Some twerp in a sports car cuts you off in traffic. The copier at work is on the fritz again. Your spouse has, as usual, left the toothpaste cap off. You know that you shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff,” and yet, you are sweating.
Pet peeves can add up, says psychologist and stress expert Deborah Rozman, PhD, of the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, Calif. “People tend to look at the big sources of stress — a job change, major life crises — as the ‘real’ ones,” she says. “But small irritations accumulate, and these little emotional ‘paper cuts’ can create real anxiety and health problems.”
The answer, she says, is not to deny or indulge our little angers, but rather to defuse them right away, while they’re still small and manageable.
Little Angers and Irritations
When we allow small, relatively inconsequential but frequent sources of annoyance to upset us, it can set up a nasty chain of negative events.
Barriers to Overcome
Clinging to the past. They’re called pet peeves because, in our own weird way, we’ve grown attached to them. “Pet peeves proceed from old fears, old insecurities that we’ve fed until they’ve become habits,” Rozman says.
Making it personal. Whatever the annoyance is, we feel sure it is somehow directed at us. It’s not unusual, says Rozman, for peeved individuals to feel they are being disrespected, toyed with or even judged by the individuals whose behaviors they find bothersome.
Denial. We can try to ignore our angry reaction to a pet peeve, but once the stress response to that trigger kicks in, cortical-function shutdown ensues. Our perception narrows, the body pumps adrenaline and cortisol, and we go into fight-or-flight mode because we feel we’re under attack.
The urge to vent. “Research has shown that repressing and venting emotion have the same bad effects on your body,” she says. “Venting creates a habit. It doesn’t show you how to let go of the anger triggers; it just adds more triggers. Soon everything looks and feels like a bigger deal — and actually is a bigger deal — because you have developed an almost automatic irritation response to it.”
How to Cope
Take a break. Whether it’s a pause for deep breathing (see “Three Deep Breaths” in the October 2006 archives) or a short walk, it can help take the poison out of the situation.
Connect with your heart. “Pretend you are actually breathing through your heart to restore emotional balance,” says Rozman. In her book Transforming Stress (New Harbinger, 2005), Rozman explains how HeartMath’s research has proven that heart-focused attention actually begins to bring about a physiological shift. (For more on this method, see “Put Stress in Its Place” in the March 2007 archives.)
Release the “deeper meaning.” We tend to attribute overblown meanings to our annoyances. Take a mental step back and defuse this “big deal” significance. “A bigger perspective helps you see that it’s really not worth getting all worked up over something that is actually of very little consequence,” says Rozman.
Find something to appreciate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you try to enjoy a traffic jam. “Shift your attention to anything you appreciate,” Rozman says. “Then look through that lens at the situation you were angry about.”
Make a human connection. Do something kind for someone else, says Rozman, even if it’s just to smile at a sales clerk — “anything to reconnect the brain and the heart.”
A Mindful Response
How simply noticing your anger can help you dissipate it.
Psychiatrist Jeffrey Brantley, MD, of Duke University’s Integrative Medicine Center in Durham, N.C., has a deceptively simple way to handle anger flare-ups: He calls it “paying attention on purpose.” Another name for it is mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is just the basic human capacity for awareness,” he explains. “We’ve all used it, even if we haven’t given it that name. It’s a nonjudging awareness of what’s here.” When we direct this awareness upon our anger, he says, we’re just moments away from defusing it.
ORIGIN: The term “mindfulness” is borrowed from a form of Buddhist meditation. It’s basically a simple technique to avoid being engulfed by negative emotions — and by the stress response those emotions cause.
BENEFITS: Anger stresses us because the alarming or aggravating stories it tells send signals to our bodies that we’re in danger, thus triggering our fight-or-flight mechanism. That’s why the simple act of acknowledging that the story is only a story changes things: “All of a sudden the juice kind of goes out of those thoughts,” says Brantley. “The higher centers in the brain judge that there’s no longer a threat to the body and send a signal down through the nervous system that basically says, ‘No problem, stand down.’”
The downshift from anger to relaxation can come quickly, he adds. “Most people notice within a few breaths that they start feeling better. It’s an example of how simple attention to your inner life can be of great benefit. Don’t worry about doing it wrong — even a little awareness can make a big difference.”
SIMPLE STEPS: “The minute you notice you’re angry, that’s mindfulness at work; you’re already mindful,” says Brantley. The key is where your attention goes from there. Shift it to what Brantley calls a “neutral focus” — your breath or the sensations of your body. “Take a few mindful breaths, feel the earth under your feet or the steering wheel in your hand,” he suggests.
Then shift your awareness to the story you’re telling yourself about the situation. “Anger is a combination of an emotion, physical sensations and a story,” he says. If you’ve been cut off in traffic, the story might be, “That idiot thinks I’m a bad driver, but he’s the menace!” Don’t deny the story; there may be truth to it. Just pay attention to the fact that you are having an emotion, feeling a bodily sensation and telling a story.