Anger Management Strategies for keeping anger at bay (part 1 of 4)

‘The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and in the right way, and at the right time, and for the right length of time, is commended’ – Aristotle –

‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.’ – Buddha –

‘To be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves.’ – Alexander Pope –

Anger is a driving force and creative energy, which, if judiciously applied, becomes a motivation for change. Anger will be destructive only when it is used as a tool for controlling others through fear (narcissistic rage) or when it results in a total loss of control over your emotions.

Anger is never an issue. How you handle it is the issue.

Where’s the boundary here? Emotions deemed ‘negatives’ are classified according to their disruptiveness to your wellbeing and that of others (emotional and psychological), depending on their frequency and magnitude. Some people have frequent and loud outbursts that do not result in harm to self or others.  Why is this so?

Anger can be dramatic in its intensity, a true volcanic eruption. What matters is what is said and done to others during the burst, how long it takes you to come back to calm, and your ability to ponder about the causes of your anger. So, managing anger is a delicate balancing act, in which you need to assess whether you were righteous or aggressive and if your response was proportional to the slight or exaggerated. If you are the kind of person who represses anger or expresses it too forcefully in the eyes of others, the following might help.

Anger defined
An instinctual emotional response that ranges from mild frustration to explosive rage. A response to a perceived or real threat that releases a cocktail of stress chemicals in your blood stream and provokes various bodily responses. When you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.

It is also a normal and healthy human emotion that is biologically wired to keep us safe from danger. The most instinctive, natural way to express anger is via an aggressive response.

Anger can be painful and disturbing, so angry people seek an immediate solution to the source of anger. They must force the obstacle or problem away, immediately, to get relief. This is how anger can become explosive.

There are three means to handle anger: express it, repress it, or calm it.

If negatively expressed, impulsively, irrationally or in out of control fashion, it can damage relationships, reputation, and health and even lead to issues with the law. This emotion can result in snap decision-making and self-defeating behaviors.

If positively expressed, it leads to appropriate action, relief, discussion and resolution.

If repressed, its energy must be expressed in an activity, because if turned inward, it can lead to anxiety, depression, somatic illnesses, irritability and a range of physical complaints, even to heart attack.
If calmed down inside, you are controlling your outward behavior and internal responses, such as lowering your heart rate, you are letting the feelings subside.

Reasons for being angry and the magnitude of the anger vary according to people. Everyone expresses it differently, which makes reading and managing angry people difficult because it is a bespoke task. Individuals who are easily angered have a low tolerance for frustration. They can’t tolerate much inconvenience or annoyance. They are particularly infuriated if the situation seems unjust. Causes may be genetic, physiological or sociocultural.  Some people are born with low tolerance levels. Others acquire it. Other get very stressed, and their tolerance lowers over time.

Reasons for being angry

Anger is caused by internal events, such as brooding about personal problems, or external events, such as being caught in a traffic jam or handling a difficult work colleague.

– Unfairness or injustice was done to self or others, rightful or perceived.
– Frustration at a situation, event or person (impatience)
– Being hurt by the actions of another
– Being harassed
– Sensing a threat to ideas and beliefs we value.
– Feeling dismissed (your needs are not listened to)
– Internal mood states (like the memory of past trauma springing up to mind)
– Fear
– Accumulated stress
– Use of street drugs
– Certain medical conditions
– Seeking revenge
– Getting attention
– Being unable to express other feelings.

Why we bottle up…. Until we can’t any longer

We’re raised with the belief that anger is ‘bad’ and we are actively discouraged from expressing it. As a result, we don’t learn how to handle it or channel it constructively, we suppress it and internalize it. Several assumptions underlie this behavior.

Part 2. > What we’re told about anger – the myths.

How to Regain and Develop Focus and Productivity at Work and in your Personal Life.

Our minds wander about 50% of the time.* Add to this work and social interruptions and it is no surprise that you would have a hard time staying focused.

There’s another dimension to losing focus. More subtly, as our attention becomes divided and our thoughts fragmented, switching tasks demands more brain power and energy expenditure than concentrating on one thing at a time*.

Switching focus takes only 1/10th of a second, but it might add up to a 40% productivity loss in one day. The switching also results in cognitive overload, which is extremely tiring to the mind and the body. Further, the more you lose focus and turn to distractions, the more you become unable to sift relevant from redundant information. You are no longer able to learn and apply knowledge effectively.

The primary reason for a loss of focus and productivity is nowadays mostly created by the incessant interruptions from digital media. I will use this as an example in showing you how you can regain more focus and increase your productivity.

