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Feelings of frustration, annoyance and outright anger are common occurrences in everyday life. Add MS to the equation, and it’s even more likely that people will have differences of opinion and conflicts. Some examples of these conflicts can be about how things are done, division of responsibilities, activities and making decisions. Under these circumstances, it would be the rare person who never loses his or her cool.

Anger can have negative impact on physical and emotional health, behavior and particularly on relationships. Just when people need encouragement, support and intimacy the most, anger can result in blaming and finger-pointing, refusing assistance and feeling like opponents rather than members of the same team. On the other hand, regular and intense anger can signal the need to address important issues and make changes.

It’s important for each person to take personal responsibility for their angry behavior and emotions. In the short-term, individuals can do this in any number of ways. They can engage in a calming activity (deep breathing, yoga, counting to 10, prayer, meditation), do something productive, engage in physical activity, talk with a friend, watch a funny show or movie, or activate a personal “pause button” (time-out for adults). In the longer-term, working to improve communication is essential to resolving conflicts and nurturing healthy relationships.

There can be multiple barriers to effective communication, including no good time or place to talk, different coping and communication styles, depressed and irritable moods, and MS-specific cognitive symptoms, such as easy distractibility and slowed information processing. None of these barriers is insurmountable when respect, caring and effort are part of relationships. Keep in mind that effective communication combines both talking and listening.

Some tips for talking:

Do/s
– Make time for talking and reduce distractions
– Acknowledge differences in coping/communication styles
– Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements that are experienced as finger pointing
– Give the other person time to think and respond

Don’t/s
– Overgeneralize, for example, using words like “always, never”
– Drip with sarcasm
– Expect the other person to read your mind

Some tips for listening:

Do/s
– Listen actively and confirm what you’ve heard by summarizing
– Pay attention to your body language (eye-rolling, smirking, finger-jabbing, doing something else at the same time)
– Say “ouch” as a short-hand signal when you feel hurt by something the other person has said

Don’t/s
– Interrupt or talk over the other person
– Jump to conclusions—if you’re not sure what someone is feeling and thinking, check it out!
– Expect the other person to read your mind

Dr. John Gottesman, marriage and family therapist, recommends that people learn to resolve conflicts by peaceful means. For example, it can be useful to “soften the start-up” when you begin a conversation by expressing concerns without criticizing or attacking. He recommends that people take responsibility for their own behavior and managing their emotions with positive self-talk, deep breathing, thought-stopping (literally saying STOP to themselves when about to say something hurtful or accusatory), paying attention to tone and posture, and learning to let some things go. In addition, he suggests identifying and using an exit strategy, such as taking a break with a plan to come back to the issue later in order to avoid the situation getting out of control emotionally and/or physically.

Accessing mental health services such as counseling can be helpful at any point, but particularly when anger is unmanageable and/or negatively affecting relationships. A professional can help sort out normal anger from depression that is very treatable, explore the triggers for anger, and identify the payoffs that are helping to maintain the anger. Counseling or talking therapy can provide a supportive setting in which people can talk about difficult feelings and situations. In addition, the counseling process can help people generate options and practice new life and communication skills.

Click here to get even more great tips on this topic by viewing our archived webinar on Coping Effectively with Anger in Your Relationships.