“Regular people behaving like savage beasts,” the nurse told me when describing the fight she had witnessed between the anesthesiologist and the surgeon. Both successful and well-known doctors at their hospital, something went horribly wrong when the anesthesiologist arrived late for the procedure and the surgeon made a not-so-professional remark about being punctual. The anesthesiologist made an infinitely-less-professional comment about the surgeon’s wife and before anyone knew what had happened, the gloves were off and the two were wrestling on the ground next to the poor guy on the operating table who was anxiously awaiting the removal of his gall bladder.

Both physicians were asked to “voluntarily resign from the hospital” mere hours after security staff broke up the fight.

Anger can make people do things they’ll regret for the rest of their lives. It can blind a person to the damage they are causing and torch our most precious relationships. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, I’ve yet to meet an individual who never regretted having hurt a loved one during a fit of rage. Worse than the teenagers who brandish knives, I’ve seen octogenarians hit each other with their walkers at the bingo table! But anger is not a laughing matter, as our Rabbis teach us, “Anyone who becomes angry, all the fires of destruction control him,” (Talmud Nedarim 22A).

So whether it’s after cursing at a colleague during a meeting or a loved one at a family dinner, I often see patients looking for help in controlling their anger. The greatest technique in every case is teaching people to “see the big picture” and to be aware of the possible consequences of their actions before they respond in anger. These methods are fundamental to both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and traditional Jewish wisdom.

In his famous letter on the topic, the Ramban, a 13th century Rabbinical leader of Spanish Jewry, warns of the dangers of anger and provides practical suggestions for avoiding the inevitable self-implosion caused by rage. While the following tips, paraphrased from the Ramban, are “no-brainers,” it never hurts to review:

  1. “Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone.” Raising one’s voice reliably escalates the situation and facilitates further aggression. On the other hand, speaking softly can help to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.

  2. “Think about your words before they exit from your mouth.” Everyone knows to look before you leap, and yet how often is a fight started over a snide remark that would have been better off not said? I always encourage my patients to count to ten in their own heads before providing a verbal response in order to make sure they truly stand behind their words. Those ten seconds can make a huge difference. Try it.

  3. "At all times think in your heart as if you were standing before God."  Imagine that your kindergarten teacher was standing behind you. Would you still steal your classmate's pencil?  Now imagine that your teacher is omnipresent, omnipotent, and really wants you to be your best every single day even though it's been decades since you graduated elementary school. Do you really need to get angry about a game of kickball?

A person who can control their anger is truly great, as our Rabbis teach us, “Who is a hero? One who controls his destructive urges,” (Ethics of Our Father 4:1). A person who can demonstrate self-control will find that this is the key to success both at work and at home.