“When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.” - Mark Twain Modern psychology tells us that anger is a secondary emotion rooted in an unmet need, or an immediate response to a primary emotion. It is a response to physical or psychological pain. Anger is powerful and can be used to a positive or negative end. When we feel angry, the brain downshifts to a lower emotional and evolutionary function. Anger is a survival tool that has evolved from the highly effective fight-or-flight response in primitive times when large animals posed a real threat to humans.
If anger is a survival tool, but a secondary response, how can we use it to benefit ourselves and those in our lives? In general I believe that we need to identify the feeling and work with it; but that is a bit simplistic. However, there is something to it. Rather than digging deep into your psyche, I would like to offer a way to re-program your response to anger, and help you re-direct your energy when you feel it lifting it’s head and rising in your body.
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” - Buddha
Repressed, prolonged anger is very unhealthy. Some studies show that anger can lead to a weakened heart and stiffening of the arteries. Liver and kidney damage and high cholesterol have been inked to prolonged anger. It can also cause accompanying issues, including depression and anxiety.
To protect your health and wellbeing, it is vitally important to understand your own triggers. Immediately preceding anger, you might feel:
This is a pretty good list to help you understand the origins of anger. When I look at the list of primary feelings, I see a common theme: loss of power. When I reflect upon my own anger, I see that when I feel angry, it is always associated with feeling powerless. In these moments, the fight-or-flight response kicks in and I feel my heart rate increase, tension building in my body and the need to strike out or get away from the situation or person that has caused this feeling. I openly admit that I do not always practice what I am about to preach, but every time I do, I feel empowered and in control of my own emotional wellbeing. If you want to feel better, be more in control of your overall wellbeing, then try the following when you feel angry:
Stop Everything. Take Mark Twain’s advice: take a breath and count. This will help stop the trigger from taking full effect and traveling the same pathway as your old reaction. Re-direct your rapid response to the initial emotion, which probably stems from something in the list above. When you quickly stop the response, it gives you time to alter course. If your old emotional response is anger, denial, sadness or some other less productive means, this is an excellent start. If you do nothing more from here, you’ve already made an incredibly relevant change in your life.
Find an Outlet. You’ve counted to four, ten, one hundred, maybe even cursed... Now what? Perhaps the anger has built-up as tension in your body and you need to release it. Sometimes we need to move our body to “get it out.” Stop everything, announce (if appropriate) that you feel angry and need to get some fresh air, then go take a walk. You might feel like you need something more forceful than walking. Try punching pillows or a mattress. You might consider taking a boxing, kickboxing, martial arts, dance, yoga or bootcamp class.
If you are vocal and you need to let it out with your voice, scream into a pillow - a primal release. Your throat might feel a little sore, but you will release it. You may need need a more cerebral activity. Try singing, listening to music, writing, painting, drawing, meditating, or anything that brings you relief. Enroll in a class to learn something you’ve always wanted to learn. Perhaps you can find a cooking, art, music or writing class.
Practice Compassion. Be forgiving and patient - with yourself and others. Cut yourself some slack. Try seeing things thru the eyes of others, particularly when you feel angry toward someone. Imagine yourself behaving badly, ask yourself what might cause you to be rude, thoughtless, reckless, etc. Perfection is not the goal; feeling better is. Gaining an understanding of who you really are, having a say in the direction your life takes is what you want, isn’t it?
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” - Jalal ad-Din Rumi
Along the way, you will no doubt have moments when you want to place blame, stuff-down or externalize your feelings. You have been wronged, you feel a sense of injustice, someone has hurt you or someone you love. This is normal, and you are not alone. However, when you take a moment to stop your automatic, pre-programmed response to wrongdoing, you will begin to find your power. Your feelings will feel safer, you will have more control over your life and you will feel better.
If you take-up a new activity to fill-in the negative spaces with positive activities and thoughts that facilitate a new outlook, you will see your life open up before you. When you take yourself out of your old patterns, you are already making a positive change in your life. You have the power to do this. Re-direct one thought at a time. Rome was not built in day, and neither are healthy habits. You are a work in progress, and construction can sometimes be messy, loud and disruptive. However, if you keep your eye on the prize and recognize the small changes along the way, you will also experience the joys along the way.
Blessings. Gratitude. Love.