There’s a voice shouting. Takes a second before you realize it’s yours. You feel energized. Righteous. Driving every point home. It’s like the climax of a courtroom drama and you’re the hero.
Too bad you’re saying a lot of stuff you’re definitely going to regret in 20 minutes. But, hey, at least you’re getting it off your chest, right? Venting the anger. Um, no, actually.
“Venting” just makes anger worse.
Focusing on a negative emotion will likely intensify the experience of that emotion further and thus make down-regulation more difficult, leading to lower adjustment and well-being.
And, as if the short term damage wasn’t enough, the jokes about anger and heart attacks aren’t very far off the mark. At all.
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Research on anger has shown that chronic anger and hostility can increase one’s vulnerability to cardiovascular problems (Suls and Bunde 2005), cause problems in relationships, pose barriers to functioning at work, and get in the way of important goals (Kassinove 1995).
So what really reduces anger? Mindfulness. Trendy, I know. Before you go shopping for meditation cushions, perhaps it would be good to have an actual definition of the word.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to, contemplating, and noticing something while letting go of judgments and assumptions. To mindfully attend to something, you must take a step back in your mind and look at it objectively without evaluating it as good or bad, or right or wrong. Don’t try to change it. Instead, be open to the experience, regardless of whether you like or dislike it.
So how do we learn to be mindful? Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the research-backed weapon of choice against Borderline Personality Disorder, an affliction marked by overwhelming emotions that was previously regarded as untreatable. And it’s based on mindfulness.
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If DBT can help borderlines get their anger under control, it can squash yours like a bug. DBT works.
Both DBT as a full-treatment package (including individual therapy, group skills training, telephone consultation, and the DBT consultation team) and DBT skills training have consistently shown large effects in the treatment of anger (e.g., see Lieb et al., 2004; Robins & Chapman, 2004; Stoffers et al., 2012).
Time to get some mindfulness insights from DBT and learn how to soothe the savage beast inside you so your life doesn’t end up looking like a Godzilla double feature.
Let’s get to it.
1) Study your anger
What usually makes you angry? Where are you when you get angry? Who makes you angry? Write all this down. And next time you find yourself shouting, add to the list. This isn’t important — it’s critical.
Usually we don’t even realize we’re angry until furniture is being broken. But if you know the circumstances that trigger your anger, you can avoid them or prepare yourself.
And we want to get even more granular than that. You want to make note of the signals your body is giving you that a rage-attack is imminent. There are three categories we want to focus on.
All emotions are made up of three components: physical (the way your body responds when you experience an emotion), cognitive (the thoughts that go along with the emotion), and behavioral (the things you do or have urges to do when you experience an emotion). Identifying the different components of your anger and becoming more aware of each one will make it easier to recognize your anger sooner (Linehan 1993b).
So with your list of triggers, you want to add the answers to these questions:
- What physical things happen to you when you get angry? Does your heart pound? Breathing gets shallow? Do you feel hot?
- What thoughts usually go through your head? “This isn’t fair” or “He’s being a jerk” or “This shouldn’t have happened”?
- What behaviors do you engage in? Do you raise your voice? Clench your fists? Turn green and say, “HULK SMASH”?
These are the canaries in your coal mine. They can tip you off before the fury train leaves the station.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Alright, you have assembled your “Personal Anger Handbook.” (Feel free to decorate it with glitter and stickers, as necessary.) Now how do we start putting it to use?
2) Avoid triggers
I know, this one is kind of obvious but I have to mention it because it’ll get you the biggest bang for your buck and because I’m certain you’re not doing it enough. Research consistently shows that manipulating your context is one of the most powerful (and easiest) ways to change your behavior.
People say that politics makes them angry … and then they go and read more political news. Do I need to cite some research to show you the problem here? No? Thank you.
I know what some people are thinking, “I can’t avoid my triggers! I can’t!” And that kind of thinking makes me angry. C’mon. Be resourceful:
- “I can’t avoid traffic!” Yes, but your attention can. Audiobooks. Podcasts. Distraction is a DBT approved short-term technique.
