There are countless emotions involved in caring for an aging loved one, but difficult feelings like anger, frustration and resentment are a few that family caregivers often struggle with. Each person experiences and handles powerful emotions like anger in different ways. For example, one family caregiver may frequently experience annoyance at their situation without necessarily being angry about it, while another may bypass being irked or frustrated and immediately jump to feeling outraged.
While anger is a healthy, normal human emotion, frequently feeling upset or as if you have little or no control over your reactions can be signs of anger issues. When anger becomes a problem, it can impact a person’s quality of life and their relationships with others. Those who are struggling with caregiver stress and burnout are often aware that their emotions are getting the best of them, but how does one learn to manage anger in healthier ways?
The first step is understanding what anger is. Tina Tessina, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction views anger as “the emotional energy within each of us that rises up when something needs to change.”
The real problem lies in identifying what it is in our lives that is sparking this anger and needs changing.
Identifying the Source of Your Anger
Pinpointing the source of one’s anger isn’t always a straightforward exercise, especially for family caregivers who are juggling many different responsibilities. For example, if your mother has Alzheimer’s disease and her broken brain causes her to complain constantly, there’s no doubt that you’d find her behavior irritating. But how can you change this situation? This and other dementia-related behaviors are out of your control and, truthfully, out of her control as well.
So, how can you make this challenging situation a bit more bearable? No matter the circumstances, it’s important to remember that the one thing you can always change is yourself. Instead of looking outward and blaming external circumstances for your anger, try looking inward. Examining how you interpret frustrating situations and express your emotions will help you learn how to handle your anger in a healthier manner. Once you stop allowing your feelings to overwhelm you and cloud your judgement, you’ll be able to devise better solutions for minimizing or distancing yourself from the things that cause you strife.
In this scenario, respite is an excellent solution. Respite care is often a very helpful tool for caregivers who are struggling with high stress levels and difficult emotions. Whether you opt for adult day care, in-home care or permanent placement for your mother in a memory care unit, even the smallest break from her repetitive complaints and questions will do wonders for your mental fortitude.
Understanding Your Anger Style
As mentioned above, there are different types of anger. Understanding your “anger style” will allow you to take constructive steps toward dealing with your emotions and making positive changes in your life. Read through the sample scenarios and kinds of anger below to see which types resonate most with you.
- Reactive Anger: Say someone cuts you off on the highway while you’re driving your loved one to a doctor’s appointment and you simply cannot resist the urge to pound your horn and scream in the general direction of their vehicle. If you identify with this situation, you probably have what nationally renowned relationship expert and author April Masini calls a “quick fuse” anger style. Frustrating experiences generally cause you to have an immediate, visceral reaction that involves yelling and slamming whatever door is closest to you. The problem with this type of anger is that it can make you act like a bully. Once you’ve cooled off after one of these outbursts, you’re often overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or embarrassment.
“People with an inability to control their impulses will act without processing their thoughts,” Masini explains. “These are the folks who get into fights quickly.” Unfortunately, this usually means that other people will avoid interacting with you out of fear that you’ll explode on them. Furthermore, research has shown that people who display a reactive anger style are more prone to developing problems like heart disease.
- Volcanic Anger: You keep turning the other cheek and rolling with the punches. This morning, your husband with dementia asked, “Who are you?” You found out that your brother-in-law has been writing checks to himself from your husband’s bank account. The pharmacist gave you the wrong prescription. Up until now, you’ve buried your frustration, remained calm and taken everything in stride. But eventually it all becomes too much and you explode. You berate the pharmacist for being incompetent and snap at your husband the next time he forgets who you are.
Masini likens this anger style to a volcano: there’s an extended period of emotional dormancy followed by a catastrophic explosion. The problem is that people prone to this style don’t process their anger properly or in real time. “Getting angry is normal,” she says, “but holding it in until you explode is not productive.”
