7 steps to get less angry and more in control
Once, in ancient Japan, there was a young samurai warrior. His mastery of the sword was strong; his mastery of self weak. He happened, one morning, to come into the presence of a wise old man who was reputedly an even better swordsman than the young upstart but who didn't feel the need to impress others.
"If you are so wise," demanded the younger man, "then explain to me the meaning of Hell and Heaven!"
The old man turned on the young samurai. "Why should I even speak to one as bloated on self-importance, so mired in self-opinion, so stuffed full of conceit as you? Be gone, weak man!"
Now no one had ever dared speak to the samurai like that! Infuriated beyond belief, hands shaking with rage, he drew his sword and went as if to separate the ancient sage's head from his body.
But at this point the older one turned calmly and said: "In answer to your question: that, my child, is Hell!" The warrior was amazed and humbled that the other man should endanger his own life to illustrate a point and quickly regained control of himself again. And seeing the hot-headed youth calm down, the old one gently pointed out: "And this, my son, is Heaven!"
Anger kills – and not just the other guy
It used to be thought that it was 'healthy' to express anger – to 'let it all out,' so as to prevent the damage it would do you if you 'bottled it all up.' But modern research into health and mortality has found that extreme anger is just as damaging to the heart and immune function if it is released as it is if you keep it in. (1) And of course millions lie dead or traumatized because other people chose to express rather than suppress their anger.
Constantly letting anger out doesn't get rid of it, contrary to a popular psychotherapeutic idea in the 1970s; it makes people more likely to get angry, not less. (2) The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it.
Getting very angry very often is a bigger predictor of early death through heart disease than smoking, bad diet, and lack of exercise put together. (1) In fact, even recalling times you felt very angry can be bad for the heart. (3)
Teaching people to control themselves can save their own lives, as well as potentially the lives of people with whom they become angry.
Good anger management isn't about 'learning to express your anger' (expressing to someone something about which you are not happy is best done assertively and calmly) or about bottling it all up, which still compromises blood pressure and heart function. It is about becoming less angry less often.
Anger can feel addictive and, like any addiction, it can seem to promise real rewards. We may get a buzz from the excitement in an otherwise dull day. We get a fast track way of getting attention from others, as we lose self-consciousness and enjoy feelings of righteous certainty. And we might find that we get our own way more often by browbeating others.
But if you are serious about finding the 'heaven' in your own mind and doing your heart a favour, then read on.
1) What pushes your irritation buttons?
What makes you angry? In fact who makes you angry? Becoming angry can work like a hypnotic trigger. It can start to feel automatic. If you have been angry with a certain person a few times, you can 'become conditioned' to feel anger towards them, so just seeing them or even hearing their name mentioned can get you irritated. Get to know your own triggers and take time to actively respond differently.
2) Be cool, be clever
Anger makes us stupid. Literally. (4) What seems like a good idea when we are angry can seem really stupid when we calm down. The angrier we become, the more intelligence drops. Even the brightest mathematics professor can be, when enraged, little more coherent than an incensed gorilla.
Give yourself time to get back in touch with your 'thinking' brain. Take some deep breaths and tell yourself that you are going to calm down. And even if the other person is 'wrong', you are not going to waste energy or cause further damage to yourself by losing control. Count to ten and between each count, say to yourself, "I'm becoming calmer…"
3) Seeing the bigger picture evaporates anger
Anger narrows focus like a type of destructive trance. When I am enraged, I see reality only as all or nothing and miss the shades of grey. The more black or white we think, the angrier we become; but, in turn, anger makes our thinking more black or white. Think of the language that angry people use (other than the cursing). It tends to be all or nothing: "I'm completely right and you're completely wrong!" Anger makes us see ill intent from others where in fact they may have made honest mistakes: "You did that on purpose!"
If you can, remove yourself and do 'bigger picture' thinking.
Ask yourself: "What is another way of looking at this?" Develop self-doubt as a tool: "In what way may I have missed something?" I'm reminded of a friend who once spoke angrily to a neighbour who never seemed to reply to her proffered conversation. Her anger evaporated when she discovered…he was stone deaf.
For a guided 'bigger picture' visualization exercise, click on the free audio link at the bottom of the page.
4) Don't get angry, for pity's sake
Anger makes us see other people as objects to be acted upon rather than human beings to be interacted with. We become angry with someone when we feel they are preventing us getting what we want. Other people become mere obstacles. And, because we objectify other people when we become enraged, we are more likely to be violent because, after all, objects can be removed or punched.
By purposely remembering that the person with whom you are angry is a human being with needs, fears, problems, and that at one time they were a tiny baby, you can start to see this person as just that, a person. One man I knew said that he started to gain control of his own anger when he began to visualize the person he was furious with as a 6-month-old helpless baby: "my anger just melted," he told me.
Anger doesn't just happen in your head. As anger rises, so does your blood pressure. You begin to breathe more rapidly. Blood gets pumped into your arms and legs for fighting. Natural steroids get released into your bloodstream, making you feel stronger and less susceptible to pain; which is why angry people might punch a wall or through a car window without pain – until later, of course.
So rather than just moderating angry black or white 'extremist' thoughts, also deal with your own anger on a physical level. Think to yourself: "There's no way I'm getting raised blood pressure over this!" Breathe in deeply, then breathe out slowly. Your out-breath needs to be longer than your in-breath. If you do this, you'll calm down rapidly and your blood pressure will quickly normalize. You'll also find you can think more clearly again.
The next tip helps you prepare ahead of time so that you can avoid even becoming angry.
6) Let anger know who's boss
Because anger happens so fast (and makes us forget all these fabulous tips), it's a good idea to rehearse ahead of time to replace anger with calm. As said in Tip 2, take time to relax by breathing deeply. Breathe in to the count of 5 and out to the count of 7 (remember: to relax, you need to be breathing out for longer than you breathe in). Continue to do this as you think about typical times where before you would have become automatically angry (that look your partner sometimes gives you, another driver cutting you off on the road, bad service, your kids misbehaving, etc.); but as you think about these times now, breathe slowly and evenly, 5 in and 7 out. This starts to program your body to respond with calm in these kinds of times.
7) Overcome real frustrations
Take a good look at your life. We all have needs: needs for sufficient sleep, food, attention, meaning, status, stimulation, and so on. How well are these needs met in your life? Are you skipping meals? Getting enough quality sleep? Satisfied in your work and social life?
Not getting your needs met isn't an excuse for getting angry, but it does make it more likely. One of the first things I'll ask a client is: "How is your sleep?" Sometimes when we sort out the sleep, we sort out the anger problem as well.
And finally, remember the words of the Buddha: "Being angry is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."
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