Turning Anger Around

By Jaime Collins

A recent survey ranks Wisconsin among the angriest of the 50 states. A leading provider of addiction treatment resources, alcohol.org, surveyed more than 3,000 Americans and found Delawarians to be the angriest. Residents there admitted to getting angry 12 times a week. Hawaiians, on the other hand, were found to be the least angry (just twice a week). The national average is six times a week, and Wisconsinites admitted to getting angry seven times.

The past 12 months, chaos reigned over world events, fomenting anxiety, aggression, and rage in our personal lives. So, it won’t surprise you to know 88 percent of those surveyed feel angrier since the start of the pandemic. And a great many (68%) have turned to alcohol to help us cope. While a couple stiff drinks or beers offer a very short-lived relaxing effect, it never lasts. Nearly all of those surveyed admit the alcohol only made things worse.

No Time for Anger

Last week a dear friend had me listen to a song whose lyrics point out there are exactly 525,600 minutes in one year. Then the chorus asks “How do you measure a year in a life?”

As I listened, these lyrics opened for me an essential new window to anger. Every minute we are angry, we lose 60 seconds. That’s time we never get back, and the more we are angry, the more time we lose. But if life has taught me anything, it’s that time is all we have. In fact, it’s the most valuable thing we will ever have, and every minute of every day is utterly precious. The clock ticks, and time evaporates.

So, how do we get angry less? And have more time? More time to be happy and live and love?

When we get cut off in traffic? When the wi-fi goes down? When someone does or says something harmful? How in those moments do we manage our anger in healthy ways, so we don’t spend our precious time tied up in anger?

Anatomy of Anger

Google it, and you will find loads of advice. Much of it can be helpful. Much of it also offers up tactics many of us have tried. Tactics that by themselves fail to rescue us when anger rises within. We all experience sudden and intensely challenging moments when it seems anger just takes over, and it seems impossible to just turn on a simple mindfulness tool and stay calm.

That’s because anger is complex, and its roots are deep within us. Fact is, it’s natural to feel things. It’s even healthy to allow ourselves to really feel our emotions. But it’s even healthier yet to understand our own personal emotional landscape, so we can learn to avoid a burst of anger altogether. Rather than trying awkwardly to shove it back down after it jumps up from within.

Grief. Fear. Anxiety. Uncertainty. Frustration. Vulnerability. Humans are hardwired by evolution to feel these things, and in the middle of the chaos our world is currently in, we’re going to feel them more. Feeling is as natural and healthy as breathing, and acknowledging our feelings is the only productive and helpful way to get through them. Ignoring or pretending we’re okay is what actually keeps us from being okay.

So, go ahead and complain and feel your feelings. Let’s just learn to do it with perspective. Though we see anger as destructive, some can actually be constructive. Perspective helps us differentiate the two.

There are two almond shaped clusters deep within our brains, called amygdalae, where fear and anxiety rule the day. When triggered, this primordial part of your brain sends lightning fast signals to all parts of your body, producing an immediate physical reaction. This is your brain and body being hijacked by anger.

Anger is like a child. You don’t want to let it drive, but you sure don’t want to lock it up in the trunk either. Some of us are prone to outbursts and aggression while others sink inside ourselves and bottle up our anger (our fight or flight or freeze response). Both are automatic reactions. Neither are healthy responses.

Our human reality is that most of our lives are driven by emotion – not by logic and reasoning – so a mental hijacking that produces these intense anger reactions begs for us to pay closer attention. Rather than let anger take control, we can, with practice, learn to respond instead in different ways.

Never Get Angry Again

“Never Get Angry Again” by author David Lieberman is a holistic guide to the underlying emotional, physical, and spiritual causes of anger, and it offers practical guidance on how to gain perspective and let go of anger. I listened to the audiobook version more than a year ago and found it remarkably insightful.

Because it covers so much territory, I felt much of Lieberman’s work didn’t apply to my circumstances or personality, but I did find insights very important to me. By far the most important is how my own self-image and the compassion I feel or don’t feel for my own self impacts my feelings of anger. Feeling negatively about myself in a particular moment sets a hair trigger for an anger response.

Feeling flawed or inferior, feeling like we’re not enough, and feelings of shame are all catalysts for anger. This is where it starts. And because anger also, in turn, serves as a catalyst for these negative emotions, the two feed on one another, creating a situation that can quickly escalate and intensify. Recognizing this trigger and the shame-anger cycle are vital keys to reducing anger.

