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Anger and alcoholism often go hand in hand. On the one hand, problem drinking can begin as a mechanism (however poor) for coping with feelings of anger. On the other hand, alcohol abuse can exacerbate anger problems — hence the phenomenon of the “angry drunk,” for example. The sedative, depressive effects of alcohol can remove the conscious defenses that at other times may be masking or suppressing underlying feelings of anger.
The Link Between Anger and Alcohol Abuse
This two-way link between anger and alcohol abuse is often most evident during detox, when clients are undergoing the physical and psychological stress of withdrawal and are unable to hide the raw intensity and turbulence of their emotions. I think of one client in alcohol detox with whom I recently was asked to speak — and who, for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call “Bob”: when I first approached him, he was screaming in the parking lot of our facility about some issues he was unhappy about. (We’ll return to Bob in just a bit.)
It may be no surprise, then, that healthy anger management is a key foothold in recovery. What follow are five tools for managing and understanding anger that hopefully will be helpful both to those in recovery and to their loved ones:
- Remember anger is a normal and healthy human emotion. We all feel angry at one point or another, whether it’s because of the driver who cuts us off, the teenaged child who can’t stop sassing, or the hurt of being passed over for a promotion. Anger — the emotion, as opposed to its expression, that is — is part of being human and need not be feared or shunned. What’s key is how we deal with and express our anger.
- Successful anger management requires, most fundamentally, the awareness and validation of our feelings of anger. In order to manage our anger, we need to be able to recognize we’re angry in the first place. This emotional self-awareness isn’t always easy to come by, especially for those in early recovery from alcohol. Let’s return to Bob in the parking lot, for example. What he most wanted and needed in those moments of rage was not a fix-it response. What he most wanted and needed was for someone to hear and validate his feelings of anger. The takeaway for loved ones of recovering alcoholics? That you cannot overestimate the power of acknowledging and validating your loved one’s anger. And for those in recovery? That it’s critically important to begin building your emotional self-awareness. (Individual therapy and yoga can be helpful tools here.)
- Be willing to explore, compassionately and with non-judgmental curiosity, what you’re really angry about. Unresolved anger can often manifest itself in ways that are only tangentially related to what’s really the root cause of anger. Clients may complain about their medication regimen, for example, when in fact the real source of their anger may be something else entirely, like the loss of a loved one, an experience of childhood abuse, or another traumatic event. Exploring the root cause(s) of anger is thus best done from a posture of compassion and non-judgmental curiosity. In Bob’s case, when he calmed down after I acknowledged and validated his anger, I was then able to express my curiosity: “I wonder if this pattern of anger has been consistent for you.” That gave him the opportunity to answer the question for himself, towards greater self-understanding.
- Get some exercise. Cardiovascular exercise is an excellent tool for releasing pent-up anger and the surge in adrenalin and endorphins that signals its presence. If you find yourself steaming over something in your day, go for a run or take a brisk walk.
- Be familiar with these basic anger coping strategies.
Got an anger management strategy that works well for you? Please share it with the rest of us!