Tips for Anger Management

Jan. 25, 2002 -- Today's sentencing of Thomas Junta of six to ten years of imprisonment for the beating death of fellow hockey dad Michael Costin signals a tragedy that hits close to home not only for their families but also for many average Americans.

Who among us has not experienced negative reactions ranging from mild annoyance to rage in response to the unfavorable events of everyday life?

Both Junta and Costin had previous arrests for assault, but there are ample examples of perfectly "normal" men — it's almost always a man — succumbing to the impulse to lash out in violence at those we perceive to be a threat.

While those who harm others must be subjected to justice, it has become clear that the threat of punishment is not a deterrent to violent acts.

The assistant manager of the ice rink testified that when Thomas Junta, after being ejected, stormed back into the rink, "his face was very red" and "his hands were clenched." Such a state is not conducive to the cool, rational consideration of possible consequences of continuing the fight.

Anger management skills are critical tools that we all need if we are to keep other families from losing their fathers.

But how do we learn such skills? Thomas Jefferson once said, "When angry count to 10; when very angry count to 100."

Reason Reins

When we lash out, with or without the tragic consequences suffered by Michael Costin, it is the lower part of our brain — the so-called "reptilian brain" — that has hijacked our body. But, humans have a cerebral cortex that gives us the capacity to reason, if we give it a chance.

When angered, we can command our cerebral cortex to evaluate our anger — to determine if we need to take action to right a wrong, or to change our reaction to the situation.

I recommend the "I AM WORTH IT" exercise.

"I" reminds you to consider if the situation is important to you. Is it worth your continuing attention?

"A" asks you to reflect upon the appropriateness of the anger response in light of the objective facts. Would other reasonable people have a similar reaction?

"M" calls for you to ask yourself if the situation is modifiable. Is there anything you can do to change the situation so that you are not so angry?

"WORTH IT" asks that you reflect on whether or not it would be worth it to take some action to change the situation.

The jerk who is tailgating you at 70 mph might back off if you tap your brakes, but he might retaliate with a .357 magnum (should he carry one), or he may try to pull in front of you and then slam on his brakes. It isn't worth your life. Better to pull over and practice a relaxation exercise!

Any "No" to the "I AM WORTH IT" questions means you need to change your angry reaction. Four "Yes" answers, on the other hand, means this is one of those times when you should do something.

It doesn't mean that, like 007 you've been given a license to kill, however. It means that you need to practice — as calmly as possible — assertion, by asking the other person to change the behavior that is bothering you. Or you could engage in problem solving to come up with some ways to get to your destination when your flight has been canceled.

If Mr. Junta had known to ask himself these four "I AM WORTH IT" questions before storming back into the rink, his answers might have led to a far better outcome.

Dr. Williams is the director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at the Duke University Medical Center.