Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
Taming your anger can have important benefits to your health
The goal: an easy system, based in sound psychology, to employ in moments of annoyance
Do you get easily annoyed? At times, does that emotion quickly escalate to anger? You are not alone.
You shouldn’t live with it, though.
Beyond improvements to your general mood and happiness, taming your anger can have important benefits to your health. Constant stress and aggravation is linked to a range of issues including overeating, insomnia and depression, and angry outbursts increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Despite how common it is for us humans to become annoyed and angry – from road rage to air rage and work frustrations to parenting – there are few easy solutions. Maybe we’ve just accepted outsize irritation as a part of life, or maybe simple answers are antithetical to a problem that can be ingrained.
Easily getting bent out of shape, even angry, is my problem, too. It was happening more than I wanted and was cumulatively stressing me out, which is why, a couple of years ago, I set a goal to come up with an easy system, based on sound psychology, that I could employ in moments of annoyance.
Anger “is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control,” the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. I aimed to teach myself how to rob it of oxygen and snuff it out.
“We all have a ‘fight or flight’ trigger,” explained Dr. Mark Crawford, a clinical psychologist. “It is adaptive. Some of us have a more sensitive one than others. However, the good news is that we can almost ‘reprogram’ this by techniques like breathing and particularly mindfulness meditation.”
For me, that reprogamming was best achieved by gaining perspective.
Below are the 10 simple steps I use to give perspective to, and gain distance from, unbridled irritation and anger. Employing them has significantly reduced the number of instances in which I get irritated, or at least has shortened their duration.
It’s important to note that these are progressive steps. I rarely need to escalate through all 10.
Many smaller annoyances (someone cutting in line, traffic jam, kids not listening) can be tackled with just the first step. Others (unfair parking ticket, public rudeness) may send you halfway up the steps. And bigger situations (a blow-up with a family member, being denied a promotion at work) may require the collective effort of them all before it is defused.
You may also find it more effective to change the order, or a step itself.
Step one: 10 breaths
At the first moment you realize you are experiencing annoyance or anger, just breathe. Ten slow, deep, even breaths do wonders. Sometimes, the annoyance will have passed in just that time.
Even if it hasn’t, the breaths still help. Diaphragmatic or abdominal (as opposed to shallow) breaths, in which you breathe from deeper inside your belly and fill your lungs, deliver more oxygen to your body, which stabilizes blood pressure and helps invoke your body’s relaxation response.
It may help to add a mantra (“I have the patience of the Buddha” is one I like to use when the kids’ bedtime-delaying tactics are keeping me from relaxing on the couch) or a calming image to hold in your mind. I sometimes accompany my 10 breaths with a memory of a surfer I once watched paddling into the sunset of the Pacific Ocean. He is often capable of pulling my annoyance out to sea with him.
Step two: Explain it to yourself
If the breaths don’t make a dent, try explaining what’s happening to yourself. “I’m annoyed right now because …” is a good sentence to finish. Articulating the issue changes your response from emotion to logic.
The explanation itself may be all you need, either because it creates an even longer mental break from the situation than just breathing or because when you say it to yourself, it makes more sense. It may even sound petty or even funny.
Step three: Walk a meter in their shoes
Make use of this step when another person is part of the reason you are upset. Try hard to see the situation from their reality and invent a subjective theory for why they did what they did.
Your theory will probably be rooted in a cause that’s benign or about them, not you. Next time someone cuts you off in traffic, maybe you can think about an emergency that might be affecting their behavior.
Step four: Role model grace
Think beyond the annoyance, or annoying person, and focus on your own behavior. By thinking of how you can be a model for grace under pressure, you help yourself to become one.
What would the most diplomatic, logically thinking version of yourself do next? Do that. It may help to think of a cool, calm and collected pop culture icon such as James Bond, Ellen Ripley, Cary Grant, Pam Grier or Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Step five: This too shall pass
Whatever it is that is getting your goat, it is temporary and manageable. You won’t always feel this way. It’s just a question of how long.
Acknowledging that your annoyance is finite and in your control, and that the winds of change will blow again in your favor (sooner or later), helps frame the scope of the problem, no matter how large.
Step six: What really matters?
How important is the matter upsetting you? How does it stack up against the things in life that you know matter? What is important (loved ones are a good example) can be the antidote to what troubles you now – as long as you can bring them to mind in this moment.
Turn your attention in that direction, and you won’t just be distracted but connected to something more important that brings you happiness. Scrolling through the photo stream on your phone is a quick way to do this.
Step seven: A funny thing happened on the way
Whatever the annoyance, make a joke about it, even if it’s a bad one. If you can find some grain of humor in the situation, smiling, laughing and even being silly can all defuse anger and annoyance. It’s not psychologically possible to experience two emotions at once.
This technique is great when my child is making me wait to brush her teeth because she “has” to brush her stuffed penguin’s teeth first.
Even if you’re not feeling it, the fake-it-until-you-make-it trick of smiling to boost happiness really works.
Step eight: Seek solutions
If you’ve made it this far up the steps and you are still really peeved, here’s a good (if seemingly obvious) question to ask yourself: “Is there something I can do to make it better?” Even if the answer is a small step that may not seem that effective, just taking action gets you out into the frame of acting, not reacting.
If you can then come up with a successful solution, so much the better. You will be the agent of change that fixes the situation and discover that you have more power than you think. Just pause to make sure your solution won’t create another problem. (Hint: Sleep on that angry email response.)
If you can’t come up with anything, that’s useful, too. Knowing that you can’t change something is the first step in accepting it. Cue the Serenity Prayer.
Step nine: Trust in time
In the future, it is possible that you will see this particular anger-causing situation differently. Look at past problems and see how they’ve been a catalyst for change or even a blessing in disguise. You may even look back at a difficult situation with fondness, humor or gratefulness (for having overcome it). It’s worth keeping in mind that what seems bad now won’t always be so.
Step 10: Call a lifeline
If you’ve hit No. 10, it’s time to talk about the frustration with someone you trust who is not involved in the situation. Start by telling them what you did in the previous steps and why they didn’t fully work.
Another person, by definition, gives you an alternate perspective; the more outside your frame they are, the better. If they are a good friend or mentor, they will indubitably have advice tailored to you and your situation that has eluded you.
There are also professionals to talk to, especially if you feel that anger is often out of your control. Reflect on the severity and frequency of your anger, because an expert may be what you need if these episodes are disrupting your life.
There is one more step, but it’s a bit dramatic and not so simple. It’s an Eskimo custom of dealing with anger, as noted in Rebecca Solnit’s surprisingly fascinating book on the history of walking, “Wanderlust.”
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Walk in one direction for as long as you are aggrieved. When the emotion finally evaporates, drop a stick on the ground and head back, creating a physical manifestation “bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”
It not only combats the anger, it is also good for your heart. Exercise in general is good for reducing stress and anger.
As for me, my inner Hulk shows its ugly face a lot less than it used to before I practiced this technique. Triggers are reduced as well. And I, and everyone around me, am better for it.