Although it may seem counter intuitive, the first step in building a healthy approach to anger is to notice the feeling — and accept it. Just as it’s healthy to feel sorrow when confronted with a sad situation, it’s healthy to feel angry when confronted by injustice or imbalance.
“The key is to recognize the anger quickly, before it’s escalated, and then to develop a more balanced relationship to it."
There are a variety of ways to intervene in the moment between irritation and rage and become more skillful at handling frustration. Anger has physical, emotional, mental, and social components; any one of these platforms is a good place to start retraining your responses. Here are some tactics:
The fight-or-flight response is an involuntary reaction to a threat, mediated by our autonomic nervous system; we choose to move an arm or a leg, but we don’t choose to tremble in rage. Blood flow increases to our muscles and decreases to bowels, our hearts speed up — and so does our breathing.
Our breathing is the only one of these reactions we can control. And slow, deliberate breathing actively calls off the state of alarm in the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Next time you feel anger coming on, notice whether your breath has become shallow and rapid. And then notice the effects of five slow, deliberate, deep breaths.
- Dig Deeper
Usually, anger comes with a mix of other emotions. “Underneath the anger there can be rejection, insult, jealousy, loss, fear of competition, or criticism. All those emotions can manifest in anger.”
Once you are able to identify that your reaction was out of proportion to the issue because you were responding to multiple situations in your past, not just what is before you. This epiphany will help to take a more clear-eyed look at what has made you angry.
- Interrupt Anger
Timing is everything. The key to avoiding the destructive impact of anger is to interrupt the process that brings you to the brink.
If you see something going wrong, the thing is to act forcefully and quickly before you lose your cool, while you still have a good manner and humor. By clearly addressing irritations in a timely way — like an interrupting coworker or a mistaken charge on your credit-card bill — the feelings don’t have a chance to build to the point where you lose control.
- Know the Signs
Study your body’s response to anger. What’s happening in my stomach? What’s happening in my shoulders?
These physiological responses to anger vary from person to person — but usually they’re easily recognizable. If you listen to your early-warning system and can recognize when your anger is starting to escalate, you’ll know when it’s time to take a walk.
- Move It
Exercise can rapidly diffuse the physical effects of anger. The fight-or-flight instinct urges your body to action. Taking a walk, heading to yoga class, or even doing a few push ups in your office answers that urge constructively.
If you know you’re heading into a tense situation, make time to go to the gym first whenever possible.
Meditation can be as simple as taking time to sit quietly, cultivating an awareness of your body, especially your breath, and observing thoughts and images that come into your head. It has noticeable effects on temper, but not because sitting still with feelings is easy — it’s just good practice.
- Retrain the Brain
A brain-change plan in this situation would be to practice giving praise. By forcing yourself to give praise, you will improve that network of the brain, and eventually it will get bigger than the criticism network. The positive brain network just gets stronger and stronger.
- Practice Compassion
Behind a lot of anger is self-absorption — an attitude that isolates us from other people’s concerns. If someone cuts us off in traffic or receives a promotion first, an angry response pits us against that person.
Compassion, conversely, emphasizes our common humanity. Recognizing that the person who cut you off might have an emergency, or that your coworker will face challenges in the new position, puts these situations in a broader, more generous context. Realizing it’s not all about you is often a relief.
- Putting It All Together
These strategies will help even the most hotheaded among us become less reactive, internally or externally. When it comes to managing anger long term, however, there will always be a need for patience and a willingness to start over.
On the whole, anger itself is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we interact with it. The discovery of fire changed the world, after all. If we want to harness anger’s power without getting burned, it just needs to be controlled.
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