Monday, June 1, 2009

Why learning to "pull your punches" (manage your anger) is so crucial to relapse prevention

There is a clear connection between anger problems and chemical addiction. The two feed each other in so many ways. People we interviewed for our Pulling Punches: a Curriculum for Rage Management DVD series described the connection in different ways:
  • "I used drugs like pot or heroin to stuff down or "numb" anger so it wouldn't come out."
  • "I used alcohol to explode the anger out or get "false courage" to express myself."
  • "Getting into an argument with someone was an excuse for me to use. It was like, 'You pissed me off, so I'm going out drinking.'"
  • "I would cycle from rage, to using, to acting-out violently, to guilt afterward, to using again. ('I've done it again, I'm bad, I might as well drink and drug to forget the pain.'")

Of course, if you use drugs or alcohol often enough to numb your feelings, or as an excuse to act them out, you're likely to develop an addiction to those substances. And if the only way you can express your anger is when you are under the influence, you're going to want to use a lot, setting yourself up for addiction. So anger problems and chemical addictions feed each other. Not dealling with the anger problem sets our clients up for relapse. Because when they get angry during early recovery (which they surely will), if not prepared, they can easily relapse.

There is also an obvious connection between anger problems and incarceration. A very high percentage of those in jail or prison have histories of destructive anger patterns, and often it was some manifestation of rage which led to incarceration, including assault, spousal abuse, child abuse, murder, attempted murder, weapons charges, etc.

Most anger problems stem from feelings of powerlessness. Often, people who haven't learned more effective ways of setting boundaries (or who have grown up in environments where they had no control or ability to take care of themselves) resort to the only way they know how to retain some sense of "power:" physical and emotional violence. But, of course, because of the consequences of this approach, it becomes a vicious cycle: You feel powerless and helpless; you act-out aggressively; you enjoy a temporary (false) sense of control; but you ultimately lose power over your life. Because life can become more and more unmanageable as the result of anger problems: Jobs can be lost, kids taken away, relationships ended, and addictions fueled.

That's why we developed our DVD series: Pulling Punches, a comprehensive curriculum for anger management--specifically designed for people in recovery from addiction. The truth is that anyone with an anger problem--even if he or she isn't an addict or alcoholic--can benefit from anger management work. Because the issues are essentially the same:

  • Looking at any negative consequences of our anger style (do we alienate people from us? Lose jobs? Get arrested for assault? Scare the people we love?)
  • Learning that destructive anger patterns are usually learned early in life
  • Needing realistic, practical tools with which to control anger "in the heat of the moment."
  • Needing long-term conflict resolution skills to replace the negative approach. These make us feel more personally effective and truly powerful! (Whereas going off in a rage actually robs us of personal's a paradox!)
  • Checking out any of our underlying beliefs that fuel rage. (Like, "everyone's got it easier than me." "Any attempt to correct me is disrespecting me." etc.)
  • Learning to express other emotions besides anger, since anger is often the cover-up for feelings we're less comfortable with (like hurt, fear, sadness, rejection). We need a broader emotional "palette," in other words.

In Part I of our series, we introduce people who have had serious anger problems in recovery, but who have changed: The main teaching points our:

1. It's an anger problem when your anger is out of proportion, out of control, or violent.

2. Some people have "anger blackouts," when rage becomes so intense they feel like they're in another state of being.

3. Some people get a "high" from anger. This high consists of both an adrenaline rush and feelings of power and control (however fleeting!)

4. Many people with anger problems learned their anger style from role models who had anger problems.

5. Many people with anger problems were victims of some trauma as children and developed a lot of "walking around" (chronic) anger from that, which comes out as over-reactions to everyday incidents.

6. What triggers people with anger problems often has to do with past experiences which get re-played in the present. the old emotions get triggered, and the old anger (that belongs back there) gets played out in the present!

7. There is hope. Many recovering people have learned better ways of managing their anger and improved their lives as a result.

Check it out with a free preview of Pulling Punches. Or weigh in here on what you think about the connection between anger and addiction. Or share what you're doing to help your clients with this connection...

More about Pulling Punches and anger management in future posts. CU soon... ReelDonna