One of Stephanie Butler’s earliest memories takes place on a playground. She and her best friends were playing a game together when something went wrong. The next thing she knew, she was hitting her best friend over the head with an umbrella with all the force she could muster.
“I have no recollection of what the trigger was,” Butler says, “but I clearly remember pounding my friend with this umbrella. In the exact moment, it’s almost like a blackout. And almost instantly you’re back and thinking, ‘Oh, no. What just happened?’ Loss of control, and then instant guilt and regret.”
Kids will be kids. But for Butler, now a 45-year-old Chicago schoolteacher, the incident marks the first in a series of outbursts that have taken a substantial toll on her relationships — and her self-esteem. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.) “My whole life has been defined by anger, for good and bad,” she says. “It’s something that I still struggle with.”
Everybody gets mad sometimes. Some explode; others simmer internally. In either case, when anger becomes a habitual response, it can ravage relationships. It contributes to heart disease and related illnesses. And it often leads to regrettable choices.
“Anger is what we pick up when we’re feeling weak, because we think it’s going to make us stronger,” says Sharon Salzberg, renowned meditation teacher and author of multiple books, including, most recently, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, coauthored with Robert Thurman.
As a result, anger plays an important role in our lives. It tells us when something is wrong and gives us the energy to do something about it. Salzberg describes anger as “the energy and ability to say no, to cut through surfaces. The angry person in the room is often the most honest person.”
It is possible to strike a deal with this difficult emotion, though. By developing an understanding of what causes anger — and what anger causes — we can learn to work with hot feelings instead of being burned by them.
Anger On the Inside
Anger might help us recognize problems, but when it comes to actually solving them, it’s a hindrance. Rage suppresses our ability to think clearly.
Like fear, anxiety, and trauma, anger activates the fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. The brain’s amygdala triggers a series of reactions: The heart and breathing speed up while digestion and libido slow down; glucose floods the blood; and muscles coil, ready to spring. Chronic anger is “a continuous state of arousal,” according to Ronald Potter-Efron, PhD, MSW, a clinical psychotherapist and author of Healing the Angry Brain: How Understanding the Way Your Brain Works Can Help You Control Anger and Aggression.
Chronic anger also changes the structure of our brains, predisposing them to greater reactivity by continually activating the same neural pathways. “An angry person is training the brain to stay angry,” explains Potter-Efron. “They don’t think about being angry; they just are angry.”
These neurological effects are equal for those who explode in rage and those who seethe in private. People who don’t show anger are “activating the same basic circuits, but the anger is directed internally,” he explains. This leads to its own host of problems, including passive-aggressive behavior.
Those who repress anger often fear it, says Judith Siegel, PhD, LCSW, New York University associate professor and author of Stop Overreacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions. If people tell Siegel they don’t get angry, she doesn’t
“In truth, they do get angry,” Siegel says, “but they’re not able to comprehend their anger. And that’s an even bigger problem.”
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the first step in building a healthy approach to anger is to notice the feeling — and accept it. Just as it’s healthy to feel sorrow when confronted with a sad situation, it’s healthy to feel angry when confronted by injustice or imbalance. “The key is to recognize the anger quickly, before it’s escalated, and then to develop a more balanced relationship to it,” says Salzberg.
She points to one of her meditation students, who was critical of every situation. “If someone tried to help her out in some way, it was never enough; if she was given a gift, it wasn’t right; if she went to a place to have a good time, it was never correct.”
Meditation helped this woman become aware of her hypercritical nature. By learning to identify each thought as it entered her mind, she grew to recognize which thoughts were unhelpful. She then started to take them less seriously.
“It wasn’t like the critical thoughts went away,” says Salzberg, “but she could see the negativity for what it was, laugh at what she was doing, then move past it.”
There are a variety of ways to intervene in the moment between irritation and rage and become more skillful at handling frustration. Anger has physical, emotional, mental, and social components; any one of these platforms is a good place to start retraining your responses. Here are some tactics:
The fight-or-flight response is an involuntary reaction to a threat, mediated by our autonomic nervous system; we choose to move an arm or a leg, but we don’t choose to tremble in rage. Blood flow increases to our muscles and decreases to bowels, our hearts speed up — and so does our breathing.
Our breathing is the only one of these reactions we can control, explains Patricia Gerbarg, MD, New York Medical College associate clinical professor of psychiatry. And slow, deliberate breathing actively calls off the state of alarm in the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Next time you feel anger coming on, notice whether your breath has become shallow and rapid. And then notice the effects of five slow, deliberate, deep breaths.
