Don’t try to control your anger; only try to let it wash over you

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Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something is wrong. He’s not right in the brain.

~Dalai Lama

The emotion of anger has earned a bad reputation, when the real problem are the actions that come from a place of anger, and their consequences. What makes it even more undesirable as an emotion is the fact that it is one emotion that we find extremely difficult to get rid of. It just sticks with you. It lies latent and buried but suddenly a very subtle trigger can cause you to burst out, even after you thought you had it under control. Then comes all the guilt, regret, and the whole package deal that anger brings with it. I experienced it first hand this week and the incident got me thinking.

An issue came up at work that had been a point of ongoing conflict between me and my seniors. At one point the ‘other guy‘ got angry. He is from a  different culture where anger as an emotion is hardly ever displayed. Just the fact that it came to the surface means a regular person would have been seething with rage in the situation. Just before he delivered an outburst in his angry tone and stormed off, I observed his behavior. I saw that he turned away from me partially, closed his eyes for a moment, and his lips quivered before he turned around to show his anger. All the while his body was pointing away from me. Basically, I saw the anger coming. What I did though was stood there and took it. No retaliation, no display of emotion, and a decision of going to him later in the day to discuss things when he had calmed down. I am damn proud of my behavior. But, a surprising thing happened. My physiological state was the complete opposite of my mental state. For several minutes after the incident, I noticed a slight shaking in my hands and legs, and an increased pulse rate. Even though I was mentally calm and had let the anger wash over me, my body was displaying all the symptoms of being angry. It was really intriguing.

This lead me to the thought that perhaps the emotion of anger is more deeply embedded in us. Even deeper than just the conscious level. It is as if our bodies are programmed to respond to certain situations in certain ways, and the default reaction to a display of anger seems to be anger itself. I was reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, at that time in which the author talks about unconscious associations and snap judgments. Consequently, it occurs to me that perhaps my body’s reaction to the situation had already been activated before I consciously became aware of the fact that the other person was angry. Now that I think about it, it is perfectly plausible that my pulse rate had already escalated before I became aware of it. It was as if my body had defaulted to the state of anger, triggered by the other person’s display of anger, which had been picked up by my subconscious brain . The fact that the after effects lasted much longer inspite of my awareness points to the fact that anger stems from a very primitive part of the brain. One that is beyond the control of the conscious one.

This line of thought lead me to recall what I had read in the book Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman. There is one automatic response to external stimuli that is programmed into all animals, including humans, which ensures their survival. It is termed as the fight-or-flight response. The theory is that whenever a creature faces an unknown or adverse situation a very primal part of the brain takes over control from the regular brain functions. In return the responses to any change in the situation or environment become much faster than they normally would be. So, the fight-or-flight response basically hands over body functions control to a primitive but faster part of the brain and puts the body in readiness to either fighting for survival or running away from the danger. Common symptoms of this response are increased heart and pulse rate, release of adrenalin in the body which causes the limbs to shake, and a narrowing of mental focus manifested in tunnel vision etc. Put in this context, anger seems to stem from the fight-or-flight response, and I suspect it is the fight response that takes over when we are faced by a display of anger. In other words, anger is a very powerful emotion because it stems from a very primal part of our brain that has been programmed to ensure our survival. Its power and infamy also come from the fact that it short circuits our normal thinking capabilities and is a precursor to defensive action. At an extreme it could end up as violence as I am sure you see on the news everyday. More common (thankfully) are the raised voices, quarrels, hurt feelings, and injured egos that all of us experience from time to time.

Obviously, trying to reprogram a code that was written over millenia of evolution is an extremely difficult task. So, it would be futile for us to try and subdue the emotion of anger so that we never feel angry again. However, we have got highly evolved brains that are capable of interrupting our actions in the time gap between stimulus and response. In controlling our physical actions we severely limit the ill effect that displays of anger can have. It is not an easy task in any way, but there are a few basic things that I have found to be of help.

  • Awareness
    However corny it might sound, try keeping a track of your anger. After you have vented your anger mark down the date in your calender with a black star or some other symbol. As you progress, you can start writing what triggered it or what you felt. Trust me, building up awareness will help your conscious brain to catch up with your unconscious brain in recognizing anger and acting automatically. Then you can let your conscious brain take the decisions in those moments of duress.
  • Gratitude
    I can tell you from personal experience that if you cultivate the habit of being grateful even for the small things in life, you will be a much happier and calmer person, not to mention you won’t get angry as easily. It is like when boiling water is poured into a glass of cold water it doesn’t remain so hot anymore. By cultivating gratitude you will be able to increase your trigger level for anger.

  • Breathing
    No brainer, right? I am not even talking about mediation (although that can help to bring about a state of mental calm), just simple deep breaths. Practice deep breathing regularly so that whenever you feel negative emotions rise, your first automatic reaction should be deep breathing. The least it will do is to give you a pause between stimulus and response, which you can now choose consciously.

There may be various other ways and tricks to counteract anger but they will work only if you practice doing them. Just being aware and knowing the steps is like having a blue print of a building. Actual construction is whole different ball game. I am glad that I got the opportunity to explore my own emotions due this incident and was able to share it with you. I hope I can train myself to not let my anger control my actions. Do let me know in the comments if you have been successful in controlling your anger and how you did it.

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One thought on “Don’t try to control your anger; only try to let it wash over you

  1. You cite two of my favorite books in this post. Have you ever read “My Stroke of Insight” by neuroscientist Jill Taylor? She talks about exactly what you’re interested in; how physiologically speaking emotions wash right over us. It’s only when we keep rehashing the situations psychologically that we feel prolonged stress and agitation, so it truly is our choice how to respond.

    I like your three basic tips about how to handle anger. Well-written post!

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