Prepare a Relapse Plan to Manage Your Anger

By Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith, W. Doyle Gentry

Because slips, backslides, and lapses are virtually inevitable in your anger management journey, you need to plan for them. And in the process, you can probably reduce the frequency of those setbacks by looking ahead and mentally preparing for problematic events. You may want to consider seeking professional help if you haven’t done so previously.

If you’ve already gone to counseling, sometimes booster sessions work wonders. Booster sessions are where you go back to a previous therapist for a little extra work on your issues. Sometimes reviewing your anger-management strategies, going over current stressors, and getting objective input really helps. Don’t think of booster sessions as meaning that you’ve failed.

Rethinking slip-ups

When you slip up, and you no doubt will, pay attention to what you say to yourself. The thoughts you have about backslides can make things better or much worse. When you beat yourself up, you’re likely to have more problems with anger. Although people often think otherwise, abusive self-criticism doesn’t motivate you to do better.

The table shows a few of the more common irrational thoughts or self-statements that frequently follow lapses. The table also gives examples of more reasonable, rational thoughts.

Irrational and Rational Thoughts about Anger Lapses
Irrational Thoughts Rational Thoughts
I have gotten nowhere. I have improved in many ways. I’ve learned skills and have
managed my anger in lots of situations that I didn’t before.
I am horrible. I am human.
I’ll never get better. That’s simply not true. My trend has been good. It’s the trend
that matters, not each little slip.

Trying what worked before

Anger management involves a variety of skills, such as relaxation, rethinking anger beliefs, exposure to anger-arousing events, assertive communication, forgiveness, and disengagement from brooding. Most likely, if you’ve made progress, you’ve found one or more of these strategies especially helpful.

But maybe you stopped using that coping skill, believing you don’t need it anymore. Nonsense! Go back and practice what worked before once again. You may never reach the point that you can permanently lay these skills aside. You should expect to pull them off the shelf, dust them off, and practice them from time to time.

Trying something different

Go through this book and look for strategies that you either haven’t tried or didn’t pay much attention to. Consider reexamining those strategies and give them a shot. You’ve got nothing to lose and much to gain.

Seeking feedback

Significant people in your life — spouses, partners, trusted friends — can become, in effect, your personal lifeguard(s). They can throw you a life preserver when you’re falling into old irritability or anger habits — even when you’re not aware of it. In other words, they can help you catch a regression before it gets out of hand.

However, they can only do that if you ask them. So at a time when you’re doing well, ask your potential lifeguards to look for times that they see you starting to feel irritable or out of sorts. Develop a word, a phrase, or a signal that they can give you in a calm, neutral manner. Here are a few examples of signals:

  • A downward hand motion

  • A reminder, “Let’s breathe a bit.”

  • A gentle tap on the shoulder

  • A simple question, “Are you doing okay?”

Your first reaction to seeing that signal may be to reflexively deny it. Try not to get defensive. Instead, tell yourself that your lifeguard probably has your best interests in mind and can see your behavior more objectively than you can. Consider the following example:

Elizabeth has an anger problem, and she’s made some good progress. She notices that she sometimes blows it when she’s at large family gatherings — there’s just so many difficult memories combined with noise and chaos. So she asks her brother, Michael, if he’d be willing to serve as her anger lifeguard. He says, “Absolutely! I’d be happy to help.”

Elizabeth and Michael work out a plan. Michael agrees to gently squeeze Elizabeth’s elbow when he sees her starting to get upset or agitated. Eighteen family members attend the next Thanksgiving dinner. Elizabeth focuses on managing the kitchen. As usual, various family members constantly interrupt her, asking where things are, wondering what they should do, and engaging in small talk.

Michael can see that Elizabeth is feeling increasingly stressed and irritated. He gently squeezes her elbow. Elizabeth jerks her elbow away and barks, “Keep your hands off me. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Elizabeth probably chose the wrong lifeguard. She and Michael had a long history of conflict throughout their childhood. She also might be a bad candidate for this kind of help because she gets very defensive, very easily.

Some people don’t have a truly suitable lifeguard available to them. Others find that sort of feedback too difficult to take. If that’s you, don’t use this approach!

Calming down

You don’t want to or have to put your feelings in charge of your behavior. Just because you feel angry doesn’t mean you have to act on it. And you are capable of turning those feelings around.

Try calming yourself down. Take a few breaths, count slowly to ten, repeat a key word or two in your mind (such as relax, chill, or calm), and remind yourself that reacting with anger, unless you’re under attack, is rarely useful or productive.

Incentivizing yourself

Make a list of three reasons you no longer want to let anger dominate your life. These reasons can serve as powerful incentives for keeping anger at bay. For example, maybe you’re tired of embarrassing yourself. Or perhaps you’ve lost friends unnecessarily. Maybe you want to be seen as a positive role model. You could probably come up with a dozen reasons. But, here, choose the top three and read the list over and over again. Pause and reflect on each reason and why it’s important to you and your values.