. The entire exercise takes about five minutes. The benefit is that one learns through the exercise how to better identify what parts of the body one clenches when stressed and or identifying when they are stressed by noticing that the body is tightened.
Many theories about why this works exist. One theory involves the use of biofeedback. Biofeedback is when an electronic device is used that measures some type of physiological reaction like galvanic skin response and increased heart rate. An individual’s current mood state affects the body. Stress and anger for example tense the muscles of the body while more positive mood states relax the muscles of the body. Biofeedback teaches one when the body is in a physiological state of a certain mood.
Multiple studies have shown evidence that PMR reduces stress. Nickel, Lahmann, Tritt, Loew, Rother, and Nickel (2005) conducted a study to test the effects PMR had on aggressive adolescents. The results showed that overall there was significant decrease in anger and stress. It should be noted that the entire sample for this study was male.
Rausch, Gramling, and Auerbach (2006) conducted a study to compare single session PMR therapy with meditation and a control group that received no treatment. In their study, the meditation involved repeatedly focusing on a mantra (i.e. a positive or a neutral word or simple syllable or syllables). In their study they found that participants in the meditation and PMR groups did better than the control group in regards to stress and anxiety. One interesting fact to note is that the treatment groups reacted more to new stressful stimuli than the control group but they recovered much quicker.
Another study by Dolbier and Rush (2012) studied the effects of PMR on stressed college students. The results showed that participants that practiced PMR were more relaxed physically and mentally than the control group and had a lower heart rate.
Dolbier, C. L. & Rush, T. E. (2012). Efficacy of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation in a high-stress college sample. International Journal of Stress Management, 19, 48-68
Nickel, C., Lahmann, C., Trittz, K., Loew, T. H., Rother, W. K., & Nickel, M. K. (2005. Short communication: Stressed aggressive adolescents benefit from progressive muscle relaxation: A random prospective controlled trial. Stress and Health, 21, 169-175
Rausch, S. M., Gramling, S. E., Auerbach, S. M. (2006). Effects of a single session of large group meditation and progressive muscle relaxation training on stress reduction, reactivity, and recovery. International Journal of Stress Management, 13, 273-290
Diaphragmatic Breathing: The basis for diaphragmatic breathing (DB) mirrors progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) in many ways. Like PMR, DB is a type of relaxation tool. DB focuses on a more specific area, namely an individual’s breathing. When a person is angry, stressed, or anxious they enter a flight or fight state. In this state their muscles tense up and they engage in thoracic breathing which involves rapid breathing with their chest muscles. Diaphragmatic breathing involves deep breaths using a muscle under the lungs called a diaphragm. This breathing also goes under the name deep or abdominal breathing.
A more physiological explanation revolves around the concentration of oxygen in the blood stream compared to carbon dioxide .When an imbalance in favor of oxygen occurs the blood flow to the brain decreases. Also, the act of diaphragmatic breathing causes nerves to send signals to the area of the brain that controls and moderates the heart and lungs. This then causes that area of the brain to force the heart and lungs to act less rapidly. This activates the part of the nervous system that counters the flight-or-fight response. This results in decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and causes a general sense of relaxation (Omoluabi, 1994).
Prinsloo, Derman, Lambert, and Rauch (2013) studied how deep breathing affected the heart rate of participants that had stressed induced. In their study they found that the heart rate of participants in the study decreased. Participants that engaged in deep breathing became less stressed after the second stress induction.
Omolaubi, P. F. (1994). Practical steps in learning diaphragmatic breathing: a first-aid technique for reducing sports anxiety. Psychology in Africa, 2, 129-137
Prinsloo, G. E., Derman, W. E., Lambert, M. I., Rauch, H. G. L. (2013). The effects of a single session of short duration biofeedback-induced deep breathing on measures of heart rate variability during laboratory-induced cognitive stress: A pilot study. Applied Psychological Biofeedback, 38, 81-90
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is another effective method that works to manage emotions. It has shown to significantly reduce an individual’s anger. Mindfulness involves non-judgmentally observing the present moment or feeling (Wright, Day, and Howells, 2009). “Feeling” can mean physical sensations as well as thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is conducted when individuals study either their environment and their sensations or their emotional or anger experience. When focusing on their emotional experience, they focus on each facet of their physical and mental sensation in a purely objective way to gain a better understanding of it.
This leads to one hypothesis on how mindfulness affects anger. By studying anger in detail the individuals can then notice precursors of a potential anger outburst. This then allows one to then take measures to prevent this. Additionally, it also allows individuals to notice triggers that they initially were unaware of and avoid or prepare for them.
A second hypothesis on how mindfulness reduces anger takes a behavioral approach (Wright, Day, and Howells, 2009). One aspect of behaviorism involves negative reinforcement or escape/avoidant reinforcement. Some believe that anger outbursts are escape behaviors. Engaging in mindfulness forces the individual to get used to their anger without reacting to it.
A third hypothesis involves how mindfulness affects rumination. Rumination is defined as constant uncontrollable thoughts that cycle through an individual’s mind, seemingly without end. This can worsen stress, anxiety, depression, and anger (Wright, Day, and Howells, 2009). Borders, Earleywine, and Jajodia’s (2010) study seems to have shown that mindfulness decreases rumination and in effect, aggression in individuals. Unfortunately, the study in question focused on the correlation between the two so it cannot be said that decreased rumination leads to decreased anger.
Borders, A., Earleywine, M., & Japodia, A. (2010). Could mindfulness decrease anger, hostility, and aggression by decreasing rumination? Aggressive Behavior, 36, 28-44
Wright, S., Day, a., & Howells, K. (2009) Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 396-401