In certain situations anger can be a natural and necessary response. When triggered, long-term survival responses enable you to respond to instantly and without deliberation in order to save your life. If one of our prehistoric ancestors was walking past a bush in the African savannah and a tiger attacked there was no need for he or she to worry about digesting their last meal or thinking about sex. All their energy had to be harnessed towards powering the muscles for fighting or fleeing and sharpening the mind to exploit every possibility for surviving the attack.
This focus of energy away from long-term to immediate survival becomes harmful if occurring over an extended period. When anger is prolonged, problems are likely to arise in our personal and business relationships, sleep can be interrupted, our immune system weakened, there can be an increased risk of heart and digestive problems.
One can become addicted to anger as see it as the only response to frustrations and set- backs.
Our sensitivity to the cues that cause us to lose our tempers, even in situations where no genuine threat is present, can be increased in a number of ways.
After an especially traumatic event, or events, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop which causes a hypersensitivity to anything, a person’s appearance, manner or even their tone of voice that reminds one of the experiences.
An adult bullied or abused as a child, for example, may react with rage and panic to anything that recalls the initial verbal or physically abuse. They may feel trapped and helpless, instinctively ‘seeing red’ and exploding with rage. This is a defence mechanism designed to protect against the fear or panic experienced in childhood.
Sometimes it is a strategy learned when growing up. Experience has taught them getting angry is the most effective, often the only, way to manage conflict.
Anger may also arise when people perceive threats, that aren’t really threats at all. For example becoming angry when waiting in a queue because unconsciously they feel ‘stuck’ or trapped and want to get out. Another trigger for rage may arise from feelings of being ignored or not being listened to. It is their way of fighting to escape from the ‘unheard’ box.
This can be as slight as a person’s appearance, manner or even their tone of voice.
Through various skills and techniques like learning to relax, breathing techniques and communication skills, and an understanding of anger and its place within human experience, you can learn to address the cause of the anger and begin to re-programme your neurology so that you respond more appropriately in situations.
A powerfully effective way to manage anger is to focus on your breathing.
Inhale deeply for a slow count to 7 then exhale counting to 11. Repeat three times. This stimulates the relaxation response that helps dissolve away your anger. The more you practice the calmer you will become.
Use the calming breath the moment you notice the first signs that you are beginning to lose your temper.
It is also helpful mentally to go through past situations in which you have become angry and mentally rehearse remaining calm in those situations using 7-11 breathing.
On one occasion a teenager I was working with in a residential setting stood nose-to-nose with me shouting and swearing and telling me very unpleasantly what he thought of me.
My response was to use 7-11 breathing to remain calm while thanking him for being so open and honest with me, to respect his opinions, ask what I do or say differently in future.
It was not until the following day, long after he had calmed down, that we sat and talked about the way he had spoken to me. Whether he now thought it had been an appropriate way of communicating. Whether he believed he had expressed his feelings, frustrations and annoyances effectively and, if not, what he could do differently on future occasions when he wanted to let someone know annoyed he was with them and the extent to which he disliked them. My reason for leaving it until the next day was to ensure all the physiological effects of his anger had worn off. Trying to talk to an angry individual soon after their anger has passed risks setting them off again as they are still physiologically arouses even if, psychologically, they believe they have calmed down. It was also important for me, and for you in a similar situation, to act as the responsible person and not instantly ‘jump in’ with criticisms, punishments or other attempts to lay down the law.