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It was a slap seen and heard around the world.
After Academy Award winner Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars Sunday night in response to a joke about Smith’s wife, a worldwide discussion started about how to manage anger before it escalates to violence.
“Chris Rock has no real understanding of what happened to Will Smith in the 90 minutes or so leading up to the incident. But there’s obviously something going on for Will. Chris’ joke, and his wife being humiliated in public like that, would’ve been the final straw,” said Mike Fisher, psychotherapist and British expert in anger management.
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Fisher described the incident as a typical example of what unhealthy anger can do when we act in a fit of rage without thinking about the consequences of our actions.
Anger is defined as “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage,” according to Dr. Charles Spielberger, a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger.
When someone gets angry, their heart rate, blood pressure and energy hormones, like adrenaline, in our body increase, according to the American Psychological Association.
The society notes people have many conscious and unconscious ways to deal with their anger, but they mostly fall into three main approaches: expressing, suppressing and calming.
“Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive, not aggressive, manner is the healthiest way to express anger,” per the association.
But anger can also be suppressed when we stop thinking about those feelings — the association suggests redirecting our negative emotion into something positive. There is some caution in this response, however, because if the response is not externalized, the anger can turn on ourselves, causing high blood pressure or depression.
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Fisher recommends first aid techniques to deal with anger: “Stop. Think. Take look at the bigger picture. And think of the consequences.”
But on Sunday, Will Smith chose an alternative reaction.
As Rock was presenting the Oscar for best documentary, he looked at Smith’s wife, joking: “Jada, I love you. ‘GI Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see you,” referencing her shaved head.
Although Smith first laughed at the comment, he later saw his wife clearly not amused with the joke, so he walked onstage, slapped Rock, then yelled expletives at Rock to keep Jada’s name out of his joke routine.
“Smith had every right to be upset but stepping away from the source of this emotion would have been a much better response, followed up with a private conversation with Rock afterwards to discuss why he thought his jokes were inappropriate,” noted Dannielle Haig, principal psychologist with London based DH Counselling.
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“I know it may not feel like the best response at the time, but you can’t win by fighting fire with fire, you win by fighting fire with water,” Haig said.
Fisher also said Smith could have removed himself from the situation to avoid how it escalated: “He could have pulled Chris Rock aside afterwards, or given his wife the choice and the space to do that herself. This was an extreme reaction.”
Haig suggests finding the trigger that may cause such a reaction may help prevent another outburst.
“Once you know what triggers the aggression then you can start working out how to resolve that issue for you and in the meantime, start to remove yourself from any situation that could cause you to be emotionally aroused into an aggressive state,” she said.
The American Psychological Association recommends defusing the situation with deep breathing, relaxing imagery as well as training our brains to think differently when we get upset.
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“For instance, instead of telling yourself, ‘Oh, it’s awful, it’s terrible, everything’s ruined,’ tell yourself, ‘It’s frustrating, and it’s understandable that I’m upset about it, but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow,’” the association recommended.
Other suggested strategies include trying to discover the underlying reason for the anger, finding a better way to communicate when we are in a heated discussion, or even injecting a little humor to calm the situation.
“There are two cautions in using humor. First, don’t try to just ‘laugh off’ your problems; rather, use humor to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don’t give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that’s just another form of unhealthy anger expression,” according to the American Psychological Association.
But if the conservative strategies fail, the psychological association recommends counseling for help managing our emotions.
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“When it comes to anger and rage, many clients will say, ‘If they hadn’t done X then I wouldn’t be angry’. This is totally incorrect. We are all responsible for our thoughts and behaviors. We cannot control other people or the world around us – we can only control our responses. Taking responsibility for your choices is incredible liberating and gives you a greater sense of autonomy over your life,” Haig said.
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