Are you like me juggling professional activities, family life, and perhaps an active social sporting schedule and a major project on the side (I’m writing a doc thesis)? Somehow your core activities need to fit into your weekly schedule and cannot be abandoned.

  1. Ask yourself “How efficiently do I make use of my time and where do I waste it?” and “What do I want instead?”

Formulate an intention clearly, because motivation gets you started, and motivation arises from the benefit you perceive in pursuing a course of action.
Precise formulation is an important first step to creating a positive frame of mind so that change can occur.* Research shows that behavioral change only happens while in active, positive states. The intention could be something like “Becoming focused and productive by removing needless distractions and only allowing a maximum of one hour a day for social media browsing by April. ” A clear intention states the goal, quantifies it, identifies resources and hurdles, and has a start and end date.

Since I could not answer the question, I began examining how I spent my days.

  1. Start with monitoring how you spend your day.

Set up a recording system. It could be your diary. Start writing everything you do for a week. Do so even if it is only a 15-minute activity. You are observing yourself. Keep yourself motivated by also getting some feedback from others: are you spending too much time facing your phone instead of people?

This exercise helps you determine your attention-grabbing activities or hurdles. The chances are that they have a pattern, such as a time of the day at which they occur most often, or, in particular, situations such as after an upset, or when you are tired.

You will identify the pattern by the end of one week. Gaining this clarity is essential to keep you motivated as you pursue your stated intention or goal.

I recorded my daily activities every 30 minutes and found several time-wasters after one week of self-monitoring. More importantly, I discovered that I would drift up to three hours a day on the web and handling irrelevant emails. I also noticed my pattern. It would start like this: I’d work for a while, and I’d turn to an incoming IM or an email notification flashing on my screen. I would open the mail, follow an online thread, then click on embedded links, find my way through attention-grabbing headlines, and I would then discover who are the 25 celebrities who have aged terribly. One hour later, indeed, my 5 minutes of IM interruption would have become an extended digital wander. I would lose any sense of time, erring through a stream of entertaining but irrelevant information. I added up to 19 hours a week wasted on the internet. I believe to be an average.

This wandering process is addictive because the net and smartphones deliver exactly what our brain craves: novelty, constant stimulation, and immediate gratification.

  1. Process your findings, but don’t implement a radical plan yet. 

As an immediate gut reaction, I tested sheer willpower for a while, restricting access to social media and apps, and scheduling every minute of my day on one of my core activities instead. I lasted three days and spent the fourth on an internet binge.

So much for my ambitious plan to eliminate distractions. I concluded that I needed not to eliminate time-wasters, but create a dynamic balance between the important stuff, my core activities, and the addictive fun of strolling on social medias when I needed a break. I also systematically listed the time wasters, selected the mostly harmless ones, and thought about how many of them I needed to be able to last through my day.

  1. Implement a progressive course of action. Motivation only works so far as you can create new habits.

Habits are formed one at a time, through repetition.

Try this first: when you wake up in the morning, immediately make a mental or written note of the 3 tasks you need to accomplish today to support any one of your core activities.   Then ask yourself “what do I need to do now?” and then, “is this really what I want/need to do?”. Once you have your answer, schedule the most important activities in your calendar, preferably first thing in the morning. Block whatever time you need to complete the whole task or a chunk in your diary. Allow this activity to become all-absorbing for that period. Commit to switching off the phone, the internet and other distractions during that time. Then do it. Notice how long you can last this way. This becomes your baseline.

You are now applying principles often discussed in time management: “one thing at a time” , “batch processing,” “working on what’s important first,” or using “concentrated time.”

My use of a progressive course of action is deliberate. Willpower is an energy that comes in limited supply*.

Discipline is an action that requires moment by moment intention and focus,- the very thing you want to regain and strengthen-, and, like any task, it is tiring to the brain and cannot be sustained through a whole day. Willpower is like a muscle, and growing it happens with the implementation of a rigorous training schedule that makes it stronger over time.

A behavior is a set of habitual actions. Forging a new course implies creating some new habits and only one at a time, so that your daily reservoir of will and discipline is not depleted. A habit, as it becomes an automatic repetition, requires less and less energy to sustain over time. Once seamlessly integrated into your life, you can then move on to the next new habit you want to form. Productivity and focus derive from handling one task at a time,  a wholly different concept to multi-tasking. There is no such thing as multi-tasking: the human brain is wired only for task-switching.*

  1. Add more periods of focus to that initial distraction free activity.

So far you only have one daily activity that is subject to your focus-enhancement goal. You have not yet attempted to disrupt or curtail your distraction pattern. You are allowing for the new routine in step 4 to become ingrained and automatic. It takes up to three weeks for this integration to occur.