- Passive-Aggressive Anger: Your sister bails last-minute on a rare offer to take care of Dad for a few hours so you can go to your own doctor’s appointment and run some errands. You’re upset but you tell her, “It’s fine — I didn’t really need that checkup anyway.” The next time you see her, she asks how Dad is doing and you respond, “He’s doing great for someone whose family doesn’t care about him.”
Passive-aggressive remarks and behaviors create the illusion that everything is fine while also subtly cuing others into your underlying anger. You may give the offending party the silent treatment or dole out backhanded compliments with a smile on your face. The problem with being passive-aggressive is that it can cause you to hang on to your anger for a very long time. Long-term anger and resentment can contribute to a host of mental health issues including depression and feelings of helplessness.
- Projecting Anger: Your mother yells at you for overcooking her dinner. A minute later, you chide the cat when he innocently gets under your feet. If this sounds familiar, you may cope with anger by projecting it onto other people, pets and things. Masini says that those who project anger often do so because they are afraid of expressing themselves to whomever is upsetting them. Instead of risking your relationship with your mother, you focus your fury on a “safer object,” such as the cat. Projecting can severely damage your relationship with whomever you’re off-loading your anger onto and can also lead to a hefty amount of post-outburst guilt on your part.
Anger Management Tips for Caregivers
If you identify with one or a few of the types of anger described above, then it may be beneficial for you to learn some techniques for controlling your emotions and expressing anger in a heathier way. Many people find themselves lashing out uncharacteristically once they’ve invited the stresses of caregiving into their lives. With practice, the following techniques will enable you to better handle your emotions and feel more like your old self.
- Count to Ten: It may sound cliché, but there’s a reason why counting to ten is a commonly recommended anger management strategy — it works. When something upsets you, mentally taking a step back and counting to 10 helps prevent knee-jerk reactions and allows you extra time to decide how to handle the situation. If you haven’t gathered your thoughts after counting to 10, feel free to continue counting as long as you need. Remember to take slow, deep breaths to help calm your body as well. Masini says you can take this method a step further by removing yourself from the room or building where your anger has been triggered. This tactic is particularly useful for people who are prone to explosive episodes of anger.
- Be Direct: It’s okay to admit your anger or frustration to others as long as you do so in a relatively calm, direct manner. Dr. Tessina says that one of the best ways to express anger is to do so “clearly and cleanly, without too much drama.” This can be difficult for some individuals, especially in the beginning, but with practice, you can develop the mental skills necessary to recognize, control, interpret and communicate your anger in a productive manner.
- Rewind: To help you practice responding to frustrating situations, Dr. Tessina suggests going through an exercise called “rewinding the tape.”
First, envision a time when you got angry in the past. Picture all the details in your mind’s eye. Where did it take place? Who was there? What were people wearing? Treat the scene like a video tape and let it play out once without trying to change anything. Simply observe how the events unfolded.
Next, think about what you would like to have changed about how the event played out. How might you have responded differently to the situation to make it better? Dr. Tessina says that it’s important to reflect on your own actions rather than those of others. Remember that the only person you can ever really control is yourself.
Finally, replay the improved version of this encounter in your mind over and over until you feel as though you could do and say what you are envisioning in real life.
According to Dr. Tessina, the more you mentally rehearse positive responses to upsetting and frustrating stimuli, the more likely it is that you will be able to productively handle such situations in the future. She also encourages people to use this technique to prepare for potentially tense scenarios.
The more adept you become at controlling your anger, the more fulfilling your relationships will be. As Dr. Tessina points out, “Keeping your cool is a very important social skill. It doesn’t matter who’s right, who started it, or whether it’s fair. The person who ‘loses it’ to win an argument actually loses everything instead.”
If you need additional help learning to control your emotions, consider working with a mental health professional and/or attending an anger management support group. Taking steps to reduce stress and improve your emotional health will enable you to become a better caregiver and lead a happier, more rewarding life.