“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” ~Buddha
I have a confession: I’m mildly obsessed with anger.
Not the negative feelings, the volatile outbursts, or the fly-off-the-handle reactions, but rather, how humans express anger.
I’ve largely made my living by dealing with various states of anger. More on that in a bit…
Years ago I was shopping at a bookstore with my friend Alex. We were first time parents with toddlers at home.
The idea was to find resources on how to raise emotionally healthy children, and to avoid the parenting mishaps we witnessed too often at work.
As school social workers we provided family counseling to young children and wayward teens in the inner city.
As Alex obsessively scoured the aisles for the latest research-based writings on emotional intelligence, my eyes gravitated towards an entirely different topic.
The black, matte-textured book with the blood red title practically screamed at me: Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence.
I devoured it that night.
It’s not that I didn’t want my kid to learn to soothe himself when upset, to resist peer pressure, or to misread social cues—but in that moment I felt a stronger pull.
Part of the fascination stems from my ancestry; I’m half-Italian and half-Irish. A DNA hotbed, if you will.
Meals were eventful. When I would lose my cool at the dinner table, my dad would wildly gesticulate in my mom’s direction. She, in turn, would shrug and reply “It’s The Fighting Irish, in her, I suppose.”
Additionally, I’m a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety issues—generalized, panic and social anxiety disorders.
Do you want to know the quickest way to get a handle on your anxiety? Get ahold of your anger.
I realize this may sound counter-intuitive. After all, we don’t normally associate anxious people with bad tempers and loud voices.
The anger management connection is not exactly linear.
It takes courage to express anger—to stand up for yourself and your values, which sometimes includes taking an unpopular stance.
Bravery is valiant, strong, and admirable, while anxiety is cowardly, weak, and anything but enviable.
Because many anxious people have a problem asserting themselves, feelings of helplessness, avoidance, and frustration take residence.
Compounding the issue is the fear that if you express anger, you might lose control.
And since many anxious individuals are people-pleasers and caretakers, these feelings are especially unwanted.
But feelings go somewhere.
And typically, when you take on too much responsibility, you inevitably feel exhausted, taken advantage of, and angry.
If you don’t have a firm grasp on your anger responses, you’re going to hold it in until it explodes, or you’re going to yell, scream, stomp your feet, and possibly say and do things you regret.
Then comes the guilt. And next, the overwhelming urge to fix the situation, and before you know it, the cycle repeats itself again.
All the while, you’re wasting precious emotional energy that could be better used on enjoyable tasks.
The good news is there’s strategies you can do today to help you feel more calm.
I included five common ways I help us go from anxiety to zen below:
1. List the places in your body where you feel anger.
Is it in your chest? What happens to your heart rate? How does your stomach feel?
It’s important to recognize the physical cues of anger in order to alert youself that it’s time to calm down.
2. Visualize different behavioral responses. How do you react when you feel angry?
Do you scream, tantrum, throw things, bottle it inside, or pretend that everything is fine?
Write down three different reactions you will do instead, such as:
Calmly assert your needs, deep breathing, count to ten, walk away rather than stick around for a fight, and close your eyes to reduce visual stimulation, etc.
3. Make friends with “no.”
I know, many nice people have a hard time with this one. The association with conflict makes us feel mean, insensitive, or too direct.
Know that “no” means you respect yourself, your time, and your values. Practice saying “no” in the mirror until it sounds deliberate and natural.
4. Ask yourself if you value expressing anger over getting along with others.
It’s a fact that some people enjoy the adrenaline rush of letting go and projecting their uncomfortable feelings onto others.
Recognize that the short-term feelings of power are no match for the sleeplessness, headaches, and despair, which endure long after the “anger high” wears off.
5. Think about the last time you got angry. How did you go from anger to a calmer place?
You’re probably really good at getting angry already, so let’s focus on the other side. Be specific. What behaviors did you call upon to get to zen?
This will reinforce your coping strategies, and it will serve as a reminder to focus on solutions rather than stewing in anger.
The more you practice reacting in positive ways, waiting until the anger subsides, and considering your options, the more skilled you will become at managing anger.
It’s possible that your body is wired to be more anxiety-sensitive, and you’ll have to work harder than others to calm yourself. And that’s okay.
These are temporary solutions, and you’ll still need to control the anxiety itself. But they’ll get you started in learning to respond with more awareness, and less emotion.
You’re the expert on your life. And you get to choose how much anger to allow in your heart, mind, and body every day.
With intentional focus on doing things differently, you can feel more calm, confident, and in control.
Photo by skyseeker