- “I can’t avoid my co-workers!” Before that important meeting where you fear you’re going to blow your stack, mention you’re expecting an important call about a very sick relative. If your fists start to clench, grab your phone and leave the room until you calm down.
- “This 100% cannot be avoided.” Give a friend $200. If you get angry, you don’t get your money back. You now have a lot of motivation to keep your cool.
And even if you can’t avoid a trigger, you can often do something to reduce its impact. Be creative.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, you’re dodging anger bullets like Neo. But how do you actually become better at dealing with anger when it does hit you?
3) Train your mind
Let’s begin your training, young Padawan, so you may possess the Jedi skills to battle the Dark Side. (Well, your Dark Side, that is.) How do we help you better cope with anger? First we gotta make you angry …
Sit down. Close your eyes. Take a couple breaths. Now imagine something that makes you lose it. Get a clear picture in you head. Make it as real as possible, the events unfolding before you. Yes, you are actually trying to get yourself pissed off …
But rather than getting caught up in the “interpretations” — the thoughts and stories you tell yourself about how they shouldn’t do this, and that is unfair — focus on the sensations in your body. The tension in your forehead. Your face getting flushed. Muscles tensing.
Now those thoughts and stories are going to bubble up. That’s unavoidable. But observe them, don’t embrace them. What’s that mean? When you feel physical pain, you recognize it as a signal. You don’t say, “I am pain.” But when you feel anger, you do say, “I am angry.” Stop that. Observe thoughts and feelings like they’re words someone else is speaking to you. Don’t embrace them as being you. “I’m noticing angry feelings” not “I am angry.”
Then return to noticing sensations. You’re going to keep getting pulled away by the thoughts. That’s okay. Notice them. Don’t interact with them or try to push them away. Then return your attention to the sensations in your body again.
Thoughts will keep coming. You’ll need to bring your focus back to sensation over and over. That’s okay. Ever wonder what meditation (“return to the breath, return to the breath …”) has to do with mindfulness? There’s your answer. Let go of interpretation, focus on sensation.
If you begin to label or judge the sensations, notice that evaluation or judgment, and then bring your attention back to noticing the sensations as just sensations. Bring your attention to any thoughts that are present, focusing on just noticing these thoughts as thoughts without attaching to them.
The next thing you want to do is called “objective labeling.” Note what is occurring without judging it. Ever fill out an insurance report? You wouldn’t write “And then the moron destroyed my car.” You’d say, “The other driver’s vehicle collided with mine.”
“My fists are clenching” is fine. “I’m getting ready to punch the stupidity right out of him” is not. Stick to the facts in a neutral way. Judgments will just add fuel to the fire of your anger and make everything harder.
Observe, don’t embrace. Focus on sensation, not interpretation. Objectively label. Do this for 10-15 minutes or until you notice the emotions start to subside.
With practice, it will get easier to be the calm at the center of the storm. You’ll be able to see the thoughts and feelings bubble up — but you won’t have to interact with them or act on them.
Your training is complete. Feel free to hum “Pomp and Circumstance” if you like.
(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
So you’re out there in the big bad world and you notice your anger rising — but you caught it early. Still time to nip it in the bud. What’s the first step?
4) Break the loop
Remember the “Personal Anger Handbook” you assembled? We didn’t write down those physical, cognitive and behavioral signals for nothing, Bubba. They’re very useful as an anger “early detection system” — but they also have a second, more powerful use …
They’re part of a feedback loop. Anger produces those physical changes, thoughts and behaviors — and, in turn, those physical changes, thoughts and behaviors increase your anger. Ever start getting worked up, the angry thoughts come, and those thoughts just amplify your negativity? Exactly.
So, when you notice those signals, you want to short circuit the loop before it makes things worse. For example: someone’s pushing your buttons and when that happens you know that physically your breathing gets shallow, cognitively you start judging and blaming, and behaviorally you clench your fists.
By modifying each of these components of your anger, you can keep them from intensifying the emotion, giving you more time to get your feelings under control. Let’s look at each:
Physical: Instead of those short shallow breaths, you slow down your exhalation and take deep breaths from your diaphragm.