At that point, move on to scheduling a new  activity, respecting the no-interruption rule suggested in step 4. Slowly integrate that new task in your day. Allow it to encroach on the distraction pattern you have uncovered in step 3.

  1. Test at which point you can no longer tolerate distraction-free time.

Whether you were able to work without distraction for 1, 3 or 6 hours, there come a point where your attention is exhausted and needs a rest. Take a break, and allow your favorite distraction to take precedence for a while. Monitor yourself and do not allow that break to exceed a given amount of time. You need to set that duration in a realistic way: the length of the break fits the length and intensity of previous work. Stick to the period you set. An alarm is a good way to get started.

  1. Exercise your focus  before you move on to lengthier periods of attention.

Keep scheduling a suitable amount of time for each new task, and repeat steps 4 to 7. Slowly increment your focus time, beyond what you uncovered at step 6. Week after week, you will find that you are flexing your focus muscle with more strength.

Be realistic. If your stamina, health, and other issues do not allow you to exceed more than one, two, five or six hours of focus, do not attempt to push greatly beyond your current limit. You would demotivate yourself. Simply identify what is your optimum, most productive pattern and challenge it from time to time.

  1. Continue building your attention practice.

You do this by creating routines and automatisms, or activities that you do without thinking about them. Although some activities might only be a few minutes in duration, consider treating them like any task you would start in Step 4 above. These micro-tasks are actually going to support decluttering your life, increase your wellbeing, vitality and productivity, and will keep strengthening your ability to focus.

  1. For each goal that you’ve reached……. schedule and set a reward, and give it to yourself.

An alternative is to think about what you have to lose if you don’t get your work done, though it is not as fun!


The following are routines that promote productivity and sharpened focus. Remember to only incorporate one at a time into your new routine.

–   Planning activities: taking a few minutes to plan your day and week ahead ; scheduling repeating blocks of your essential or regular activities ; waking up every morning deciding on today’s most relevant activities or/and going to bed and thinking of tomorrow’s important task.

–   Planning short recovery activities during the day. Recovery activities counter stress, even if only a few minutes in duration: meditating, taking a power nap, walking briskly to the coffee machine, using relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

–   Creating an “offline or digital free” zone in your day, in your week, or as a vacation during the year; leaving your digital devices out of the bedroom.

–   Learning to check and change your perspective: focus on what you need to make things happen, as opposed to rationalizing why they did not occur. Take 5 minutes to brainstorm, assess, plan and plot before you start a new task.

–   Ditching drama: review your email list, it might be time to unsubscribe a few senders; think about a conflict you may have with a colleague or a friend and sort it out ASAP (Don’t let the issue gain control of your mind. It is a minefield as any unpleasant thoughts are likely to lead you to seek distractions.)



*A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind:

* Research on Multitasking:

* Fostering positive emotions for Intentional Change – an introduction:



Stress: Handling it with a compartmentalized life

Life is like a sailing ship. A ship that is sea-worthy has a number of separate compartments. When in stormy weather, one compartment might get damaged but will not cause the boat to sink. When the bottom compartments take water, the second and top decks keep the ship afloat. If the second level also goes, the top decks still keep the structure afloat. Only when water invades all levels of the vessel, does the ship sink.

This image applies wonderfully to your life: you are the captain of the boat. As you identify the compartments that make up your daily activities and your life, and ensure that each is balanced or at least minimally catered for, they keep your life afloat. They absorb the stress of any one damaged area.

While areas may overlap for some people, the lower deck usually comprises work, major undertakings and projects (such as education, purchasing a home and more), partner and social circle. The middle level’s compartments are partner, children, house, family, friends and community, pets, holidays or leisure time and learning something new. The upper deck includes diet, health, physical exercise, spirituality and time alone, indoor and outdoor hobbies.

If one or more of the lower and middle level compartments or even whole levels get flooded, it is then another area that might help you shed some of the stress. For instance, you could rely on family and friends when you have work-related problems or a severe dispute with your partner.

The upper deck is critical. Looking after your health and turning to your all-consuming hobbies such as music will allow you to get some respite away from one stressful area. That stress would be absorbed by another compartment, even if only momentarily.