Usually, anger comes with a mix of other emotions. “Underneath the anger there can be rejection, insult, jealousy, loss, fear of competition, or criticism. All those emotions can manifest in anger,” says Siegel.
One of her patients suffered anger toward his boss. When he turned his attention inward and away from his antagonist, he discovered that he actually felt powerless and demeaned.
“Once he found that out, he was able to identify other times when he had been demeaned by someone in authority,” says Siegel. And he realized his reaction was out of proportion to the issue because he was responding to multiple situations in his past, not just what was before him. This epiphany helped him to take a more clear-eyed look at his boss’s behavior.
Timing is everything. The key to avoiding the destructive impact of anger is to interrupt the process that brings you to the brink, according to Robert Thurman, PhD, Columbia University professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies and coauthor of Love Your Enemies with Salzberg.
“In the Buddhist tradition, if you see something going wrong, the thing is to act forcefully and quickly before you lose your cool, while you still have a good manner and humor,” says Thurman. By clearly addressing irritations in a timely way — like an interrupting coworker or a mistaken charge on your credit-card bill — the feelings don’t have a chance to build to the point where you lose control.
Know the Signs
Study your body’s response to anger. “Awareness of the body is important,” says Salzberg. “What’s happening in my stomach? What’s happening in my shoulders?”
These physiological responses to anger vary from person to person — but usually they’re easily recognizable, she says. If you listen to your early-warning system and can recognize when your anger is starting to escalate, you’ll know when it’s time to take a walk.
Exercise can rapidly diffuse the physical effects of anger. The fight-or-flight instinct urges your body to action. Taking a walk, heading to yoga class, or even doing a few pushups in your office answers that urge constructively.
A recent University of Stuttgart study suggests that exercise may even lengthen a short fuse. If you know you’re heading into a tense situation, make time to go to the gym first whenever possible.
Meditation can be as simple as taking time to sit quietly, cultivating an awareness of your body, especially your breath, and observing thoughts and images that come into your head. It has noticeable effects on temper, but not because sitting still with feelings is easy — it’s just good practice.
When Salzberg first began meditating in the early 1970s, she started to puzzle together her complex feelings about her upbringing. “I came from a fractured and dislocated family, and was deeply unhappy and deeply angry, although I didn’t recognize it as such. Once I began meditation, there it was. The point, though, is not to squelch these feelings, but to deal with them more effectively.”
Retrain the Brain
In his anger-management practice, Potter-Efron teaches his patients, many of them referred through the legal system, to rewire neural networks.
“I have what I call a ‘brain-change plan,’” he explains. For example, many chronically angry people are hypercritical. “If his wife asks how her hair looks, he’ll criticize her without even looking at her. It’s quick and it’s automatic.”
A brain-change plan in this situation would be to practice giving praise. “By forcing yourself to give praise, you will improve that network of the brain, and eventually it will get bigger than the criticism network. The positive brain network just gets stronger and stronger.”
Behind a lot of anger is self-absorption — an attitude that isolates us from other people’s concerns, according to Thurman and Salzberg. If someone cuts us off in traffic or receives a promotion first, an angry response pits us against that person.
Compassion, conversely, emphasizes our common humanity. “We do all share the uncertainty and insecurity of existence,” Thurman and Salzberg write. Recognizing that the person who cut you off might have an emergency, or that your coworker will face challenges in the new position, puts these situations in a broader, more generous context. Realizing it’s not all about you is often a relief.
Putting It All Together
These strategies will help even the most hotheaded among us become less reactive, internally or externally. When it comes to managing anger long term, however, there will always be a need for patience and a willingness to start over.
“I’ve made great strides, but there’s always a bad day,” says Butler. The key to getting through the days when she loses her cool is to keep from falling into self-blame.
“There’s always a voice that says anger is a weakness of mine, even though intellectually I know it’s not a weakness; it’s just something that I struggle with,” she says.
By keeping her off-days in perspective, Butler can let go of her mistakes and focus on what she’s gained since learning to work with her anger. Her relationships are closer. Her work and daily life are more manageable. Her parenting and teaching skills are more subtle and positive. And she’s still often the most honest person in school staff meetings.
“When everyone is sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t want to say anything,’ I’m the one who is going to say it,” she explains.
On the whole, anger itself is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we interact with it. The discovery of fire changed the world, after all. If we want to harness anger’s power without getting burned, it just needs to be controlled.
Joe Hart is a freelance writer who lives in Viroqua, Wis.