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Neurons in the brain that fire together create a state of mind. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, teaches that the neurons strengthen their connection with each other, changing the structure of the brain so that a temporary state becomes a long-term trait.
Anger expert Robert Nay, a clinical associate professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, advocates the idea of neuroplasticity as a form of anger management. In his new book, The Anger Management Workbook, he looks at the connection between the mind and body and the ability to change angry behavior into a rational, constructive response.
Signs that you may have an anger problem
Anger issues can affect all parts of a person's life. "Performance in virtually every area of life—including school, work, and sports—will decrease," says Nay. He explains that the body's systems will produce physical symptoms as a result. The muscular and skeletal system can experience headaches and muscle pain, while the cardiovascular system will respond with an increased heart rate and body heat. Anger can also affect the gastrointestinal system, causing an upset stomach and heartburn.
Personal health and wellness take a hit too. Relationships suffer due to anger issues as well. "People will complain about your intensity, avoid you, and you'll face what seem like unresolvable conflicts," explains Nay. Any of these signs can point to anger issues and, as Nay discusses in his book, it's incredibly important to be aware of your anger. If you don't recognize that you have anger problems it becomes difficult to apply the method of neuroplasticity in order to cope.
Learn how to manage your anger
In his book, Nay explores a series of experiential exercises which involve practising certain behaviours designed to curb anger management issues. His STOP method teaches people techniques that help them understand the connection between their brain and their body when they get mad. People need to start by being mindful of their anger—to be able to recognize it when it occurs and know the signs their body is sending that they are in fact mad.
Nay explains that you first deduce anger arousal by noticing how your body is reacting and changing because of your angry emotions. Once you understand how your body signals this, you'll be more aware of when it happens and therefore having a better handle on controlling it.
Think about how your thoughts are controlling your body. Identify the powerful thoughts that fuel the anger destructively. You can learn to push them away and to tell your brain to shut them out. "Believe it or not it will listen," says Nay.
This step calls for you to replace those angry thoughts. "Visualize better thoughts, ones that will calm you down," Nay advises. Just as your body flares up with angry thoughts, it will relax with ones that you find soothing. If you replace the aggression with the appropriate assertiveness, you will be able to voice your feelings and needs, communicating what it was that got you angry in the first place.
Plan how to defuse the conflict and find a win-win solution. By devising a plan you can "rethink the situation in a factual, subjective manner," says Nay. In doing so you will be able to avoid future situations that would cause anger.
With practice, the STOP method can be applied when dealing with everyday stress and anxiety. The more aware people are of their body responding and reacting to anger, the more effectively they will learn to handle stress and anger-inducing situations. The repetition will lead to physical changes in the brain, which, over times, will become permanent.
Top tips for controlling your anger
If you don't think that you have anger issues that call for brain rewiring, Nay has some quick tips to help you regain control over your emotions.
1. Keep a log. Nay encourages his patients to keep an anger-incident log, writing down when they become angry and why it happened. "When you self-monitor behaviours they are more likely to change," says Nay. His patients who do this are able to grasp how often anger is affecting their life and what certain triggers and reactions are. "It makes them mindfully aware of themselves."
2. Breathe through it. Sometimes something as simple as breathing can help when you are angry. "When you are aware of anger internally, tell the brain and it will listen," Nay says. When you realize that you're angry, stop everything you're doing and sit down with your arms loosely at your sides. "This diminishes the fight or flight response," explains Dr. Nay. "Sitting is associated with safety and security." Take a deep breath and let it out very slowly through your mouth. "Count back from ten," advises Dr. Nay. By forcing yourself to calm down and relax, you're experiencing your body's parasympathetic response in your body, which activates tranquil functions. By sitting and breathing, your body will calm down and you will have a clearer mind.
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