Anger has the power to derail you and the people around you. Staying in anger keeps you estranged from your creativity and greatest potential. Who doesn't want to be creative and self-actualized?
Knowing how to effectively manage anger is part of Emotional Intelligence, a topic I've been discussing a lot this year. (Watch a short video about EQ, or pick up a copy of the book, Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ, by Daniel Goleman, the father of EQ.) Mastering these techniques can dramatically improve the quality of your life, and the lives of those you love.
Imagine… Someone cut you off on the highway. You've come home to disorder and kids fighting. It was a tough day at work. All of them have the power to ignite your anger. It starts off with brain chemistry, but it doesn't end there. You (and the people you love) don't have to be a victim of your chemistry and emotions.
'Fight or flight' was originally a response to physical danger. In our day, the danger warning is more likely to be an attack on your self-esteem or integrity, or maybe your frustration over increasingly stressful situations. Either way, this is still 'fight or flight' and your brain is telling you to ramp it up and do something!
Many times we are victims of our emotions, especially anger. Do you act on it, and stay in that intense and volatile state? Or do you learn how to soothe yourself? Although you have little to no control over when you are carried away by your emotions, or what the emotion will be, you are the one who determines how long you'll be held prisoner by it. Yes, you have the power.
Let's take the example of the driver who cuts you off. There's a reason it's called road rage. You feel the injustice of it, the inconsiderate, self-centered nature of the other driver. Your brain releases chemicals, and you want to fight back -- pass him, box him in, punch him in the face. This kind of anger can actually be energizing! And then someone honks a horn behind you, and your anger grows, feeding on itself. You're stuck in a loop leading to rage. What you focus on, grows. The longer you brood on what made you angry, the more reasons you come up with to justify your anger.
Let's recap. Danger can take the form of being misunderstood or insulted. It can show up when you are frustrated at not making progress toward an important goal. Your brain preps you to either put up a fight, or head for the hills. What's important to know is that the effect of these hormones can keep you in that emotional state for hours, on alert for more attacks. Things that might not have bothered you before can cause an angry outburst. And so the cycle continues.
This may sound extreme, but it makes the point. So what can you do about it? There are three basic methods of soothing the angry beast:
1) Challenge the thoughts and beliefs that ignited your anger.
It's your first thoughts about what happened that nurture the first reaction of anger. The more you think about it, you more you validate it and go along with it. The sooner you intervene, the faster you break the cycle.
Go back to the driver who cut you off. Did you make an assumption? Maybe it wasn't a case of someone joyriding without a care for anyone else on the road. A friend shared that when she went into a difficult labor with her first child, her husband was driving 80mph in the left lane of the highway to get her to the hospital. The other drivers had no idea of the urgency of the situation. Do you see? You don't have all the information.
And even if the other driver was an inconsiderate, self-centered you-know-what, is that a reason for you to go off the deep end? At the end of the day, how does that change your life? Usually, not at all... unless it leaves you in a state where everything upsets you, and you take it out on your family and friends. You can take the oomph out of your anger by trying to understand, or by lessening its importance.
2) Cooling-down strategies.
We're moving away from thought-based solutions to physiological solutions. What can you physically do to settle down?
a) Physically remove yourself from the situation. When a conversation turns into an argument, you need to get away from the other person. Take five -- minutes or hours. Get some distance, simmer down, and give him the chance to do the same.
b) Do something, so you can distract yourself from negative thoughts. This can be a long walk, a workout, deep breathing, muscle relaxation or time with a pet. A friend of mine swears that you can't feel sad and stressed when you're gardening. All kinds of stress-relief strategies can work here. Distraction breaks the cycle of angry thoughts and allows your body and brain to move out of high alert. CAUTION: If you use this time to continue stoking the fire, you are setting yourself up for more of the same.
3) Use self-awareness to keep from 'going there'.
Catch your hostile thoughts as they appear. Write them down. You can defuse them this way, challenge them, and move on. Remember, you have to be aware of a problem in order to do something about it.
Are you ready to take responsibility for your emotions? Are you ready to leave behind the attitude of "He made me do it. It wasn't my fault"? There's no time like to today to begin.
There you have it. And, as always, your children are watching everything you do. You know that intense, difficult emotions and lack of self-control don't go anywhere good. Show them how you manage your own anger. Not only will they learn this healthy way of handling it, your relationship with your kids will improve exponentially.