Friday, January 11, 2008

Anger Junkies

At the age of 3, Steven Stosny was rushed to a hospital emergency room with a roof shingle lodged in his skull. In a burst of angry rage, his father had thrown it at Stosny after the toddler poked a stick into wall plaster that was still damp. Along with a permanent hole in his head ("Do you want to feel it?" he asks), Stosny was left with a vivid experience of the deadly potential of uncontrolled anger. Today, the 55-year-old Stosny—a Ph.D. and clinical psychologist practicing in the Washington, D.C. area—has become a multimedia guru of anger. He has turned his intimate understanding of the emotion and its roots into an unconventional treatment method that's gaining both widespread popular attention and the notice of other psychologists. Most anger management programs are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy and the premise that our rational thoughts shape our emotional responses. If you can think before you explode and use relaxation techniques to calm your physiological response, the theory goes, you can control your anger and its potentially messy aftermath.

But research has shown that conventional anger management doesn't work very well. Domestic violence treatment is even less effective. These programs can help the highly motivated—but most people with problem anger don't think they have a problem and don't seek out treatment. Besides, merely controlling the impulse to lash out doesn't get to the root of long-term resentments. At the heart of problem anger, believes Stosny, are severe feelings of shame and guilt as well as a lack of empathy for self and others—or at least an inability to recognize and express it. Rather than merely teaching tactics to control anger, Stosny asks his clients to look at their emotional core and make a truly revolutionary shift: trade bullying for compassion. Instead of confronting angry people with their failures, he provides a way for them to adhere to their own internal values and meet their own best standards. Once that person recognizes his or her own best qualities, it becomes easier to substitute kindness and compassion for violence and hostility. "If you show people a way to change," says Stosny, "they do."

Anatomy Of Anger

Anger is not a popular subject of study. It's not fun to be around, and angry people are difficult to treat. Inevitably, studying anger also involves taking on the conundrum of domestic abuse, a sensitive subject dominated by what Raymond DiGiuseppe, a professor of psychology at St. John's University in New York City, calls a "politically correct view" focused on sexual inequality.

There is no consensus on anger's roots or definition, and academics debate whether persistent anger, which usually accompanies depression or anxiety, is an emotional disorder in its own right. Nor is there agreement on how to help people deal with anger. Many consider "anger management" an empty buzzword. "I hate the term," says DiGiuseppe. "It implies that we can keep anger under wraps. It doesn't imply therapy or treatment for a problem."

As a culture, we're ambivalent about anger. On one hand, there is a hip righteousness associated with flipping the bird at a driver who cuts you off; or, if you are a professional athlete, barreling into the stands to pummel the fan who has thrown a paper cup at your head. At the same time, we wring our hands in fear that anger is corroding civil society. But a moderate amount of anger, expressed under the right circumstances, plays an important role in healthy psychology. It saves us from predators, literal and figurative. Anger can motivate us to take on unpleasant tasks, like confronting a bully; it can maneuver others into attending to our needs. Besides, feeling anger doesn't always mean acting on it. Only 10 percent of anger is followed by aggression, points out Howard Kassinove, a psychology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. "For a lot of us it's 'anger in,'" he says. "It's usually not shown."

Nonetheless, anger's provocations can be overwhelming and pervasive. More typical than physical aggression is the coworker seething with disappointment and resentment. Even everyday hassles like commuting or struggling with an automated phone system can cause anger that manifests as stress, hostility, depression or physical illness. Stosny's lesson is that once the root of anger is identified, a person can learn to be less responsive to these petty frustrations—and gain control over what seems to be an uncontrollable reaction.

How Anger Junkies Are Made

"Most people with real anger problems think that something outside of them controls what they think and feel," Stosny explains in an interview at A.M.E. Reid Temple in Prince George's County, Maryland, where he is preparing to teach a class. "They see themselves as just reacting to their environment. I want them to learn that there's something in them that regulates their emotions, regardless of what other people do."

This night is the third meeting of Stosny's 14-week workshop. It's a larger group than normal—his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show have brought many new clients. Stosny began his workshops in 1990 treating Maryland maximum security inmates, and since then, referrals from the criminal justice system have made up the bulk of his practice. Tonight's participants saunter into the fluorescent-lit basement classroom. About 25 of those present, mostly African-American men, have been ordered by a judge to attend, many on domestic violence charges. Few talk. There is little eye contact.

Stosny, dressed in pressed slacks, a blue collared shirt and black sweater, is a slight man with a low-key presence and a vestigial New Jersey accent. Initially, it is hard to imagine that this unimposing white guy, who appears not to have suffered an angry day in his life, could have much to offer this group.

Tonight's lesson: HEALS, Stosny's acronym for the five steps in a process that replaces feelings of anger with feelings of compassion. It will be learned through repetition—what Stosny calls "emotional conditioning"—to be practiced at least 12 times a day for the next 12 weeks.

His method has been shaped by John Bowlby's attachment theories and the teachings of Silvan Tomkins, who believed that all emotion is expressed physiologically. In his book Treating Attachment Abuse, Stosny explains that "a natural and healthy function" of shame or guilt is to help us maintain our attachment to loved ones: parent, lover, child. If we are threatened with loss of that relationship, guilt and shame motivate us to reestablish the bond, often through angry behavior. The problem is that anger is a turnoff, pushing the attachment figure further away, and making us angrier still.

"I've worked with more than 4,500 court-ordered DV offenders and child abusers, and I never met one who didn't feel like a powerless victim," he says— "No matter how victimizing they are, they see themselves retaliating against an unfair relationship or an unfair world." In this way, we learn from early relationships to blame our unpleasant feelings on others. So as adults, when we feel shamed or disregarded in situations that have nothing to do with loved ones—say, in the hierarchical workplace or in rush-hour traffic—our reaction is to get angry, targeting the person who made us feel that way. At the same time, we get a neurochemical rush from anger that relieves anxiety and provides a physiological boost. The nasty cycle turns many into what Stosny calls "anger junkies."

Psychology Today Magazine

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