Four Steps

To respond differently to rising anger, the first step is to notice you’re suffering in some way. Go ahead and tell yourself, “I’m suffering right now.” This is awareness of what’s happening in your emotional landscape, and it’s amazingly powerful all by itself. Just have a go at it and see.

Step two is naming your suffering. Call it out for what it is – embarrassment, shame, unworthiness, inferiority, or a plain old emotion. In not only making yourself aware of your feelings but also giving your pain a label, you will delay the hijack of your amygdalae and give yourself some calm.

Step three in the anger management process is self-compassion techniques that defuse rather than escalate a situation. Angry or not, you will find this step enormously soothing. Once you recognize and name your suffering, inquire with yourself what you need to sooth the pain. Literally ask, “What can I do for myself? What do I need?” By itself, taking a moment to inquire within will give you a calming space. Then, your answer will give you a different pathway forward.

In his book Lieberman showed me this new skill; many years of personal experience let me appreciate how much I really needed it. You see, I tried for years being critical of myself, and I proved to myself it doesn’t work. Responding to oneself with kindness and compassion, instead, is a game-changer.

There is also yet a fourth step. One that is scientifically proven to sooth your anxious soul and help heal the roots of your anger – compassionate self-talk. Our inner voices can be brutal. In any moment in your life but especially in these tenuous few seconds when you’re working to calm your anger, you will feel better – and even help heal your inner wounds – by offering yourself a few words of kind inner dialogue. Talk to yourself with the words you might tell a close friend who is suffering. “You’re going to be alright. You’re good at this. You’ve got this.” You might even use a gentle term of endearment, referring to yourself as sweetie, sweetheart, or dear. Seriously. Try it.

Similarly, international best-selling author, researcher, and professor of psychology Dr. Brené Brown states that shame and empathy cannot co-exist. And that learning to feel love for ourselves in a moment of frustration or anger is an effective way to create a healthier relationship with anger, even helping us avoid it all together.

The Silent Observer

Beyond these four steps another helpful tool is to get outside ourselves. This one I learned from spiritual guru and best-selling author, Eckhart Tolle, and in experimenting with it, I can report that it is, indeed, a powerful mental technique. In virtually any place and time, imagine you are physically situated above the fray and looking down on yourself and you’re seeing your situation as an unattached third party. In that moment, be an onlooker to what’s happening. Observe both the situation itself and what’s happening inside you. As a silent watcher, you will see your thoughts and behavior in a completely new light. Doing that gives us a new and calmer perspective and is an effective way to almost immediately dissolving anger.

Anger that Inspires Action

These are all helpful techniques, yet there’s a different type of anger that won’t dissolve as easily. Justifiable anger is understandable moral outrage at the injustices of the world. I have come to know this anger well. Often intense, deeply personal, and painful, there are other emotions that come with justifiable anger, including empathy for those harmed, a sense of helplessness, feelings of righteousness, or a deep sense that someone should be punished for what’s happened.

The best thing we can do with justifiable anger is channel it into a passion for action and change. It is personally empowering. Turning this anger in a positive direction by setting an intention and taking action in the service of others is also the only healthy response.

Yet as beneficial as that sounds, these experiences also rob us of peace. To make matters worse, this is anger we typically experience over long periods of time. Justifiable or not, our anger will not make pain of injustice disappear. It just diverts our attention. So regardless of how justified your anger is, your body’s anger response is harmful to you. Keep in mind that in this way, the crimes and cruelty of others inflicts yet further injustice onto your body, thereby compounding its harm. Taking positive action for change and working to let go of your anger are your only realistic choices to respond in a healthy way.

A Calm New World

What does all this teach us about anger? Lieberman’s book alone suggests there’s far more to discover that we have covered here, but what we have discussed, in essence, coaches us to see anger as an ally.

Imagine what the world would be like if more of us responded to anger in healthy ways. What if we practiced revealing to ourselves our inner pain instead of ignoring it? What if we took steps to heal our suffering instead of compounding its effects? What if we learned to respond to ourselves and others with kindness and compassion instead of lashing out? And what if many more of us saw injustice as a spiritual call to work toward a better, more equitable world?

In that world, we would lose less time wrapped up in anger. We would find joy and love and acceptance in so many more moments in life. And in that world we would gain great multitudes of precious moments that would then become the measure of our lives well lived.

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