Perhaps the single most useful tool for dealing with anger imagery is a variation of thought stopping. The idea was first introduced by Bain in 1928 and adapted in the 1950s by Joseph
Wolpe and other behavioral therapists. More recently, Donald Meichenbaum (1977) has developed a technique of substituting covert assertions (relaxing thoughts and images) for the anger-triggering ones.
You can use this tactic to distract or “derail” the train of thoughts and images before it gets up a full head of steam. In a way, thought stopping is a kind of deterrent that lessens the chance that the same thought or image will emerge again. Negative images are cut off before they have a chance to do much damage. Instead, through relaxed, forgiving images, you can create a positive feedback loop that diminishes your anger.
The first step in taking control is to arrange for a timed interruption. Get an egg timer or alarm clock and put it next to a comfortable chair. Now sit in the chair and allow yourself to let your mind wander. When you find yourself beginning to entertain negative images or fantasies, open your eyes and set the timer for two minutes. Then close your eyes and allow the images to continue. When the bell goes off, shout “Stop!” out loud. As a way of reinforcing the experience, either snap your fingers or stand up quickly.
You will probably find that the images stop and are replaced with neutral thoughts. If the fantasies return within 30 seconds, shout “Stop!” again.
When you have mastered image stopping with a timing device, you are ready to start using a cassette recorder. First, record yourself shouting “Stop!” at random intervals. For example, you might leave gaps of 30 seconds, two minutes, one and a half minutes, three minutes, and so on between shouts. If you had trouble stopping your images in the previous exercise, then record yourself shouting “Stop!” several times in a row at each interval. Now you can substitute your tape recording for the egg timer while you allow your mind to entertain the negative images.
The next step is to practice unaided thought interruption. Allow your images and fantasies to proceed for a bit and then shout “Stop!” Keep doing this on your own time schedule until you are able to stop the fantasies several times in a row.
When you are able to completely interrupt a chain of images by shouting, you can start lowering your voice to a normal tone. When your normal voice proves effective, you can continue to lower your volume until you reach a whisper. The last step in this process is to “subvocalize,” or to imagine hearing the shouted word “Stop!” You still move your tongue and throat as if you were saying the word, but without making a sound.
Using this technique you can now effectively stop intrusive images or fantasies anywhere or anytime (without drawing funny looks from the people around you when you “shout”).
If you find that this technique is not completely successful, you can try two other strategies. The first is to carry a hand-drawn picture of an eight-sided traffic stop sign in your wallet. You can pull out the picture as needed, whenever intrusive images occur. In time, you will learn to visualize this sign mentally whenever you want to take control. A second technique is to place a thick rubber band unobtrusively around your wrist. When disturbing images come to mind, a simple snap will quickly bring you back to reality. Remember to subvocalize “Stop!” whenever you snap the rubber band.
The stop sign and rubber band may seem like bizarre gimmicks. But they are proven strategies for stopping unwanted thoughts and images. They work—which is what’s really important in the quest for anger control.
Don’t be discouraged if at first the images tend to come back very quickly. If you use thought stopping each time the anger-triggering image occurs, its frequency will greatly diminish within one to two days. The secret formula for success is consistency. Consistent use of the thought stopping technique will prevent the image from taking root.
It is rarely enough to simply stop the offending images. Nature abhors a vacuum, and something must come in to fill the empty space. The best strategy is to plan ahead and have some positive images prepared and ready to put into action.
One of the most healing images is that of a sunny beach in your favorite part of the world. Whether it’s a quiet cove on Kauai, the bay of Corinth, Stinson Beach, or even Coney Island, the effect is the same. The warm sun makes your whole body feel quiet and deeply relaxed. You smell the ocean and hear the sound of the waves as they come in and go out. And you know that the sea has been doing that, ebb and flow, since time began.
Lying there, totally at peace with the universe, you can imagine all your troubles washing out to sea. Sally imagined her boss being carried farther and farther out by the waves. His strident voice became fainter and fainter, until there was nothing left but the surf, the sea, and the cry of an occasional seagull.
Or you can imagine climbing a mountain to achieve a new perspective on your situation. Look down and see the people in your life as small moving dots. Michael saw his daughter and himself, moving from room to room in the house as they do their angry dance. From the mountaintop their battle seemed so far away, so silly.
Another option for Sally is a technique that helps her get through the day. When her boss starts getting critical and makes derogatory remarks, she fantasizes a white light. This is the fabled white light of acceptance, which allows people to hear unpleasant things without taking them in or feeling defensive. She imagines herself bathed in the light. Safe. Protected. Beyond the reach of her boss’s hurtful jibes. In the light, she can finally see his pain, his humanity, his obvious frailty. in addition, by imagining a simple switch, Sally can turn on a white noise feature. This noise effectively masks or minimizes the sound or impact of negative feedback and creates a peaceful environment around her.
For some people, a cool blue light works best. Chuck’s therapist has taught him to stop hot thoughts by imagining an ice blue light filtering down from the ceiling. The coolness is relaxing for Chuck, and he has an easier time letting go of anger images.
A different type of thought substitution involves the creation of images that help you to see the angry, provocative person from a new point of view. For example, Sally sometimes imagines her boss in a belittling way by seeing him naked or dressed in a clown suit with a big red nose. Chuck pictures the lawyer who took his deposition crippled or otherwise handicapped by greed. By looking closely, he can see a small and frightened child inside the aggressive antagonist. Anne, the professor’s wife, gets some measure of relief by seeing in her mind’s eye the positive aspect of her husband’s personality. Her balancing image of him as a gentle, intelligent, and caring soul helps prevent escalation and encourages her to confront him directly. Michael has made some progress in rebuilding his relationship to his daughter by looking for her loneliness and fear. He sees her as small and overwhelmed by life, looking for support from every man she meets.
- McKay, Matthew, Rogers, Peter & Judith McKay, How to Change Painful Feelings Into Positive Action When Anger Hurts, MJF Books: New York, 1989.
Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information
about anger imagery. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
What are two imagery techniques used with anger management clients? Record the letter of the correct answer