Many have heard of the “flight or fight” response identified by science as a protective reaction to stressors. Human beings like other species in the animal kingdom have innate responses that are designed to protect them. Sometimes, however, these natural reactions can have unnatural and unhealthy manifestations. Research has shown that not everyone has the same physiological response to stressors (Tyson, 1998). Some individuals have a heightened arousal from stressors. This means that for some people small stressors can trigger the release of adrenal hormones that cause rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and a jump in blood pressure. The body has become ready to react quickly to a threat. This is a problem when any small incident causes this reaction. For these people, training can assist them to identify when their body is primed for aggression and give them strategies to decrease their physical symptoms without acting out.

Individuals with this abnormal physiological response to stressors can get training in relaxation techniques. Relaxation can actually control the body’s overreaction to stress. By consciously slowing the breathing, visualizing pleasant locales, and purposefully relaxing the muscles a person can actually lower their blood pressure and heart rate. Training in recognizing when a person is experiencing an abnormal stress response and practice in relaxation can give aggressive people a new tool to control their impulsive actions. For those who have uncontrolled outbursts when confronted by normal levels of stress this technique can be a lifesaver! Not only will it improve relationships, but it can cut down on risks for heart attack and other health problems later in life.

Societal role expectations sometimes set up unequal power between partners within relationships that then lead to unhealthy conflict management patterns (Bevan and Higgins, 2002). Our society gives males in particular messages about how men manage conflict that can be problematic. Additionally, if young men have male role models that are aggressive, they may come to believe that this is merely how men act. Individuals can learn to have more equality within relationships which improves the quality of the interactions. Additionally, many have difficulty expressing and identifying their own emotions. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Boys don’t cry” ? This sets men up to become emotionally stuck in a pattern of never showing some natural human emotions. With help, individuals can become skilled at expressing more openly what they are feeling, which improves understanding between partners in relationships.

Empathy is being able to stand in the shoes of others and to understand their feelings. Research has shown that those with aggressive tendencies have not developed the ability to empathize well (Tyson, 1998). This skill can be learned and often when one understands the other person’s point of view, conflicts are more easily managed. Particularly for those who are not good at expressing their own feelings it can be difficult to know what others are feeling. Again, society has given the impression that women more than men are in tuned with the feelings of others. Men are discouraged from nurturing connection to the feelings of others. Individuals who want to have more depth in their understanding of their family members can learn to empathize, which creates a much more cooperative atmosphere in the home.

Anger management training assists individuals to understand conflict management techniques that work. With support and practice, people who formerly acted impulsive and angry when stressed can have better relationships with their loved ones. When new techniques become habits, relationships are bound to improve. There is hope for those with difficulty handling conflict.

Tyson, P.D. (1998). Physiological arousal, reactive aggression, and the induction of an incompatible relaxation response . Aggression and Violent Behavior 3 (2) 143-158.

Bevan, E. & Higgins, D.J. (2002). Is domestic violence learned? The contribution of five forms of child maltreatment to men's violence and adjustment . Journal of Family Violence 17(3). 223-245.

Author's Bio: 

Marcie Hambrick graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Dalton State College. She received a Master of Social Work degree from Florida State University. She has worked for five years in different support roles at the Family Support Council with families with children. She has five years experience working within the public education system. She is currently studying for a PhD in Sociology at Georgia State University. She currently is the Director of New Leaf Outreach Anger Management & Counseling, an organization committed to helping individuals and families improve their relationships.