Police Psychology: Anger!! Part 1
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
Police Psychology is always dealing with how to keep officers less emotionally reactive, in particular, not reacting out of anger. We all experience moments of frustration—moments where we just feel like lashing out at everyone and everything around us because things aren’t working out for us in the ways we wanted. Frustration is the emotion we feel when we are being opposed, blocked from reaching a goal we want, or barred from doing something we want to do. Frustration is very common, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Frustration can also range from mild to severe, depending on the circumstance. For instance, if you wanted to make it through a green light before it turned red, but by the time you got there it was too late, you’d probably experience minor frustration. On the other hand, if Notre Dame football has another defensive lineman injured on a jet sweep from a stupid cut block and the referee refuses to call it because he hates the Irish when they have a supposedly inferior opponent… wait I am losing it again. I need to find a wall to punch.
Cycling Your Frustration
A typical response to frustration is anger—anger at your boss for making you redo your work, anger at your teacher for giving you a bad grade on a paper you spent hours doing, anger at the guy in the car next to you for cutting you off. When the anger comes from re-living the same incident over and over, I call this “Cycling”—spinning the frustration into anger, saying the same thing over and over until anger builds from your frustration, and then frustration from your anger. Cycling is a never-ending mess which can have some dangerous consequences, especially if it leads you to say something you know you will regret later. It is not uncommon for this cycling to turn into something psychologists call the frustration-aggression-displacement syndrome (everything is a syndrome in psychology). Frustration-aggression-displacement is when you are frustrated at something or someone, but you know you can’t do anything about it. For instance, it is not going to be helpful to yell back at your boss or teacher when they do something that frustrates you, because they have a higher authority than you do, and getting angry with them won’t help assuage your frustration. So, what do you do? You go home and yell at your wife, or your children, or you kick your dog, or yell at a waiter, or go into a road rage by driving like an idiot—you lash out at people who can’t or won’t fight back. In doing so, you are alleviating your frustration through aggression directed at people who are not responsible for your frustration. This is not only unhealthy for you and the people around you, it is also dangerous, and can lead to a downward spiral of increasingly harmful behavior. And research shows it can lead to heart attacks, cancer, rashes, organ dysfunction, etc. Yes, the open expression of anger and frustration has been shown in statistical research to be worse than holding it in. Sort of the opposite of what shrinks have told us in the past.
Lower the Stress
So, what do we do about it? Well, when I was in graduate school they had these things called batakas. A bataka was a foam bat that you would hit the walls, or the couch with, or even you mother or father with and you supposedly would get out all your anger and aggression. I am assuming a bunch of psychologists got pillow-punched into the hospital because they have seemed to have disappeared. Or their patient died of heart attacks when they were bataka-ing their spouses and they got sued. But police psychology is still looking for new ways to make police officers and other individuals less reactive. If frustration is a common, and often automatic response to different stimuli that occur to us, is there really something we can do to prevent it?
The answer to this is no. Frustration is natural and normal—when we are faced with opposition, it is not unusual to feel thwarted and bothered. Indeed, frustration is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be used to motivate you to perform better in the future. Or it can be used as an indicator to point out what areas in your life need improvement. For example, if you find yourself constantly getting frustrated because you lose important items, this can indicate to you that you should try for some organization in your life, not letting the entropy consume your life. If you find yourself getting frustrated that you can’t communicate with your spouse as well as you did before, perhaps that is an indication you need to go to marital counseling, and adjust your life’s paces accordingly. Frustration is nature’s warning signal, and we should never shut that down.
However, frustration-aggression-displacement can and should be prevented. Frustration in and of itself is nothing to get concerned about, but the way you respond to frustration should be appropriate and reasonable.
3 Steps To Help Prevent Frustration Cycling
- Stop the Cycle. For frustration-aggression, the aspect that must be stopped in its tracks is not the frustration, it is the anger, the misplaced aggression you exhibit in response to the frustration. So, the first solution is to stop the cycle—prevent your frustration from spiraling down into anger and aggression. You can do this with a thought stopping technique, a relaxation technique, or even a programming technique. For example the simple one I use is to have the person say ANGER-STOP-THINK 400-500 times a day while driving or something. When they get angry they automatically stop and think. Another one is when something upsets or frustrates you, take a moment and inhale deeply. Do this a few times until you calm down. Or close your eyes and count to 10. Don’t act hastily, because that is how you end up doing something you’ll regret. Your first line of defense is awareness—accepting that this is something you do, and this is something you need to work on. Once you are aware of this cycling behavior, you can begin to stop the cycle in its tracks.
- Look at the bigger picture. Sometimes, just embracing the idea that there is a bigger picture can help prevent you from lashing out in anger. If you are frustrated by something, you should take a moment to think: “Yelling back at my boss is not going to solve anything. It’ll just make the situation worse—I will get fired.” Or, “It is not my child’s fault that I did not get the promotion today.” Or even, “I know losing the car keys seems like the end of the world now—this is just a random bad thing that happened to me, but that doesn’t mean everyone is deliberately against me.” Stepping back and looking at the situation objectively, through the eyes of a zoomed-out camera lens, can prevent you from doing or saying something out of misplaced frustration.
- Think of effective ways to use the energy. In police psychology, we want people to understand that energy is everywhere and can be used effectively. Everything—every emotion, every movement, every feeling—has energy. The trick is to use the energy of your frustration in effective ways. Sublimation is when you take negative or dangerous energy and use it in a productive or constructive way. For example, if you are feeling frustrated, go for a run or go to the gym and let out all your grief that way. Or if you enjoy art, channel your unchecked emotions through art—paint or draw or write about it. Whatever hobbies you enjoy doing, use that to sublimate the energy of your frustration. This is a much healthier way of releasing the built-up energy of frustration.
Site Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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