Try this simple exercise: review the areas of your life; the list given above is an example. Draw a boat, such as the one below. The size of a compartment reflects the amount of resources you dedicate to them. The number of compartments you choose will reveal the areas of your life. Maybe you have a particular area that is not reflected in the drawing below: just add it! boat 1

Ask yourself how much time you dedicate to each compartment, and how well you cater for each area. Fill in details for each compartment. Perhaps you have multiple hobbies or sports activities.

Remember that it is the energy and time you invest in the upper deck areas that will keep you going if your lower and middle levels get flooded and while you take steps to pump that water out. This ability to draw on various resources is what ultimately helps you keep your balance during times of stress and perhaps crisis. If you find that you have too little compartments, now might be a good time to think about what you want to create.

Adapted and expanded from Powell, 2009, The Mental Health Handbook.

Stress Busters on the Go – When Time is Scarce

We all know it: the remedies for stress busting are a regular exercise, well-being or self-care routine, any activity you could practice a few hours a week. The issue is that we need find the time to free our timetable and attend training. Further, it is unlikely that an hour at the gym or in a yoga class will offer enough relaxation to offset a day or a week of stressful activities. The benefits of any routine will only last so long.

The following are some rapid exercises that you can practice on the go. They take only a few seconds, 3 to 20 seconds to be exact. They are highly effective. All you need to do is remember them, and use them as often as you need them.

You can practice several times a day if need be. You can do them before a difficult meeting or other challenging situation, and as you progress through your busy day, when you feel you want to give yourself a breather. They keep you grounded, alert, focused throughout the day, every day. They give you a micro-break and integrate seamlessly with your various activities. You will find that you feel less restless toward the evening, and racing thoughts won’t keep you awake all night.

These short exercises act as a swift pattern-interrupt, a kind of switch-on/switch-off button that prevents stress from increasing further. They take your focus off a trigger. They allow you to perform a quick ‘mental reset,’ as you would do at home with your internet WiFi router when it doesn’t pickup signals. The principle is the same.

• Intentional Listening.
As you engage in your usual activities, identity the faintest sound around you. It could be a clock on the wall or the engine of a car in the street. There are many sounds, so please, select the faintest one. Listen, while you are still doing what it is that you do. A few seconds are enough. You have somewhat split your focus between your present activity and that sound. Neurologically, it is restful.

• Diversions.
Ever found yourself in a tense situation? You might be arguing on the phone with a client, or being stuck in traffic, and you’d rather have it done and over with. Then focus on what it is that you are touching now. Is it a pen? The wheel of your car, your seat? For a few seconds, focus on the feel of that object. Again, as you focus your attention on your current activity, give your brain the means to rest, by tapping into your sense of touch. The brain responds well to touch: it is an immediate prompt to get back to reality, by sensing what is material and tangible. It is grounding, and hence relaxing.

• Notice the breath.
Simply notice how you breathe. Is it choppy? Uneven? Or is it slow and steady? If your exhale is shorter or jerkier than your inhale, you are in stress. If your exhale far exceeds the length of your inhale, you won’t be alert. Decide that your next three breaths are going to have an inhale that is as long as the exhale. This would take 10 to 15 seconds at the most. This is all you need to do. If you are extremely tense, then make sure your exhale is slightly longer that your in-breath.

• Acuppress.
Sitting at your desk and tired or stressed? Using the table as support for your elbow, use the supported hand’s thumb and middle finger to gently touch and perhaps slightly press the inner corner of your eyes, on each side of the nose, right under the eyebrows. You can also place your index between your eyebrows, and pace your breath (see above). There are nerve endings in that corner of the eyes. Touching or squeezing them provokes a parasympathetic (relaxing) response in the brain and then the body. Slow down your breath (see above) as you do this exercise.

• UnSloutch.
Stress expresses itself in our posture, as much as bad posture adds to stress. Whether you are walking or sitting, bring your shoulders up toward the sky, roll them back and down, and immediately get your shoulder blades close together. This will open your chest forward. Tension builds in the upper part of the shoulders and the neck. This leads to eye fatigue and migraine, among other things. Bringing the shoulder blades together in the sequence described, is a powerful counterbalance to tension buildup in that area.

• Intention.
Take a few seconds to observe what you do right here, right now. What do you see? How is the ambient temperature? What do you hear? Can you feel your heartbeat? Is anything happening within your body? Can you describe the color of the nearest object to your left? Now go back to your routine.

• Water and touch.
Next time you use the sink, listen to the water flowing from the tap. In an office or home environment, it is the closest we have to the sounds of nature: the sounds of water are intensely relaxing when you focus on them.

