Anger is something we all regularly experience. In fact, we are hardwired to experience it. As a rule of thumb, I don’t believe any emotion is inherently ‘bad’. Even anger has positive and negative components but what's important is how you react to anger.
Without getting too deep too quick. Your brain is broken up into different compartments (the reptilian brain, the limbic system and neocortex) which impact how you feel, your decision-making process, how you remember, how and what you value and almost everything else in your daily life.
When we talk about anger, I am primarily concerned with the reptilian brain, which is the oldest part of the brain that developed back when we roamed the Earth as neanderthals, first developing in reptiles, where the name is derived.
Of course, the brain has developed with evolution, but the basic functioning of the reptilian brain, in essence, remains the same. The reptilian brain identifies danger and compulsively reacts in one of two ways, fight or flight.
For example, if we think about hunter-gatherers when they were confronted by a dangerous wild animal, the reptilian brain activates immediately and is what spurs you into either fighting or fleeing.
This response is still present in us today. Our brains react to conflict and tension in the same manner. Some of us are wired to instinctively fight back, either responding verbally or with physical force, while others intuitively flee.
An added and important component is that the reptilian brain can effectively distort your reality and your senses. In these moments you don’t always make informed decisions because the hormones that are released with an intense feeling of stress effectively destroys the neurons responsible for decision making and for short term memory.
This has two key consequences. Firstly, in moments of anger, we are not fully in control of our brain. That’s not to rid ourselves of responsibility for our actions, but it can explain the curveballs people can throw around in an argument if you’ve ever left an argument and thought ‘why did they say that’ or ‘bringing up x was totally uncalled for’.
Secondly, and arguably more importantly, when the short term memory neurons are destroyed it means you may not remember exactly how you reacted or the consequences of your reaction.
This is particularly troublesome because when you don’t remember or are not aware of the consequences of your actions you are doomed to repeat them. In some people, this can create a dangerous cycle where your body doesn’t learn from mistakes it makes when angered.
So how do we improve our relationship with anger?
7 Ways to Improve Your Relationship With Anger
Firstly I am not telling you to suppress anger. If it is an emotion you are genuinely experiencing then suppressing it is not healthy.
Your anger shouldn’t put you or another person in danger nor should it lead to a situation where you regret what you said or how you reacted to another person. It’s about ensuring that anger is proportionate.
1. Awareness is key
Anger doesn’t dissipate from a reaction. Don’t be fooled by thinking that an immediate lashing out at someone will resolve the anger if anything studies show that it can deepen the anger.
Simply becoming aware that you are experiencing anger and recognising that it may be impairing your decision making is a great first step, and not as simple as it sounds.
2. Count to 10
This is often cited as a top tip. In those 10 seconds, you’re giving yourself the time and space to cooly and calmly collect your thoughts.
This doesn’t mean on the count of 10 you present with the serene peace of a Buddhist monk but it does mean that when you respond and communicate you are exercising full autonomy over your words.
3. Exercise non-violent communication
Don’t lead with ‘You said’, ‘You never…’ or ‘You promised”. Begin with yourself and lead with ‘I Feel that….’. Don’t make it about the actions of the other person but express how you feel in the moment, without proportioning blame.
From identifying the feeling you can then move to an unexpressed need, what is that you need for this feeling to be lifted or avoid a repeat. This proves effective as no one is feeling attacked and it can lead to a meaningful conversation where a solution can be found.
4. Let go of the anger and don’t stew in it after the fact
It’s not a healthy or productive use of your time. It can be difficult and the best way to release the anger is to identify its source. At its core anger is most often rooted in respect.
You’re not angry because your boss spoke over you in a meeting of your peers. You’re not angry because your feedback wasn’t taken on board. You’re not angry because you didn’t get a promotion.
You’re angry because you don’t feel respected. You don’t feel valued. You interpret actions that anger you as a form of disrespect. These actions that make you angry are symptoms.
What’s at the core of your reaction is a belief that being spoken over, not being listened to or being overlooked for a promotion means you’re not seen as professional, and you feel disrespected. There are many exercises I do with clients around this, but re-framing the anger and understanding what lies beneath is critical.
5. Laugh it out
It is difficult to simultaneously experience two different emotions. You can’t be angry and happy. Additionally, Dr Jerry Deffenbacher in Ideal Treatment Package for Adults with Anger Disorders highlights that moving from anger to laughter helps change your perspective on a situation.
Anger can be rooted in a deep sense of unfairness whereas laughter can help you open your perspective and cope with a difficult situation.
6. Relaxation & mindfulness
I haven’t always been the biggest supporter of mindfulness apps. In general, I think they are a fad that offers an upfront solution but does not address underlying causes or change behaviour patterns to prevent future repeats.
However mindfulness can be an excellent way in a moment of stress to mentally remove yourself from a stressful situation and calm yourself before you react. If you are interested in learning more check out Bressie’s podcast ‘Where Is My Mind’.
7. Know when to seek help
If you are unable to manage your anger and experience outbursts including violence I’d suggest you reach out to an anger management professional for support.
Anger isn’t something we should never experience, but with these tips, we can improve our relationship to anger and ensure that it is proportionate and even constructive.