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By JEANNE MALMGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 1999
It happened in a Panama City suburb two weeks ago, during morning rush hour.
One pickup truck was tailgating another. A traffic light turned red. The trucks stopped. Four people spilled out, shouting.
For several crazed minutes, they went at each other with makeshift weapons, including a garden rake and a baseball bat. One of the combatants climbed in the bed of his truck and started revving up a chainsaw.
Suddenly he was clubbed from behind -- by a woman eight months pregnant. It took two nearby workers, a state trooper and a deputy sheriff to pull her off.
What's going on here?
Roadside wars, school shootings, domestic abuse, random mass homicides.
Have we all gone mad?
"People are definitely more angry," says psychotherapist and author Leonard Ingram.
Which means business has never been better for Ingram, founder and director of the Anger Institute of Chicago. Like a growing number of mental health professionals, Ingram has found a niche trying to help stem the rising tide of violence.
"I refer to anger management as the most important movement in American psychology," he says. "This is the new psychological frontier, for the millennium."
Anger, of course, has been around since early humans quibbled over the last mastodon drumstick. It's a natural, healthy emotion, psychologists note. It's just that these days, in a much more civilized society, it's still often expressed through violence. "The problem is not the anger, it's the mismanagement of anger," Ingram says.
Violent explosions of anger, such as the Columbine High School shooting, this summer's Atlanta rampage, and murders or batterings of ex-wives grab headlines. But even the legions of us who don't go completely berserk feel some degree of ongoing anger. A study released this summer by two Yale management professors said that nearly one-quarter of American workers often feel "underground chronic anger" on the job, not just because of heavy workloads but because they feel betrayed or let down by their employers.
Anger also simmers between co-workers. A Gallup poll in July found that one employee in six can recall a time in the past year when they were so annoyed by a colleague that they felt like hitting that person.
At home, behind closed doors, partners rant at each other and at children. Anger management counseling has become commonplace in schools, and is a standard part of court sentences handed to spouse batterers and others convicted of violent crimes, including such high-profile felons as rock musician Tommy Lee and boxer Mike Tyson. (Lee spent six months in prison last year for kicking wife Pamela Anderson. Tyson, on probation for a rape conviction, served several months in jail this year, after he assaulted two motorists at a fender-bender.)
Where does all this rage come from? To understand that, you have to look at our culture, says Tampa psychologist Bob Wright, who works with people on probation who are referred to anger management training by a judge.
"The stress people are under today is extreme," Wright says. "With corporate downsizing, for example, there's insecurity and extra work."
Ingram adds that crowded urban environments don't help.
"With the breakdown of rural communities, people of different cultures have occasion to interact with each other and so often, that's difficult," he says.
The "American dream," our drive toward success, contributes to the problem, Ingram adds.
"There's general disappointment in the myth about materialism. People think, "If I can just buy the right car or have the right clothes, I'll be happy.' But then we find out all the work we have to do to maintain this lifestyle. And we resent that."
Plain old angst plays a role, too.
"You have 75-million baby boomers going through a midlife crisis. It's bound to be hell!" Ingram says, laughing.
Global warming might even have something to do with it, notes George F. Rhoades Jr., a clinical psychologist on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.
"Research has shown as communities get more crowded and with increases in temperature, which leads to increased tension, there is an increase in anger and violence," Rhoades says.
Rhoades conducts anger workshops all over the United States, Canada, England and Asia. Next summer he plans to take his Anger Control Training, a system of 10 coping skills, to northern Ireland. He says anger can be used in a healthy manner, "to communicate your feelings, problem-solve and take charge of a situation."
Many psychologists are looking for new ways to treat anger problems. Ingram, of the Anger Institute of Chicago, reports that his largest client is that city's school system. John Byrnes, president of the Center for Aggression Management in Winter Park, offers seminars for clients such as the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, hospitals, hotel chains and school districts.
"We're training people to defuse aggression by identifying it early and seeing the possibility of conflict before it arises," Byrnes says.
Conflict is something Victoria Schaus sees every day.
As a community resource educator for Family Services Center, Schaus leads anger management groups all over Pinellas County. Even though her clients range from rebellious high school students to shelter residents, Schaus says the patterns of anger are often the same.
"It flows from a feeling of powerlessness. If you look in the schools, for example, the kids who feel powerless are the ones who are being violent. So you don't solve the problem by putting in metal detectors. You look at how you can empower these kids, make them feel more valuable."
Schaus leads an anger management program for students at East Lake High School who are chronically in trouble for being violent.
"What becomes clear is that these kids have already decided, "If somebody disses me, I get to hit him. Or beat him up. Or whatever.' A generation ago, kids wouldn't have acted out that way, but now they do."
Schaus blames popular entertainment.
"We're so good at blending violence with humor," she says. "Look at the movie Pulp Fiction. There was a lot of humor in that. We pair violence with things that are acceptable, which then makes the violence acceptable."
In her high school group, Schaus says, "We work on identifying the feelings that come before the anger -- maybe sadness or fear. That's hard for them to admit. Then we talk about anger as a matter of choice. And it's usually news to these kids that they have a choice, that they do have some control over how angry they get."
A dozen women of all ages and races sat in chairs arranged in a circle and discussed that familiar feeling of going "from 0 to 60 in a split-second," as one woman put it.
"What are the physical symptoms of anger?" Dowding asked the group. "What does it feel like in your body?'
"A warm rush," one woman said.
"Tingling," another offered.
"I get really rigid," a third woman said. "My ears puff up and I can't hear."
The women winced collectively even as they laughed.
Dowding explained the typical sequence of anger. First, a "trigger," usually a situation or a statement made by another person, sets you off. Then a thought, or series of thoughts ("Why is she so mean?" "What did I ever do to him?"), followed by a belief about those thoughts ("This is so unfair" or "She doesn't love me"), and the feeling (hurt, betrayal) that accompanies those beliefs.
After all that thinking, or "self-talk," as many therapists call it, comes the behavior, either overt actions like blowing up, shouting, hitting or breaking objects, or inward actions like sulking and pouting.
Dowding handed out photocopied sheets with titles such as "Common Anger Errors" and "Self Instructions for Regulating Anger." All encouraged the client to take specific steps to remain rational and calm.
"You can get through things without getting angry if you just treat it as a problem to be solved," Dowding said.
Then she divided the women into pairs so they could practice anger management skills in a role-playing exercise.
After a few minutes of mock arguing with her partner, one woman sighed.
"This is hard," she said.
"It's very hard," Dowding said, nodding sympathetically. "Anger is a very basic emotion."
Five kinds of anger:
* * *
One in five Americans has a problem managing their anger.
Fallout of mismanaged anger:
Four steps to manage anger:
1. Identify attitudes that predispose you to reacting angrily. (A common one is: "I must always get what I want, all the time.") This step helps you learn that no one else "makes" you angry; you make yourself angry. Anger is a self-inflicted wound.
2. Identify factors from your childhood that prevent you from expressing anger appropriately (things such as fear and denial).
3. Learn appropriate modes of expressing "legitimate" anger to others, to tell them how their behavior is affecting you, without blaming or criticizing.
4. Bind up your "anger wounds," or lingering resentments against people you think wronged you. This is the "mopping up" phase, usually accomplished by practicing forgiveness.
Anger is a secondary emotion. It is "triggered" by another unpleasant feeling, which comes first but is hard to see because the anger arises so quickly.
Some examples of anger "triggers":
Sources: Leonard Ingram, Anger Institute of Chicago; Daryl Dowding, M.A.
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