David Haviland would like us all to simmer down. The Cold Spring–based psychotherapist runs a five-session anger management program that includes many court-mandated clients, as well as people who voluntarily come to get a handle on their hot-headed tendencies. Haviland designed the psychoeducational program himself to be brief, to the point, and effective, and he's seen it help many people for about eight years now. I connected with him recently to talk about his treatment approach as well as how it relates to current phenomena like angry politics and the rash of school shootings. You can learn more about Haviland at angermanagementamerica.com, and await his book-in-progress, Angry Like Me: 7 Ways To Beat Your Anger Habit, Not Your Neighbor.
Just about everyone has wrestled with anger at some time or another. Who comes to you for help?
David Haviland: I've had everybody from police officers to parents arguing in family court. To give you an idea of the range of people, I had a guy sent to me who had been in prison for armed robbery, and he was sitting there working with me when a police car came flying into the parking lot. He jumped up and said, "Who told the cops I'm here?" I said, "Relax, he's my 4 o'clock." I get people from all walks of life. Judges, attorneys, and social services organizations from both sides of the Hudson River send folks to me, and many non-mandated folks are also coming on their own. And I tell people, you know what, "there but for the grace of God," as my mother used to say, because many of us get to that point. The American Psychiatric Association calls anger a typical human emotion; it's part of being a human being, and it comes in many forms. I describe it like an invisible gas: Many of us have a trigger inside us somewhere, but if you're not mindful of the trigger and you don't have a plan to deal with it, you might end up with an explosion.
One of the interesting things about my particular program is that I have serious anger issues of my own, and I immediately share that fact with my participants. So when people come to me for the first time, whether it's singly or in a group of two or three, I typically start by saying, "I'm going to show you where I stand on the anger management scale." Because I want them to be able to bond with me. They can learn from the problems I have struggled with and realize they are not alone in all of this. The hope is that if they can see how I have handled my anger issues, maybe they can, too.
How can we begin to manage our anger?
First, it requires a commitment on the part of the participant to want to control his or her anger. Once that choice has been made, the first key is being mindful of what specifically triggers us to become angry and preparing ourselves mentally to avoid those minefields where we will likely suffer consequences—like losing a job, going through the breakup of a relationship, even going to jail. One thing I tell people is, "Don't put yourself in harm's way." So for example, if you know that road rage is an issue, and you know that when you drive up Route 9 people are going to cut you off, why put yourself in that situation? You can go up 9D to Poughkeepsie instead and hardly see any traffic. Don't go where you know you're going to be triggered—there might be ways to avoid it. So that's one of the things that we do.
We also put our anger on a scale from one to ten. It's okay to be angry within the one-to-nine range, but once we hit ten, that puts you on the brink of physical or verbal aggression, which will likely have consequences. I share with people that my own personal trigger is my impatience. Growing up as one of 11 children, I used to watch the meatloaf platter move slowly around the table, wondering if there'd be anything left by the time it got to me. Not a big patience builder! Waiting in line behind three or four siblings to use the bathroom didn't help build patience either. So I know the situations that are going to trigger me. When you know what your triggers are, that's a key part of it.