How many events have forced you to take a deep breath, give yourself a timeout, step back from a situation or simply explode when something (or someone) made you angry?
It’s an even bet that none of these methods really helped you calm down and adequately control your anger. While it’s easy to put the blame on you, the fault may lie with your methods. Most traditional methods of anger management are out-dated and never all that effective to begin with. Let’s take a look at anger, how it affects you mentally and physically, how the old methods of anger management fail, and what mindfulness practice can.
Bad ways to deal with anger
We all typically respond to anger in one of two ways; we either explode or we repress the feeling and keep our anger hidden deep inside. Neither of these methods is effective, healthy or productive. It’s safe to say that since the dawn of civilization, finding ways to deal with anger has been a constant concern at every social level. From the family to relations between countries; controlling anger has been instrumental in avoiding unnecessary violence and keeping the peace.
The history of anger management
Anger’s negative effects have been documented throughout the ages. Methods of controlling this powerful emotion have been offered by ancient Roman philosophers, religious figures, and medical men from every period in human history.
St. Francis of Assisi famously calmed a raging wolf. The famous Roman-era, Greek doctor and surgeon Galen foreshadowed modern psychoanalysis when he recommended people find a mentor to advise and calm them to control their rage.
Modern anger management was devised by psychologists who sought to find effective ways to stop anger in its tracks, suppress it, or even find a safe or productive way to express it. Mental health professionals thought that the similarity between stress and anger might be the key.
Beginning in the 70s, psychotherapists began using an anti-anxiety treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy as an effective approach to anger management. Cognitive behavioral therapy was simply a method of getting someone accustomed to experiencing gradually increasing levels of stress until they became used to controlling their (excessive) anxiety. The theory was that if it works for anxiety – why wouldn’t it work for anger?
It’s from cognitive behavioral therapy that we have learned all the classic methods of anger management:
- Beating up a pillow
- Taking deep breaths
- Counting to ten
- Stepping away from the situation
Anger Management Through Mindfulness
However, anger must be dealt with directly for emotional well-being and mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy is, ultimately, only a way to suppress and avoid the heart of the problem: How you respond emotionally to situations and social interactions. None of the traditional methods of anger management offer a way to avoid becoming angry to begin with. What you need is a method that helps us to change how we see situations and keep calm rather than waiting to lose our tempers first. Mindfulness offers us a new way to do precisely that.
The negative effects of uncontrolled anger
Anger is an emotion that comes with incredible consequences for our health.
The first effect that anger has is that it triggers our innate “fight or flight” response. Once we become angry, our adrenal glands begin pumping massive amounts of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, into the body. Increased levels of these stress hormones prepare the body to respond physically to danger by:
- Moving blood from the internal organs to the muscles
- Raising the heart rate
- Increasing blood pressure
- Increasing body temperature and sweating
- Sharpening your mental focus
All of these responses can cause short and long-term health problems, many of which we are all familiar with from experience. Increased blood pressure can cause headaches, while blood being moved away from the internal organs can create digestive problems. The effects of chronically high stress levels from uncontrolled anger can also cause cardiovascular problems. High blood pressure and associated problems that come with it (like heart attack or stroke) are deadly consequences of regularly losing your temper.
Psychologically, anger can severely diminish your quality of life. Chronic anger can make someone depressed, and the insomnia of continually stewing over some real (or imagined) slight will exhaust you mentally.
Be mindful to learn from your anger
Anger is an emotion that courses through both our bodies and our minds until its exhausted itself, much like a forest fire that dies down once all the available fuel has been burned up. But, what if we step back and find out what set us off?
Mindfulness, focusing our awareness on the now, can help us to discover what we’re sensitive to and where our psychological boundaries lie so we can stop anger before it starts. Use mindfulness to switch from reacting instinctively, to keeping a mindset of self-investigation and even curiosity that will allow you to productively deal with the event or situation that otherwise would set you off.
Forget anger management, use impulse control
Classic anger management techniques won’t help you stop yourself before you lose control. You’re already angry and trying to control how you express or suppress the feeling. On the other hand, impulse control keeps anger from starting at all. Mindfulness practice gives you the ability to control the anger impulse by deciding consciously how you want to react, instead of reacting first and trying to control your reaction afterward. Mindfulness offers us a way to keep control and make every interaction productive and meaningful. Mindfulness will give you the control to decide the best course of action instead of losing control and risking violence, broken relationships or serious legal problems when confronted with the stressful situations that life is full of.
Be mindful to recognize your anger triggers
Your anger triggers could be anything. We are all unique people with our own points of view, emotional makeup, and personal experiences. But, we all do have some things in common. For many of us, emotional triggers can involve:
- Situations that we feel are unfair or unjust
- Feeling disrespected
- Irritations like loud or annoying people, noises, behavior, environment
- Physical assault or discomfort
Use mindfulness to recognize the impulse that comes before you lose your temper. Although you may not have observed it before, there is always an impulse that precedes an angry outburst or even makes you react passive-aggressively. These impulses are the physical sensations and thoughts that your anger trigger produces. While it may feel like you’re angry, the anger impulse isn’t the same, but it is an opportunity to take control rather than lose control.
Don’t control your anger, acknowledge it and let it pass
Use mindfulness to stay in the present and understand why you could feel angry, but keep the control necessary to choose not to. By grounding yourself in the moment, you can use different techniques to stay in the moment and maintain control.
Two methods that may work for you are:
- Hugging yourself tight to remind yourself that you’re utterly in the now.
- Clasp your hands together and interlock the fingers, then squeeze tightly to remind yourself to focus on the world around you, not your angry thoughts.
The trick is to focus on staying in the now to best evaluate your best course of action. We are all different, and what works for one person may not work for you. Mindfulness is a means to be thoroughly engaged in your approach to life, and you need to discover what techniques or methods work to keep you focused on what’s happening now.
Use mindfulness to stop yourself before you lose control. You’ll be able to learn how to deal with things and situations productively rather than hurting your body, mind, and relationships by repeating the same old patterns of behavior.
Anger is not a useless emotion
By being mindful you will not allow anger to be an impulse emotion that dictates your thoughts and actions but will conscientiously use anger. When you are mindful of getting angry about something it will be something that you care enough about to allow it to interrupt your flow. As well you’ll more than likely be able to interpret when your ego is feeling selfishly wounded versus something that is important to you sparking your own anger. I know that it doesn’t sound natural but sometimes you may find yourself emotionally worked up over something and it really isn’t even representative of the person that you are or wish to be.
One example that really helps me to visualize what this may look like is this. Think about how often throughout our American history someone has found cause to be angry about something? Then in turn look how they used that anger to start a movement that facilitated change for the better? See it really can be positive!