Block, S. (2005). Come to Your Senses: Demystifying the Mind-Body Connection. Atria Books
Ortner, N. (2013).The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living. Hay House
Rosen, R., Yee, R. (2012) Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama. Shambala Publications

Emotional Resilience – Coping with adversity

Some call it ‘mental toughness’, others will talk about ‘emotional resilience’.  These words describe our capacity to face adversity and to cope with stress, and our ability to bounce back to our usual state of balance after some severe or emotionally challenging events.

“What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger” said Nietzsche.

In other words, each time we experience a stressful event and  we successfully go back to a state of balance , our tolerance, or resilience threshold,  shifts  upward, toward  strength and increased ability to cope with difficult events in the future.

It also means that we develop our ability to handle greater complexity: what seemed insurmountable yesterday was lived through, and hence an experience will become more manageable, though still painful, tomorrow. We’ve learned something from the experience, from its context and intensity, and we’ve shown ability to adapt, learn and grow.

Resilience is dynamic, and built over time; it is not something we are born with. It defines our ability to  positively adapt to  and recover from circumstances   such as deprivation, trauma, loss, threats, illness, accidents, and so on. It allows us to show and build life skills competences.

Some of us get caught in a loop and experience delays in adapting to and growing out of a crisis.  For instance, if a negative circumstance is far too overwhelming for our current capabilities, psychological distress involving grief,  fear, rage, frustration and other emotions,  or mental injury, can occur.  This results in symptoms such as victimization, overwhelm, fatigue, substance abuse, and mental health problems in the form of depression, post traumatic disorders, phobias, anxieties, obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc.

This in turn marks the difference between survivors, who grow out of challenges and transform a situation into one of personal growth and development,   and persons who sustain mental injury and may take longer, to adapt and grow out of their challenge.

Everyone has a different threshold of resilience overall, and resilience levels differ in any one person according to the type of crisis they meet. This in lay terms distinguishes between who is ‘weak’ and who is ‘strong’ and how a person is very ‘strong’ in one situation and ‘weak’ in another.

Since we all react differently to an identical trauma, these words do not account for the severity of circumstances a person must live through. While all of us will experience the loss of a loved one at least once in our life, not all of us experience accidents, tragedies, abuse, natural disasters or war.  Our age too makes a difference. 2/3 of children who  sustain trauma in early childhood may  have all kinds of issues later in life such as social maladjustment and violence* , while an adult may suffer from depression only or simply rebound quickly.

Resilience is also affected by our moods and our physical health at the time of the crisis, and by the length of exposure to the event.

Finally, resilience is not about ‘toughening up’, ‘bearing it like a man’, or ‘chin up, stiff lips’. It requires acknowledging feelings, grief, anger, pain, and  allowing those to be ‘felt’ as opposed to boxed in and ignored or controlled.

Building up/recovering your natural resilience

Your personality traits and your environment are major factors in your ability to deal with stressful situations. This makes it important for you to know what situations you can easily cope with, and the ones you have problems handling.

Support groups, associations of psychologists and other professionals all recommend the following, to implement as a priority, in any order:

  • Commit to recovery from the situation and make it your priority for a while.
  • Delay making life decisions (change of job or  residence, separation or marriage etc, until you feel your emotional stability has returned, whether this takes days, weeks or months after the event)
  • Spend time developing, improving, maintaining relationship with partner, kids, family members, friends and other acquaintances. The closer and more meaningful your relationships are, the better your ability to cope when distressed or stressed.
  • Talk about your feelings with people who are close to you. Let some steam off in safe settings. Vent it out, in safety. You may find that people around you have lived similar circumstances and they can guide you and support you as they share your burden.
  • Gain understanding, seek knowledge about the situation. This helps you view the crisis not as an unbearable problem, but as a situation you can act upon decisively, because you know the facts.  It also helps reduce fear, which tends to exaggerate as stress levels rise.
  • Accept that circumstances sometimes can’t be changed; in this case, walk out of the situation if you can, or develop your other coping skills if you can’t.
  • As you come out and recover from the event, develop a set of recovery goals (e.g., spending time with close friends) and carry them out, slowly. Delay making big decisions.
  • Improve your physical health, with nutritional choices, physical exercise, relaxation, and enough sleep. These steps will ease the stress you are under.
  • Implement a daily routine and stick to it – show the world that you are stating that life goes on as usual, regardless of whatever scare comes your way.
  • Develop a hobby, an interest which can absorb you, something you enjoy doing.
  • Help others, volunteer to help.  Being a support to others is documented to increase ability to cope with difficulties. It makes you feel more capable.
  • Look at learning from the past, review how you handled the events, as this becomes an opportunity for self discovery and acceptance, and will help you develop confidence in your ability to handle future events.
  • Keep a long-term perspective on the events; see them in the broader context of your life, and life span.
  • Cultivate hopefulness and optimism. Visualize what positive outcome you expect further down the line. As the saying goes, ‘there’s light at the end of the tunnel’
  • Wonder what the meaning of your life is, in this situation and in your future.
  • Call for professional assistance, medical doctors for medication, and therapists for counselling and psychological support, pastoral counsel for spiritual support.


