Putting Out the Fire in the Firefighter: How to Deal with Anger

Picture this scene: You’re driving home from your second double shift in as many weeks because you were on mandatory at a busy station. You ran four calls after midnight, none of which felt like “true emergencies.” The icing on the crap cake is that your spouse called you during shift to let you know the roof is leaking.

You pull into your driveway, walk inside, and it’s chaos. The house is a mess, your kids are running around screaming, and your spouse immediately starts giving you the laundry list of to-do items that need to be done today. Oh, and don’t forget about that leaking roof.

You go bananas: yelling, screaming, cussing, and slamming doors. Maybe you hurl insults at your spouse, you yell at your kids, or you just completely shut down and stare off into space, doing everything you can to not explode, but shutting out your family in the meantime.

Sound vaguely familiar? If you’re dealing with anger, chances are it’s not just happening at home, either. You’re probably lashing out at crew members, friends, and relatives. You might even start losing your patience with patients (see what I did there?)

So, we should probably figure out what to do about that anger. I covered the ins and outs of anger in a different post, so check that out if you want to learn more. In this post, I want to give you some tips on dealing with anger.

First, notice that I didn’t say “manage anger.” That was on purpose. Managing anger gives the impression that you should control anger, itself. The problem is attempting to control thoughts and feelings can be a difficult task. Instead, I want to give you tools to help you confront and deal with feelings of anger.

Tip 1: Train on Anger

You wouldn’t immediately go into the field and begin working calls without appropriate training. You would risk harming victims, crew members, and yourself. You go through a massive amount of training in order to do the job efficiently, effectively, and safely.

Just like you train for the job, you can train on how to deal with anger more effectively. The difference is that training on anger is less tangible. You have to be willing to engage in exercises that help you become more aware of your angry thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The more aware you become of your own anger, the better you can be at dealing with it effectively. One of the best ways to increase awareness of your anger is by practicing internal situational awareness training (iSAT).

Tip 2: Get Angry

Wait. What? But I thought we were supposed to avoid anger.

NO! Remember, you can’t stop yourself from experiencing anger. Trying to avoid anger would be like trying to avoid that 3:00am Basic Service call: It’s impossible. In fact, trying to avoid anger is likely going to increase feelings of frustration and anger, exactly because it’s so difficult to avoid feeling angry. And then, you just end up getting angry about…..being angry!

We actually want you to do the opposite: Intentionally and purposefully experience the feeling of anger in order to overcome it. But let me clarify: I don’t mean that you should intentionally act angry. That wouldn’t be helpful at all! What I mean is put yourself in a situation that is likely to induce the feeling of anger, so you can train on dealing with it. You can think of it like stress inoculation training, except it’s more like anger inoculation training.

It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out ways to make yourself angry: Think of a political issue/person that really pisses you off, remember the last time someone insulted you, think of that one annoying jackass, etc. The idea is, you want to stir up feelings of anger, then move on to Tip 3.

Tip 3: Detach from Anger

Car accidents can be scary for victims, especially when they are trapped in compressed steel. Anger can feel that way too. When you’re consumed by anger, you lose control over how you act. Before you know it, you’re doing and saying things that you later regret.

For compressed steel, you can use spreaders to create space for victims to get free. You can do something similar when dealing with overwhelming anger, but it takes training on anger (Tip 1) and the willingness to get angry (Tip 2). Once you start feeling yourself getting angry, try these steps to help create space from the anger:

  1. Identify 2 to 3 places in your body where you notice angry feelings (e.g., chest, stomach, shoulders, etc.)
  2. Identify and label angry thoughts (e.g., “There is a judgmental thought”, “there’s a thought about blaming someone”, “here are thoughts about others being wrong”, etc.)
  3. Now, intentionally focus on other parts of your inner or outer experience where anger does not exist. For example, are you feeling angry in your feet? Are you feeling angry in your hands? Can you notice one or two things you can see or hear? The purpose isn’t to distract yourself from anger, it’s to momentarily shift focus to help you notice that anger is not all-consuming, it only exists in certain areas of your body (e.g., chest, stomach, shoulders, etc.). This can help you create space between you and anger.

Every time you feel yourself getting caught up in angry thoughts and feelings, return back to the sensations where you do not notice the feeling of anger (e.g., Feet, hands, breath, sights, sounds).

Tip 4: Develop an Anger Standard Operating Procedure

The point of Tips 1 – 3 is to help you accomplish Tip 4. At the end of the day, you must respond to what’s in front of you. The question becomes, how do you really want to respond, even when you’re angry? It’s best to identify and clearly establish the qualities you would like to show when responding to situations that evoke anger. Here are a few examples of qualities you could work toward:

  • Assertive
  • Respectful
  • Standing up for myself
  • Kind
  • Forgiving
  • Friendly
  • Mean
  • Insulting
  • Aggressive
  • Hostile
  • Condescending
  • Degrading

When anger is in the driver’s seat of your actions, are you more likely to act on the column on the left or the right? Which column would you like your actions to represent? The idea here is to notice how you would prefer to respond when feeling angry, then start to write out ideas of what specific actions you could take that would move you toward the column of your choosing.

It’s not always easy to change your behavior in the presence of anger. After all, you’ve been reacting in similar ways for a long time and, as the saying goes, habits can be hard to break. That’s why training is so important. The more you train, the better you’ll be at replacing old habits with newer ones.

If you’re really struggling with anger or any other behavioral health difficulty, feel free to call us or self-schedule an appointment.

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