Manage Your Anger with Mindfulness
Manage Your Anger with Mindfulness
Anger is a normal, human feeling. Anger, in and of itself, is not destructive. Anger serves us. It demands our attention when our health is in danger, when a boundary has been crossed, or when someone takes advantage of us. However, the behavior that is fueled by anger can be destructive or constructive. Meeting anger with mindfulness does not mean the anger is dismissed, or denied. Meeting anger with mindfulness does not mean it is ok to destroy objects, oneself or relationships. Rather, Meeting anger with mindfulness means a) staying present, b) recognizing and labeling the anger, c) staying mindful while angry, d) looking at anger with curiosity and e) choosing the most constructive way to proceed.
Yesterday, Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s leading expert in emotion, said:
“It is the nature of anger to make you act without thought. This serves you at times – it can save your life. And sometimes it messes things up. Is there an antidote? Become more aware of anger in the moment. Increase your emotional vocabulary so you can make finer differentiations between similar emotions. And increase the gap between trigger and action.”
1 – Stay in the Present
When dealing with anger, the first step is to train your attention so that you spend more of your time in the present. Studies show the vast majority of our time is spent with minds wandering to the past and the future. If your mind is sneaking away from the present, you have no chance to stay ahead of anger. It’s hard to be aware of anger if you are lost in thought about the conversation you had with your boss yesterday or that presentation that is due tomorrow. When your attention is on the here and now, you can focus your awareness on the physiological clues in your body. These cues will alert you to the early onset of anger (e.g., racing heart, blood flowing to fists, tightening jaw, and an overfocus on angry thoughts). These clues vary a bit from person to person so it’s critical that you become familiar with your top anger tells.
2 – Become Aware of and Label The Anger
As you become aware of the bodily clues alerting you to the start of irritation, then label it, “I’m feeling a bit frustrated right now. What’s going on here?” To help you develop greater emotional awareness, be sure to take a look at Eve and Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions. In brief, the most prevalent types of anger are annoyance, frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness and fury (in order of intensity from lowest to highest). So what? Well, studies have shown that putting the correct emotional label on how you feel gives you a greater feeling of control and serves to reduce the intensity of the anger.
3 – Engage Mindfulness In the Midst of Growing Anger
Allow the anger to come and go without judgment. It’s merely a normal part of being human. There’s no need to suppress it or deny it. That only serves to make it more intense (if not now, later). Recognize the dynamic between anger and attention. When anger arises, it hijacks your attention and causes you to look for things (internally and externally) that fuel your anger. Anger wants to keep itself alive. Be aware of this and cut off the oxygen to anger by interrupting your stories about how you were treated unfairly, how the world is out to get you, or how your anger is justified. Instead, mindfully shift your attention to a part of your body that does not feel angry. Perhaps it’s your low back or your feet or your thighs. Where are there pleasant or neutral sensations in your body? Tune in to those. Perhaps there is a pleasant smell on which you can focus. Or maybe there are some pleasant sounds outside to which you can attend. Rest the spotlight of your attention on these neutral or pleasant sensations for several minutes. Breathe deeply and slowly. Gradually bring down your heart rate. Your mind will likely resist, wanting to return to thoughts of the anger-inducing situation. Simply return your attention to pleasant sights or sounds and shift from “fight, flight or freeze” to “attend and befriend.”
4 – Examine the Anger with Curiosity and Self-kindness
As you calm down, you can examine your anger with curiosity and great self-compassion. What caused it? What else surrounds it? Adopt an attitude of kind curiosity towards your anger. For instance, “what specific type of anger was I experiencing?” “What triggered my anger?” “What message was the anger sending me?” “Was a boundary crossed?” “Was I in harm’s way?” “Did someone insult me?” “Was a loved one at risk?” and “Are there other emotions lying beneath the anger?” The most common underlying emotions I’ve seen are embarrassment, hurt, and anxiety. One of the keys here is practicing nonjudgementalness. There is no need to beat yourself up for feeling angry. It’s a human response. We all have it.
For a list of the top triggers for anger, visit my past article on anger triggers.
5 – Choose Your Best Action
As you practice managing your anger, you will notice that you have more and more time between stimulus (i.e., the trigger) and response (i.e., the anger). Studies show that, without training, you have 1/3rd of a second to interrupt the anger cycle. That is, you have 1/3rd of a second between the event that triggers you and feeling angry. In the beginning, every one of my clients says the same line, “That’s no time at all!” And yet, we are talking about the speed of thought. You can easily insert 1-2 thoughts between the trigger and your anger within a 3rd of a second. This might be something like “breathe,” “I’m getting annoyed. I need to get out of here,” or “that was just an innocent mistake.” As you learn to turn down the volume on your anger and increase the time between stimulus and response, you have more and more options available to you. Perhaps you state your needs assertively, “I need you to speak to me with respect.” Or perhaps you switch your mindset to feeling compassion for the offending person. Or maybe you reframe the situation and remind yourself that it was merely an unintentional mistake. In any case, the more your practice, the more skilled you become.
In summary, learning to manage anger is one of the most critical skills you can learn. It will boost your parenting, your career, your marriage and your friendships. To do so, stay present, become aware of and label the anger, remain mindful during anger, examine your anger with curiosity and then decide on your best course of action. With repeated practice and perseverance, you will get better and better.