If you wish to discuss some troublesome event and find ways to move forward, please contact me to schedule your obligation free, 30 minute consultation.

Sources and Resources:
An excellent book is “Man’s Search for Meaning “by Viktor Frankl, the father of Logotherapy. Various printed and online resources are available on topics such as trauma, PTSD, depression, OCD, etc, with coping tips and strategies.

 *see online references on the work of Emmy E. Werner, Developmental Psychologist

Transforming Our Internal Universe – Part 2 : The Feedback Loop

This post revisits the  topic  of my previous blog, Transforming Our Internal Universe on changing our brains and how we can release encoded memories and break old habits in order to rewire our minds for greater performance and overall enjoyment of life.

To summarize, in order to change, grow and develop ourselves, we need to demonstrate a will greater than our circumstances and then adopt new habits by initially breaking old ones. Being provided with instant feedback from the responses of our environment as we act and do things greatly assists our personal understanding of the consequences of our actions, for example, as a child when you first touched fire, the feedback was immediate: a burn.

Similar principles apply in more sophisticated forms later in life: as we apply a method of relating to others, at work or at home, their reactions teach us how to adapt our responses to various persons, for the best possible outcome in our communication. The same applies to our work and living habits: a certain way of doing things, such as handling our pile of documents on our desk or setting up a schedule of appointment for the week, may be efficient in which case the outcome (feedback) is immediate and positive: the way we organized ourselves saved us time and effort while fostering a sense of achievement. This type of feedback is self -reinforcing: the more we do of the same, the more we reinforce a habitual way of doing things.

At times, the feedback is less successful or can even be disastrous. If our communication is not well received or not understood, it potentially leads to tense moments when interacting with others. The way we keep organizing our desk leads to the loss of needed documents, generally at the very time they are needed, or we keep our schedule in such way that we miss an appointment.

This type of feedback, after it happens a number of times and doesn’t lead to a desired outcome, tells us that it is time to change the way we are handling things.

We seek to create new behaviors and ways to do things to create the outcome we desire. Accordingly we look for positive feedback. This in turn reinforces our idea that we can adopt this new strategy and it gives us the motivation to pursue it and refine it.

Change requires first that we become aware that something is not working and not serving us. It then requires that the discomfort is great enough for us to want to take steps to get back to a state of satisfaction. It then requires intent. The matter moves from “ something’s wrong “ to “what” to change to “how “ to change it.
The question “how” happens often as we are feeling the full impact of discomfort, stress or even distress about our current condition or issue. It is generally at that stage that we start educating ourselves through self-help or various educational books or any methods on the topic relevant to our issue. Because we are exploring brand new ways to do things, the question now moves from “can I change it” to “how can I change it”, as we become more aware of the issue and grasp ways to solve the issue.

At that point, intent and will power come into play. We consider will as the ability to choose a course and stick to it, no matter what. A simple example would be the decision to stop smoking or lose weight. With will, we believe we can quit cold turkey, or stick to a low calorie diet for the weeks or months it takes to reach ideal weight. We build up our resolve through positive words, creation of a plan, enlisting friends’ support, and many other devices.

“Sticking to it” is the key. This method works for many but not all. Along the way, a cigarette will be smoked and a chocolate cake will be eaten. This may lead to a sense of failure, with the thoughts “ I am weak”, “I can’t do it”. Some will then give up and return to smoking and high calorie diets, while others will persist and give another try at “sticking to it”. The issue becomes that as ‘failures’ pile up, we become much less motivated to give it another try. What can we do then, except for giving up?

There is another approach to using our will and intent: it involves being realistic and expecting failures along the way, and in doing so, we can make the failures more manageable. This requires being aware that what has been wired into our brain for months if not years (e.g., a smoking habit) can not be undone through a statement “just like that, I can will” (please see my previous blog: Transforming Our Internal Universe) for information about how we create and keep habits not only at the thought level, but also how our whole body sets a “normal” threshold of arousal through our biological systems’ operations and creation of chemical cocktail releases, as well as wiring of our neural pathways).

