The word sober has a lot of different meanings and connotations. An obvious meaning is to be free from the influence of a psychoactive substance, such as drugs or alcohol. Another meaning is to be serious and thoughtful. There are a multitude of different acronyms that use the word sober as a reminder for something. (My favorite is SOBER-son of a bitch, everything’s real!, borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous.) One does not have to be an alcoholic, substance abuser, or under the influence of a substance in order to benefit from the sober acronym.
In moments of intense anger and emotion, our rational, logical, brain shuts down and we become influenced by an intense burst of brain chemicals that lead to an angry, often embarrassing outburst that he later regret. I’m sure we all can identify events in our lives when we overreacted, got angry, and later regretted it. We probably acted on limited information, going with the intense emotion, before we had all the information that we needed to make a more rational choice. In that moment of emotional intensity we might as well have been under the influence of a substance. The fact is that in times of emotional reactivity our brains get taken over by a chemical stew that is influenced by our past experience and preconceived notions. Someone acting out in anger is, in that moment of irrational thought and behavior, is as impaired in judgment as any drunk or drug addict. Outbursts of anger trigger the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which if not managed can lead to a host of physical and emotional problems. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=1379)
There is research that suggests that repeated and episodic outbursts of anger create changes in the brain on a cellular level. It changes the brain’s neurons, making it difficult for them to switch on and off appropriately, effectively getting them stuck in an “on” position when facing things that trigger anger. A person becomes addicted to the flood of brain chemicals that they create when confronted with their anger triggers. This compels a person to act out angrily over and over again, as they become addicted to their own negative brain chemistry. Over time, such stress blocks the growth of new neurons that would otherwise make coping with these triggers more likely. Anger responses can literally become an addiction.
To break this destructive pattern of anger as addiction, we’re going to use the acronym SOBER as a way to retrain the brain to learn better ways of coping. (For more on how to identify anger triggers see http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=477) The acronym is simple. Here’s the steps:
⦁ S = Stop immediately, and as soon as you are aware that you are you are about to enter a triggering situation. The first step in managing anger is to become aware of what your hot buttons are and how you typically respond to them. What do you typically say to yourself during these times? How does your body responds at these times? What physical gestures do you make when becoming angry? What things do you say, swears do you use, expressions and so on? People run the same patterns over and over again in the brain when they are becoming angry, so we tend to think, do, and say the same things at these times. STOP as soon as you recognize one of your patterns beginning.
⦁ O = Observe what’s going on, both internally and externally. Ask yourself the important questions: Is this one of my trigger events? What am I saying to myself? What’s my internal dialogue right now? What am I feeling physically at the moment? Where am I holding physical tension? Become aware of physiological sensations, such as the way you are breathing, carrying tension in your muscles, and the volume and tone of your voice. Remember, it’s virtually impossible to change something that you do not notice.
⦁ B = Breathe. Take some deep breaths and slowly exhale. If possible, notice that you are doing it. Notice yourself breathing, and bringing that response under control. Regulated, controlled, aware breathing is by far the best thing one can do to bring physiological responses under control. Controlled breathing brings your parasympathetic nervous system into play, allowing you to slow down your physiological responses. This allows your thoughts to slow and prepare you for more rational thought. There is a reason that pregnant women are taught those breathing techniques.
⦁ E = Expand your view and your interpretation of what’s going on. Start from the inside and work outward by getting your breathing under control first. Then, begin to examine your own thoughts and internal dialogue. Ask yourself some more rational questions. Is there another explanation for this? Did they do that on purpose? Am I overreacting? Could I be wrong? Am I missing something? These are initial questions that you must consider. Consider what the various responses you may make at this time could lead to. You may remember times that you acted poorly in similar situations and later regretted it. This will enable you to learn from that past, negative experience. Consider choices that you will be comfortable with.
⦁ R = Respond. Choose a course of action that is consistent with your personal values and is appropriate to the situation at hand. By no means should having anger management skills make you a doormat for the world. We’re not trying to turn you into St. Francis here, we are trying to get you to slow down, get your physiology under control, and respond appropriately to the situation in a way that you can feel good about.
This process does take a little time, but is simple to implement into your everyday life. Once you memorize the acronym, look to find ways to implement it immediately. This is a skill that you can develop with some conscientious effort. The benefits are that it can improve your relationships, work performance, self image, and your emotional and physical health. The sobering facts are that people who are prone to anger suffer from greater instances of heart disease, high blood pressure, muscle tension, elevated cholesterol, are more prone to being overweight, and die earlier. Using the skills outlined here you will learn that anger is not instinctive, but is a choice. You can get it under control.
“The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”- Thomas Paine
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