“I am right, damnit. I am right and she will know it before I am done.” Your energy surges. You feel powerful, justified, electric. Your mind quickly calculates every argument to defend your position and undermine hers. Blood rushes to your fists to prepare you to attack, an evolutionary by-product intended to keep your genes alive and kicking. Soon she will know you are right and will succumb to your flawless logic as you drive each point home with keen precision.
Unfortunately, you are saying a lot of things that you will regret in about 3 minutes when you calm down and review what you just said. Instead of logical arguments, you were firing off insults and character attacks. Words, that once spoken, can never be recanted. Words that will leave a psychic mark for years.
But, at least you got to vent and get that stuff that’s been bugging you for days off your chest, right?
Venting just makes the anger more intense. Venting trains your brain to get in the habit of feeling and expressing anger. Anger hijacks your attention to focus on things that make you more mad. And focusing on anger merely causes it to be more intense, more frequent and makes calming down harder.
While the short-term problems created by anger are bad enough, consider some of the long-term effects…
Negative Effects of Anger
The negative effects of chronic anger are far-reaching. People who lack the ability to manage their anger have a higher chance of the following…
That’s a significant list from difficulty managing one emotion! And yet, everyone can learn to manage anger when you know the right skills.
So what are the right skills? Great question, let’s turn to answering that million dollar question.
The primary, most important, most fundamental skill in turning down the volume on anger is mindfulness. I know, I know, I know. “Mindfulness?! Again? WTF?!” Ok. Let me explain what it is and why I consider it a fundamental skill for anger management.
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” When you pay attention to something, like your breath, or a candle, you’ll notice that your mind begins to chatter, sort of like a monkey on meth. That’s why it’s called monkey mind (ok, maybe not!). The practice involves noticing when your attention gets caught up by a thought and then, gently, kindly, bringing your attention back to your breath. As you practice this skill, over and over, a couple of things happen.
First, you learn to spend more time in the present moment. The average person spends over 50% of their waking time with their minds wandering to the past or the future. And this wandering mind is associated with greater misery. You need to be in the present moment if you are to have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in front of your anger. With awareness of what is going on in your mind and your body, you will know when you are beginning to get annoyed. And take steps to interrupt the anger cycle.
Second, your ability to manage your attention improves with mindfulness practice. Emotion is inextricably linked to attention. So when you are angry, you attend to things which piss you off more. Get a handle on your attention, you then have the ability to more frequently focus on things which are pleasant or calming, thereby interrupting the anger cycle.
Now that you know how fundamentally important mindfulness is, let’s turn to the top 5 tools for managing anger…
1.) Be Curious About Your Physical Cues
What does that mean? As I mentioned before, anger exists on a 1 to 10 scale in terms of intensity, where a 1 is calm, a 3 is annoyed, a 5 is somewhat angry, a 7 is furious, and a 10 is enraged. The goal is to become aware of your anger before it reaches a 5 on this scale. One critical way to do so is to tune into your body. Emotions are embodied. Don’t listen to Rene’ Descartes who famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Wrong! While I love philosophy, that guy steered us horribly wrong for roughly 400 years. That statement helped fuel the mind-body split. If you want to know how you are feeling, you need to tune in to your body. Emotions primarily present from the neck down (with a few exceptions like embarrassment). By the way, there is no mind-body split. They are inseparable, but that’s a topic for another article.
As far as anger goes, the cues to focus on are an increase in heart rate, muscle tension in the hands and feet, tightness in the chest, a warming sensation in the chest, arms and face, blood rushing to the fists to prepare to attack, and a tight jaw. Be curious about your cues. There are some individual differences. So pay attention. Write them down if need be. The earlier you can tune in, the better chance you have of getting in front of anger.
2.) Know Your Anger Triggers
One of the world’s leading expert on anger, R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., author of Why We Snap - Understanding the Rage Circuits in Your Brain, puts forth nine universal triggers for anger. These are critical to be aware of so you can avoid them when possible, and name them when you can’t.
Important! These triggers are cumulative. In other words, the more triggers involved in a situation, the more anger you are likely to feel. For example, you are driving with your family and someone cuts you off on the freeway. This can activate the following triggers: life or limb, family, environment, order in society (rule violation), and the stopped trigger. This is why road rage is so common - numerous triggers are often involved all at once. So remember, the more triggers that are activated, the more intense the anger.
Once you are aware of these triggers, it is helpful to call them out as you notice them, “Oh man, he cut me off. Life or death trigger, yep. And there is the stopped trigger. Definitely, a threat to family. Maybe the order in society trigger as well.” As you increase your awareness, you can even begin to chuckle a bit at them.
