A lawyer friend and I were talking the other day, and during the conversation he said, “For me anger is like a volcano burning inside and something that I have to deal with constantly.” I was instantly sympathetic because I have struggled with anger for years. I have always thought of anger as a poison in me that I am liable to spit out at any time. Anger can be a useful emotion in some ways, as I have written previously here, but it can also be very destructive, not only to others, but to yourself, burning you up inside. For several years, I have worked on my anger, and I have come up with some techniques that I shared with my friend and that work for me—at least most of the time.
The basic thing to do when you feel angry is to stop, take a deep breath, process the anger, and then respond more calmly. By taking a deep breath, I mean focus on your breath consciously and have it fill every corner of your lungs while counting slowly to ten or as high as you can until you have to let the air out. By processing the anger, I mean acknowledge to yourself that you are angry and then remember that anger is not always the best way to respond. If you have mastered this already, you can probably stop reading. For the rest of us, it is hard to even remember to take a deep breath and process, much less actually do them. It is for the rest of us that I came up with these five tips.
1. Theory and Practice. In order to practice these steps to control anger, you have to want to change, and you need a road map for change. Several years ago, I began studying Buddhism to handle the stress related to my work, and I added yoga after the deaths of my parents. Both systems incorporate meditation and can calm fear, stress, anger, and other strong emotions. I don’t think that these are the only ideas or philosophies that help. There is a strong Christian meditative tradition, for example, and there are a lot of secular perspectives on anger management; I recently read a helpful one (here) by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review. You don’t even need a philosophy, really. You can start with an idea as simple as “I don’t like anger” or “anger is not good for me or others around me.”
We tend to think that once we have “figured it out,” that’s the end of the struggle. Then every time we make a mistake, we beat ourselves up because we think to ourselves “I *know* not to do this. Why do I keep doing it?” However, knowledge and practice are two different things. An idea can provide guidance and motivation, but it is still only an idea. To truly make a change, you must practice every day: either intentionally through yoga or meditation or just by taking a breath when you’re confronted with bad traffic or a work argument.
2. Reminders: The hardest thing, perhaps, is just even remembering to practice controlling your anger. That’s where having reminders around can be very helpful. I make signs to remind me of certain things: not to yell, not to say “no” too quickly, to be patient when someone else makes a suggestion or makes a mistake, etc. I have them taped up on my computer monitor, at my desk, and on my fridge. A friend has a sign taped to her speedometer that says, “Traffic is an opportunity for meditation.” Also useful are little Buddha statues or crosses that can remind you to be gentle and compassionate. Photos of rivers and mountains—or astronomy photos of distant galaxies—remind me that the universe is so much bigger than my small concerns and that I should be humble. Music can be another great reminder. I often have chants, classical music, jazz, or world music playing quietly in the background. For many years, I listened to hard rock, metal, punk, or rap while I worked, and I feel like that attitude of aggression pervaded everything I did.
3. Accountability. This one is very, very hard but crucial. You should tell people you are close to what you’re trying to accomplish. It might be your spouse or coworkers or close friends or a therapist. I think it is a good idea to tell people you become angry around. For me, it was my family. A couple of years ago, I taped up a little slogan at my desk, and the kids asked me what it was. I told them it was to remind me not to yell. Thereafter, every time I got angry, the kids would say to me, “Daddy, remember your sign.” It was, of course, very frustrating to hear that from a five year-old when I was angry, but I almost always calmed down immediately. I eventually told co-workers about my challenge to myself, and they began to remind me as well. It was annoying every single time. However, it really was a game-changer for me. When a goal is only in your head, you can slack on it. When it is out there for all to see and you can be held accountable, you are motivated to get it right.
4. Exercise. I think regular exercise, even walking or light yoga, is important to get your nervous system calmed down for mentally processing anger. When you are sedentary, you save up energy that has to come out somewhere. After a hard day of work, I know I need to blow off some steam. Exercising leaves me too tired to stress about the things that can make me angry. It is crucial, I think, to any meditative practice. I recently came across a great quote from a 16th century yoga manual: “Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity against yourself…. Self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana [exercise] is discipline.” Controlling anger requires the kind of self-discipline that comes from regular exercise.
5. Diet. As I have written before, the most effective step I have taken towards taming my anger is giving up caffeine (read the post here). Caffeine makes me so hyper that I am ready to jump down somebody’s throat as soon as they open their mouth. It speeds up my thoughts and makes it harder to give myself a moment to process before responding. I have recently discovered that sugar also contributes to my anger. If I gorge on sugar, I find that I become sluggish. If someone asks me for something or challenges me in some way, I can’t process as quickly or with as much alertness, and I default to anger. A similar problem occurs when I overeat, particularly carbs. I just want to rest so I can digest, and if someone interferes with that – say a coworker or a child coming to me with a problem – I am liable to fly off the handle. Another possible issue is meat. In his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes that eating factory-farmed meat fills you with the anger and anxiety the animal was feeling at the moment it died. I was a bit disbelieving at first, but I’ve since heard stories from people who get panic attacks after eating meat, and I’ve been wondering if hormones like adrenaline present in the meat are getting into our systems. Hanh recommends eating only organic, free-range meat and eggs. They are more expensive, he acknowledges, but he advises that meat should only be eaten sparingly anyway. I find that the best diet for alertness and mental and physical balance is a diet high in vegetables.
As you read through these tips, I know that you are thinking that this does not sound easy. I have been working diligently on these steps over the last few years, and I can tell you for certain that it isn’t easy. On the other hand, it has been very worthwhile. I don’t think of myself as an angry person anymore, but simply a person who gets angry sometimes. Anger has its place in life. It is one of the emotions along with desire and regret and others that can provide motivation and clarity in our lives. Therefore, I think the goal should not be to eliminate anger, but to channel it and blunt its effects on those around us.