Cognitive: Use the skills from your training. Step back from your judging, blaming thoughts and observe, don’t embrace. Objectively label the thoughts and feelings instead of identifying with them.
Behavioral: Clenching your fists just tightens muscles and makes you more stressed. Place your hands palms down on a table to make clenching impossible and break the loop.
At best, reducing the components of anger can stop you from acting out. But at the very least it will buy you time to use other techniques.
(To learn more about how mindfulness can make your brain happy, click here.)
Alright, you’ve engaged all the preventative measures — but the anger is still upon you. What do you do when it fully hits and you feel like you’re going to lose control?
5) Ride the wave
What do you do first? Nothing. Literally. Just stop. Anger’s like alcohol. Your judgment is impaired.
“But I just want to let her know that what she’s doing isn’t …”
Do not trust that voice in your head. Pause. Take a few breaths. Don’t cut the red wire or the green wire — get your head straight before you try and defuse a bomb ready to go off.
Remember Barker Axiom #327: “You can’t always make things better — but you can always make them worse.”
So you’re not doing anything. You have a very loose hold on your emotions. What now? Remember your mind training, young Jedi. We faced the Dark Side alone in preparation for this moment way back in Clickbait Heading #3. Put those skills to work:
- Focus on sensation, not interpretation: Concentrate on the tightness in your chest, not the chatter in your head.
- Observe, don’t embrace: Mentally step back from thoughts. “I notice angry feelings” not “I am angry.”
- Objectively label: Fill out the insurance report. Unemotionally note to yourself what is happening. “My breathing is shallow” not “This jerk is making me so angry I can’t breathe.”
The emotions are going to attempt to fuse with you, taking you from “noticing anger” to “I am angry.” Keep returning to sensation. Keep your mental distance. Keep labeling.
And if your angry moment involves another person, um, this is going to be a little awkward at first — you standing there frozen, doing your mindful best, as they wonder what exactly is happening. That’s okay. The alternative is you going nuclear. Once you get a handle on things ask for a moment to think — or leave, if possible.
With time, the anger will dissipate. It never feels like it will in the moment, but it always does. And the more you practice, the quicker it will vanish.
(To learn the 5 questions that will make you emotionally strong, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it all up — and learn how anger can be very useful …
Here’s how to overcome anger with mindfulness:
- Study your anger: It’s hard to prevent something if you don’t know what causes it. (And that can be downright infuriating, frankly.)
- Avoid triggers: Now that you know what causes your anger, stay away from those things. This is the most obvious, most effective, and most ignored piece of advice you’ll get. Be resourceful or be furious.
- Train your mind: Practice the mindfulness exercise above. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of I CAN’T STAND THIS ANYMORE! DO YOU HEAR ME?!
- Break the loop: Address the physical elements, the thoughts and the behaviors that are associated with your anger and you can prevent it from spiraling out of control.
- Ride the wave: Put mindfulness into action. Note the thoughts, feel the feelings, but don’t do anything that’s going to get you jail time.
If I was anger, I’d be a little angry right now. Anger has been a whipping boy for this entire post. Let’s give that emotion its due — it’s essential. We don’t want to eliminate it; we want to manage it.
If you feel anger or indignation when someone mistreats you, those feelings can spur you to action to stop the mistreatment. If someone threatened you physically and you didn’t feel angry at all, you might not be as able to defend yourself. Anger can be an extremely motivating and energizing emotion, giving you the fuel you need to break through barriers, persist, and work hard to achieve a goal. The goal, then, is not to get rid of anger, but to understand it and learn to manage and use it to achieve what’s important to you.
So what’s the most important part of anger? We rarely want to embrace it and run with it. But we do want to listen to it. Often, anger can tell you what’s important to you.
What’s at the center of your anger might not necessarily be good — it might be something you need to work on. But either way, there’s good information here. It’ll teach you something about yourself. And then you can decide if that’s the person you want to be.
Don’t speak in anger. But let anger speak to you.
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