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Provocation, Anger and Reaction

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 5th 2012

Provocation, Anger and ReactionCase Vignette:

Recently, a friend of mine got into a huge arguement with someone because their dogs got into a fight. There was nothing extraordinary about the dog fight. The two dogs were on leashes but each owner thought it would be nice if the two dogs could sniff one another. However, rather than sniffing in a friendly way they started to growl and fight. Neither dog was injured but the owner of the other dog made some sarcastic and angry remarks to my friend, causing him to feel insulted and injured.

The two dog owners parted and the incident seemed to be over. However, my friend started to focus his thoughts on how angry, hurt and unjustly treated he felt. These thoughts increased his anger, leading to repeated obsessive thinking about the situation.

Could he have handled his feelings and thoughts in a better way?

Dominik Mischkowski, a psychology student in the PhD program at Ohio State, conducted a study that shows a better way for all of us to handle anger. In a heated situation, it is common for many of us to focus on our hurt and angry feelings. This backfires because it increases the likelihood that we will retaliate at some future time. Mischkowski's research showed that it's better to emotionally distance yourself from situations like this. He suggests pretending to be a "fly on the wall" watching what is going on, rather than participating.

By distancing one's self from an explosive situation, by watching the events as though watching a movie, angry and aggressive thoughts are reduced. On the other hand, by immersing one's self in the incident and reliving the situation, angry and aggressive thoughts increase.

In a world where news stories show people immersed in violent situations, it is important to use stratagies that defuse provocative situations. Too many acts of violence dominate the headlines. Here is a technique that all of us can use to reduce these aggressive aggressive feelings and thoughts.

Your experience, comments and thoughts about this type of reaction are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

basis - steveo - Oct 6th 2012

What is the basis for the "fly on the wall" method.

Is this just a "good idea" or has it been tested in practice, by whom, where.

Seeing more and more blog type posts where people spout out ideas, but they are not necessarily true or work.


Just saying

Past Experiences - Harris - Jul 6th 2012

I guessed there was a situation that reminded your friend about a bad past.  He could have felt belittled and humiliated.  Agree, there might be a possibility there's retaliation in the future.  In my opinion, he kept thinking about it because he wanted to say something that he was not able to say during that scuffle.  Talk to him, and as much as possible try to divert his attention to other things.

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