As always, the first step is awareness and using words to label what’s happening as it gives you a greater sense of control. You can also re-interpret what is happening. One of my favorites is to reframe a rude driver who has cut me off. Instead of me saying, “What an a**hole!” I say, “They must need to get to the emergency room. Must be a pregnant woman in the back giving birth.” I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it sure helps defuse my anger.
3.) Check Your Interpretations and Assumptions
And that last point is a beautiful segue into the next top tool - cognitive reinterpretation. Now that you are spending more time in the present moment thanks to your daily mindfulness practice, you can focus more on the automatic negative thoughts and unhelpful interpretations going on in your mind. This topic is a whole book unto itself, so let me just hit a few main points.
Be aware that these automatic negative thoughts are fast, sneaky and quiet. Part of the evolutionary make up of the mind is the negativity bias which means that we naturally overfocus on negative emotions, unhelpful thoughts, past mistakes, and negative self-definitions (“I’m an idiot”). The extension of this is that most of the thoughts in our heads are blatantly false! At this point in my career (I’ve been studying psychology for over 25 years), I would wager that 60-90% of our thoughts are negative, unhelpful and false. So you may have to do a little work to become more aware of these lying little buggers.
A great first step is to begin writing down the major negative thoughts that you hear in your mind, followed by statements that directly challenge them. For example, when you hear the thought, “I’m an idiot”, write it down and next to it write down the evidence that disproves it (e.g., I got good grades in some classes, my friends think I’m pretty smart, I do well at work, etc.). If you’re doing things right, you are now writing down the physical cues as well as the negative thoughts that you are having.
The final piece of the puzzle is to write down the behavioral cues - behaviors you notice as you are getting angry. These might include things like clenching your fists, tightening your jaw, speaking more loudly and furrowing your brow.
When you have all three of these noted down - physical, cognitive and behavioral - you now have your very own Early Warning System! These are things you can look for so you can become aware - early - that you are starting to get angry. Then you can take steps to interrupt the anger.
4.) Use Compassion to Diffuse Anger
Today, I received an email from a recent graduate of my Ultimate Anger Management Course that said…
“Each one of your methods works very well for me. However, I have found one which has more magic to it than the others. It is the compassion offered to others. I found that when I am thinking: "May you be healthy, may you be peaceful ... may you live with ease and well-being" in the presence of an angry person it has the power to reduce their anger and often causes them to behave calmly or lovingly towards me as I repeat these compassionate thoughts in my mind. Dr. John, you have made a much calmer life possible for me. Life is worth living like this.”
This was from an M.D. with a large private practice. The tool to which he refers is lovingkindness meditation, or metta. The idea is to take a few deep breaths, think of someone who loves you very much. Then, wish kind thoughts upon them…
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you live life with ease and well-being.
Next, you picture yourself with that person and wish kind thoughts upon both of you, “May we be healthy, may we be happy, may we be peaceful.” From there you go to your family and wish kind thoughts upon them. Next, you think of a person whom you struggle with or whom annoys you and you wish kind thoughts upon that person. From there, you gradually move into bigger and bigger circles (e.g., city, country, and world). Research shows tremendous positive effects from metta - less anger, less depression and anxiety, more frequent positive emotions and less stress to name a few.
Try it out. Play around with it. It’s a tremendously powerful way to manage those low level negative emotions of which most aren’t even aware.
5.) Be Aware of the Emotions Which Underlie Anger
Anger is often preceded by other emotions such as fear, embarrassment, and guilt. The emotion fear, for instance, can flip to anger within a third of a second. One of the most common emotions to precede and spark anger is what I would call “hurt”. When feelings get hurt, anger often results.
Most of the people I teach about anger are people who feel things deeply. I am always surprised at the percentage of men that I see that feel emotions deeply (roughly 90% of my clients).
In any case, when you get angry, ask yourself, “What might I be feeling underneath my anger?” And more specifically, “Did my feelings just get hurt?” If your feelings were hurt by a loved one, speak up. Tell them, “I have to tell you that really hurt my feelings.” This is sooo much more effective than getting angry. This approach opens up conversation. On the other hand, anger shuts down conversation. Safe and open communication is a necessary skill for every healthy relationship.
So I’m just realizing that this “short” article is now at 7 pages. I need to wrap this up. I’ve shared some of the best tools of which I know to turn down the volume on anger. There are many more which are covered in my Ultimate Anger Management class which you can check out at our online shop. Until next time, be well and be kind to others.
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