Anger and the Art of Cooking

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Feb 13th, 13

Anger management and the art of cooking

Marty Seitz, Ph.D.

Access Wellness Group

Think of yourself as being a pot of soup on the stove, and anger is the heat. While you need some heat to cook soup, too much heat can cause it to steam up, boil over, or to burn. This analogy is common for helping people communicate about their experience of anger.

Vent Appropriately

When people feel threatened, they have an automatic fight or flight response. The body prepares to go into action as if internal steam builds up to drive it. If the choice is to fight, the emotional experience is anger. If some of that emotional heat isnít released, it builds up inside until it explodes or boils over. But if some of the anger is released a little at a time, the steam doesnít build up. 

Now cracking the lid on a pot on the stove has to be done carefully, so the escaping steam doesnít burn anyone. Venting anger is the same way, and people often say they need to ďlet off a little steamĒ in these situations. Since the body has prepared itself to fight or flee, one way to let off steam properly is to do some physical activity that involves movements that are similar to fighting or running. Almost all physical sports do involve such movements. Throwing, hitting, or kicking a ball mimic fighting, so engaging in physical sporting activities on a regular basis is a good way to manage anger as long as it is done carefully to minimize hurting yourself or others. Sports have rules, boundaries, and referees/judges to help ensure the venting is appropriate. 

Some people prefer to let their anger/steam vent verbally. Appropriate verbal expression of anger is one type of assertiveness. When people express anger in verbal assertiveness, they stand up for themselves but also take the rights of other people into consideration. 

When neither proper physical activity nor direct verbal assertiveness are possible or wise, journaling can still be a useful way to vent anger appropriately. It allows one to write down feelings and to express frustrations without improper actions.


Anger is the natural consequence not only of perceiving threat but also of perceiving oneself or others as being the victims of injustice. Perceived injustice is like the heating element on a stove where that pot of soup sits. The greater the perceived injustice, the higher the heat. So another way of keeping soup from boiling over is to turn down the heat by decreasing the amount of perceived injustice by empathizing with the person or persons judged to be the source of the injustice. Instead of ascribing evil motives, give the other persons the benefit of the doubt, if possible, and consider whatever justifiable and understandable reasons they may have for their behavior. For example, perhaps they just received extremely bad news or they misinterpreted your actions. Try to imagine some mitigating circumstance that although may not totally excuse the behavior may at least decrease the degree of perceived injustice. In other words, put yourself in their place.

Count to 10 and Then Count the Cost

A third strategy for preventing an explosion or burned soup is to count to 10 just like  popular wisdom suggests. Counting to 10 takes the hot pot of soup thatís about to boil over off the heating element for a few seconds to let the contents cool a little. Counting to 10 distracts people temporarily from perceiving themselves as being under threat or as victims of injustice, which has the effect of distancing them from the source of the heat. Then after counting to 10, carefully considering the possible consequences of letting the soup boil over, explode, or burn has the effect of stirring the soup to distribute the heat more evenly. Once the pot has cooled a little, you can evaluate what course of action will be best so as not to spoil the soup.

Engage in Prescribed Breathing

The fourth strategy involves patterned breathing somewhat like the breathing used by women to manage childbirth. It is a little more complex than simply counting to 10. Hereís the pattern. Breathe in for 3 seconds; hold your breath for 12 seconds; exhale for 6 seconds; and, repeat for a total of 7 sets. It may take some practice to be able to do it smoothly, but the results can be quite significant. 

This pattern of breathing helps return the body to its normal state after the fight or flight alarm goes off. When done properly, it can lower heart rate and respiration and normalize the ratio of gases dissolved in the bloodstream. It also helps by giving a person something else on which to focus other than the perceived threat or injustice. Another advantage is that this technique can be done almost anywhere, anytime, and can be repeated as often as necessary. Using the hot pot analogy, this prescribed breathing technique is a combination of the other techniques to keep the soup from being ruined.

So the next time your pot begins to boil, remember to vent carefully ( lift the lid), empathize (turn down the heat), count (take the pot off the heat and stir), and breathe ( do a little bit of all of the preceding as necessary), so you donít ruin your soup!

Dr. Marty Seitz is an Associate Professor of Psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University where he has taught since 1989. He got his BA in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a masterís degree in Community Counseling and a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couplesí counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.

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