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  • Steven Stosny, Ph.D.

How to Prevent Anger Escalation

To put out the fire, we need to turn off the gas.

How to Prevent Anger Escalation

  • Angry exchanges have built-in escalation properties.

  • Blame carries a retaliation motive, which evokes retaliation from the blamed.

  • Activating the powerful instinct to protect loved ones neutralizes blame and turns off the fuel of anger.

The most common question I get from clients who enter treatment for problem anger is this:

“What do I do when things get out of control?”

That’s the wrong question. The right question is this:

How do I prevent things from getting out of control?

On autopilot, angry exchanges are likely to get out of control. Anger is the most contagious emotion. Just being around angry people, much less interacting with them, is likely to make you angry.

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Anger naturally escalates in arguments because it evolved for winning, not for ties. We don’t try to hurt the saber-tooth tiger just as much as it hurts us, in the spirit of fairness. Rather, we try to destroy its capacity to hurt us.

Anger is a flame; fanning it will only burn your hand. We need to turn off the gas. The gas is blaming.

Most anger is like background noise, outside of awareness. Examples are impatience, annoyance, or irritability. These can be caused by any number of things, including uncomfortable room temperature or clothing, work-related stressors, or low physical resources—hunger, thirst, indigestion, illness, injury, or sleep deprivation. Blaming partners or children creates a flashpoint that spikes adrenaline and cortisol. Typical flashpoint symptoms are gut-level arousal, a rush of feelings, devaluing thoughts, narrow and rigid mental focus, and inability to see other perspectives.

Blame escalates anger because it’s embedded with a retaliation motive, which stimulates retaliation from the blamed.

Once your pulse rate goes above 90, you risk crossing the line that separates expressions of anger from emotional abuse. Anger becomes abusive when it’s devaluing. To devalue is to make someone unimportant or worthy of disregard, derision, contempt, or harm. Devaluing behavior dismisses, manipulates, controls, dominates, or demeans.

If you suffer from problem anger, monitor your pulse rate and take a physical time out to calm yourself. Blame the time out on physiology, not your partner.

Think Prevention

Practice replacing the urge to blame with an impulse to improve. Instead of assigning blame, ask yourself:

“How can I make this a little better?”

Improving is incremental. Making things 5 percent better makes 10 percent improvement easier, which then makes 50 percent improvement more accessible, and so on.

Blame is powerlessness. Improving is empowering.

With Loved Ones, Associate Flashpoints with the Instinct to Protect

The instinct to protect people we care about is so strong that it generally overrides self-protection. You’re likely to step in front of a gun to protect your child. You might not do it if you thought about it, but you would likely act on the instinct to protect without thinking about it.

If you have a family, the instinct to protect controls your self-value, regardless of how successful you might be at work. (Imagine the emotional fate of world-class CEOs who let go of their children’s hands in traffic.) But if you feel that you can protect your family’s well-being, your self-value will be high, even if you fail in other areas of life. Getting fired from a job is more bearable for people more attuned to the protection of their families than their egos. Protective people tend to search immediately for another job as a means of putting food on the table, while the ego-driven are likely to endure a few weeks of painful depression. It takes longer for them to recover because they misunderstand their pain, which is not telling them they are failures; it’s telling them to protect their families. The pain will continue until they heed its message and resume protection of their families, at least emotionally if not financially.

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Recall a recent escalating argument with your spouse and try to recall the hurtful things you said or did. Then imagine a stranger doing or saying those same hurtful things to your spouse. Think of how you'd respond.

If you were to see your loved one harmed verbally, emotionally, or physically, you would probably feel anger, an aggressive impulse, and loathing. For that moment at least, you would hate the person who harmed your spouse.

So what happens to that anger, aggression, and loathing when you are the one hurting your spouse? Part of your brain is still committed to protecting loved ones, so where do the anger, aggression, and loathing go?

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When you hurt a loved one, the ultimate object of your anger, aggression, and hatred is you. The unavoidable legacy of spiteful, angry, or abusive behavior directed at loved ones is self-loathing.

Every harsh word we say to loved ones, every cold shoulder or dismissive behavior, makes us dislike ourselves a little more.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., - Website -


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