Opinion: Prevention by pre-escalation


Published: 11-07-2023 6:00 AM

Mark Ciocca of Penacook is a retired psychologist.

Whether you read the newspaper, watch TV, or get your news online, it is easy to conclude that we are living in challenging and potentially stressful times. Images of war are everywhere, mass shootings have become common, we lived through a huge pandemic, homelessness surrounds us, and our political situation is full of conflict.

There can be many responses to overall stress, but it seems as though anger has become one of the major ones. It is not unusual to hear or read about scuffles and “road rage” incidents between people, many thankfully not resulting in death but often resulting in serious injuries and arrests of people involved.

The term “de-escalation” has become popular when referring to law enforcement personnel attempting to calm angry and potentially violent people before a conflict becomes out of control. Similarly, I would propose that all of us, as individuals, develop “pre-escalation” skills, with the goal of calming and controlling our tension and anger before a minor conflict becomes a major one.

As a hypothetical example, imagine you are in your vehicle in the parking lot of a big box store, trying to sneak an errand in on your lunch break. You are preparing to turn left into a parking space with having dutifully activated your turn signal. Seemingly from out of nowhere, someone else comes from the opposite direction, and before you can turn into the spot, they swoop in and take it.

In response to what the other driver did, you start to tense up, and to yourself, you refer to that driver in many derogatory terms (many that are not printable). Worse yet, you notice that the person’s vehicle has a sticker on it expressing a viewpoint you detest, leading you to take a more angry stance. That anger leads you to honk your horn, resulting in a single-fingered gesture reply.

It is clear that the situation is reaching a crucial decision point on your part. Do you return the finger gesture, or open your window and verbally berate them? Or do you exit your vehicle, approach the person, and let them have it? If you do, do you bring the knife, pepper spray, or perhaps the handgun you keep with you for self-defense?

This is the point where, for your own sake, you need to stop yourself from escalating the anger that is building. Even before I became a psychologist, I learned of the need to not escalate anger, first as a martial artist, then in firearms training. Not only is the prevention of death or injury vital, it is important that you as the trained individual not be construed as the instigator of violence.

The first step in preventing escalation involves what you are thinking to yourself. Thoughts such as “I oughta let ‘em have it” or “I need to teach them a lesson” need to be replaced with “I need to let go of this” or “It’s not worth any more of my time.”

The other important form of self-talk is calming, or self-soothing. Thoughts such as “I can just calm down and go about my business” and “I’m just going to cool down and enjoy the rest of the day” can help. Try and not replay the scene over and over again, fantasizing about what you would have liked to have done.

Being positive with yourself physically is also important. Take slow, full breaths and notice if your heartbeat is slowing in your chest. If your hands had been tight against the wheel, let them loosen up. If you had been making fists, open your hands and relax them. Loosen up the muscles in your neck. They probably really tensed up too.

Things to not do are to pound your fists against the dashboard, or throw something around. The idea of taking things out against inanimate objects in order to “get it out of your system” has been proven not to work. It often keeps the anger and tension alive. Exercise, listening to calming music, or doing something that occupies your mind and steers it away from the anger are more effective.

Given that we’re all going through challenging times one way or another, perhaps one of the best ways to prevent escalation of anger is to develop and nurture empathy for others, recognizing that sometimes the reason people do what aggravates us is that they are struggling with issues that are stressing them, and we may just want to internally wish them well in their struggles.