In essence, all our behaviors are not simply the result of habits and mental processes. We have to take into account that we have neurologically wired ourselves to maintain those habits and that not only mental, but also physiological process within our bodies must be taken into account. If behavior and bodily responses are changed, it can re-align thoughts and emotions that are repetitive and habitual, and all those in turn lead us to repeat behaviors of which we are no longer aware, because we are on auto-pilot.

So how to achieve change? It will not happen merely by discounting the strength of our wiring and implementing a new behavior through will alone and which we stack upon old wiring. If this were the case, we would end up with competing drives. Instead, we have to undo the current wiring of our synapses in order to create new wiring, along a new path and then make that path habitual so that associated chemical releases in our bodies change too, until we have developed strong mental connections that lead to a new habit of doing, thinking and feeling.

The key to the will element is to stick to a realistic expectation as we go and in our decision to use a number of tools to reach this goal, one tool being REPETITION of a desired new behavior or pattern of thinking and its associated emotions. Some other tools are: developing awareness of our current wiring, and learning simple techniques to develop such awareness, so we can catch ourselves in the moment and undo the wiring while also implementing, right here, right now, an alternative response. Finally, we need awareness to observe the feedback and draw lessons from it.

If the feedback seems to be the outcome we seek, then we have a new path to pursue by reinforcing our wiring build-up and fostering new cocktails of chemical releases in our bodies. If the outcome is not what we sought, we can seek a brand new path or a slightly different one so we can tweak the responses, or feedback we get.

It is a slow process, made of trials and errors, and hence exercising will is not to “quit smoking” (this is our goal) but to stick to steps that allow us to build our will, and as we become more proficient, leading us toward our goal.

In doing this, we consistently align body and mind and observe our emotions, to foster change, because our being is congruent, without pulls and pushes from one part of ourselves against the other. This ‘consistent’ observation of self and alignment is not a difficult technique to learn and takes no time to implement. It consists in replacing outdated and no longer useful thoughts with new ones. Once such method as been applied to one area of your life, it becomes ‘wired’ too, as memory, thought and behavior, and also as body sensations and physiological and chemical processes, and finally as emotions. You can then draw on this knowledge, where you whole self is ‘aligned’ to now tackle other aspects of yourself that you want to improve, using this same technique over and over again.

In essence, we learn to notice and analyze the feedback we get before and as we change, apply some techniques to develop greater awareness of the various processes going on in our bodies as beacons and compass, do the same with learning to accurately define our emotions, use tools to defuse our thoughts as they relate to what we want to change, learn to operate in the now, moment by moment, and rest our chattering mind and in doing this using our intent or will to REPEAT a new pattern, which in turn creates new neural pathways in our minds.

Those tools and techniques will be the topic of my next blog.

Link to Wired Article on line:

Psychological Defense Mechanisms (part 1)

Psychological Defense Mechanisms: What for?

Our minds have various wonderful unconscious tools they use to help protect us from danger by providing temporary shelter from a threatening reality. These tools are called Defense Mechanisms (DMs).

With DMs, we can protect and distance ourselves from anxiety and various emotions or impulses that could overwhelm us as we strive to keep our self-image intact.

DMs help us block out or minimise our emotional reactions in situations where we can’t let these feeling run the show––for instance during interpersonal conflicts in business or home situations, or when we are experiencing inner conflicts but need or want to avoid awareness of them. For examples, think of the following types of situations:

  •  You are caught in a house fire, and need to find the exit route quickly. Fear, panic, hopelessness and other feelings must be delayed.
  • You had a heated argument with someone, and feel betrayal, anger, guilt, and embarrassment.
  • You feel sexual or aggressive impulses and tensions that are not appropriate to the situation at hand, such as an urge to lash out at your loved ones in social settings or to lavish attention on that hot sexy person in a bar.

You may feel anxiety at any point in these events––one of the first signs of the onset of a defensive reaction. Anxiety is a natural biological response designed for our survival. Felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension, it signals us to start taking defensive action towards a perceived danger, whether it’s a conflict, a physical threat, or even an internal thought of guilt, etc. This tension warns that an instinctual reaction is to be expected….. now! What we do then is put the sum of all feelings and impulse at the back of our mind temporarily.

Sooner or later, your mind will return to the reality of the event and your feelings about it, so that you can face and review the situation consciously and clearly. You may feel pain as the thoughts and feelings are let out. But the delay your mind has given you, whether minutes, days, or weeks, allows you time to draw on some resources and healthy ways to handle the origin of the pain and let it go. Once released, it is like a clock reset, so to speak.

Sometimes, however, we refuse this temporary measure and instead bury the pain deep into our minds, until its origin is lost. We use those same DMs not as temporary remedies but as psychological painkillers that treat or mask the symptoms of emotional and psychological pain over the long term. In such cases, these defenses become automatic; while they were meant to alleviate pain temporarily, they instead become a  substitute for addressing the cause of the original pain, and similar pains that come afterwards. They disrupt our ability to recognize our real feelings and thoughts. This latter type of response is dysfunctional.

If our DMs separate us from our true feelings and from reality for very long, they essentially become lies. These lies create more problems down the line through maladaptive coping behaviours, while the original pain will still scream to be let out, compounding problems. This is when defense mechanisms become pathological.

Let’s look at various ways of coping and how DMs are distinguished along a continuum ranging from healthy to pathological.

There are two ways to cope with danger, whether it’s external or internal danger:

  • Avoiding the danger reduces stress. Avoiding, repressing, withdrawing, denying, looking away, escaping from the situation, or letting someone else take the blame are all useful means when a situation is out of your control. However, using DMs this way also leads to a lack of awareness and understanding.
  • Approaching what threatens you increases the chances for coping with an event. Approaching, learning more, and taking charge are best applied when something can be done about the problem. This method permits more stress and worry than choosing avoidance, but it also promotes awareness and maturity––otherwise known as ‘growth.’

Defence mechanisms support both of these ways of coping. Some of them are healthier than others:

  • Pathological. A DM becomes pathological when it is used in a rigid, inflexible, and exclusive manner. These kinds of defenses can lead to mental illness. They are common in overt psychosis, in dreams, and during childhood. They allow a person to rearrange external reality so that they don’t have to cope with a real threat and/or it prevents a person from perceiving reality. For the observer, the users of these mechanisms may appear crazy or insane.

The motivation for using the defense comes more from past needs than present or future reality. Because the defense severely distorts the present situation, it distorts your real emotions and feelings, instead of rechanneling them effectively. This leads to significant problems in relationships, functioning, and enjoyment of life.Too much unconscious activity causes the use of too many defenses in handling a situation or, too few defences are employed in coping with threats.

Pathological defence mechanisms may include: distortions, delusional and paranoid projections, regression and denial.

  •  Immature. The immature defenses are used in childhood and adolescence and usually abandoned by adulthood. They can lead to socially unacceptable behaviour and also prevent the adult from learning optimal ways of coping with reality. While are common in adolescents, these methods are sometimes seen in adults who suffer from severe depression and personality disorders. The immature user alters the distress and anxiety caused by reality or by other people. People who act this way are often seen by others as socially undesirable, immature, difficult and out of touch. Defences considered “immature” almost always lead to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope with the world.

Immature defence mechanisms may include: fantasy, projections, passive-aggressive and acting out behaviours, and hypochondriasis.

  •  Neurotic. Almost everyone has some kinds of neurotic coping mechanisms.  They are fairly common in adults and they can have short-term advantages, but they often cause long-term problems in relationships, work, and enjoyment of life for people who primarily use them as their basic style of coping with the world.

Neurotic defence mechanisms may include: intellectualisation, rationalisation, repression, suppression, withdrawal, reaction formation, displacement, compartmentalisation, and dissociation.

  • Mature. These are the mechanisms used by “healthy” adults. They increase our ability to have normal relationships and enjoy our work and lives. These responses are adaptive. Although many of them have their origins in the “immature” level, they have been honed by the individual to optimize his/her success in life and relationships. Use of these defenses gives the user pleasure and feelings of mastery. These defenses enable us to integrate many conflicting emotions and thoughts and still be effective. For the beholder, using these mature coping methods is viewed as a virtue.

Mature defence mechanisms may include: sublimation, fantasy, altruism, compensation, suppression,  anticipation, humour, identification and undoing.

The use of the immature defenses is related to poor adjustment as an adult, marital discord and higher divorce rates, poor friendship patterns, a higher incidence of mental illness, a greater number of sick leave days taken, and poorer health generally.

On the other hand, research shows that people who rely on mature defenses tend to experience excellent adjustment as adults, higher self-reported levels of happiness, more  satisfaction, rich friendships, a lower incidence of mental illness and better overall health…leading to fewer hospitalizations over the course of their lives.

It is useful to become aware of the defense mechanisms we use and how they compare with others. If you identify your patterns as immature or neurotic, there is work you can do to develop mature mechanisms instead.

Next week’s blog: Definition and Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms …