Note: This is a reprint of a response I made to a question that was directed to me by a reader on the website Quora.com.
In my response, I ..
- noted that the issue for this reader is “maintaining” calm and that was a good start
- reviewed what anger, as an emotion, is and its message
- provided two strategies for staying calm and how to implement them
- stressed the need to practice these strategies at home using your mind before they are needed and described how to “do” this practice.
You say that you want to stay calm before you burst.
This tells me that you are already controlling your anger so that you do not go off the deep end. That you can do this is a good thing and it protects you.
Before I go further, let me say that it may be in your best interest to just leave the situation, calm down, and come back to it later.
That being said, there may be situations in which you need to take action. For these interactions, what you want to learn is how to manage your anger so that it works for you and you can use the energy it gives you to correct a negative situation.
While you do not discuss the situation in which you experience your anger, I will assume that there is a real threat to you that you are reacting to that needs your attention.
Let me give you some background information so you understand what anger is and what happens to you when get angry. I will then give you some suggestions you can use to help you manage your anger so that you can do what you need to and deal with the situation.
Anger is one of the 5 basic emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust) that humans have had since time began. The job of anger is to prepare us to fight off threats that will harm us if not dealt with. When we were living in caves, these threats were always real and usually were life threatening. When angry, adrenalin is released into the body and prepares us for battle by giving us the energy we need to overpower our adversary
Fast forward to the 21st century.
Today, anger acts on you the same way that it did for Mr. Caveman.
Your anger tells you that you perceive a threat to you. Today, unlike for our ancestors, most threats are not survival based. They are threats to our ego, our sense of right and wrong, our values and so forth.
The bursting sensation you experience suggests you are over-energized. You recognize the presence of a threat and you have an idea about how to deal with the situation but are overwhelmed by your own and, possibly, the other person’s display of emotion.
With the above in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do.
The suggestions I will be making sound simple to do and they are.
However, they will not be easy to do in the situation when you are angry. This is the mistake that many writers make.
The writer offers a strategy. The reader tries to implement the strategy. Nothing changes. The reader feels more frustrated.
There are two strategies which will work in your situation.
The first is to take a deep breath as soon as you become aware of your anger (not when you are at the bursting point).
There are two reasons for taking a deep breath.
The first is that the deep breath relaxes you physically and lowers your arousal (level of energy). If you need to take several deep breaths, that is okay.
Remember, I noted above that you tend to get over-energized in angry situations. The deep breath helps to counter this,
The second reason is that the breath gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts. Your thoughts (perceptions) are what create the anger in the first place.
The next thing you need to do is attempt to asses the nature of the threat. If you know what you want to say or do in your situation, you have already begun to do this. This helps you with your anger.
You can also take a moment to assess the nature of the threat the other person may see in the situation.
There are two reasons for assessing the nature of the perceived threat (both yours and theirs).
1) When you think about the threat, you give yourself a few moments to “calm down” a bit further and plan your response.
Note: You are not becoming less angry. You are simply letting some of the energy go so you can take effective action.
As an analogy, when you are in your car, you slow down just enough to get around the curve. Too much speed, you get in an accident. You don’t stop the car, you just drop the level of energy (speed, in this case) to remain effective.
2) Thinking about your adversary’s perception of threat gives you an advantage in that it helps you manage your own anger by giving you some awareness of where their anger is coming from so you don’t take it personally and helps you deal with him or her.
If you can’t figure out what their threat is, this is okay. You can still manage your own anger.
It is possible that you may be overreacting to your situation and you may decide that there is no real threat. In this case, just let go of your anger.
If you decide that the threat is real, you can use all of your energy to effectively deal with it.
As I said above, it is easier for me to make these suggestions then it is for you to implement them when you are angry and over-energized. But you can learn to implement them!
With this in mind, I suggest that you “practice” these strategies.
Here is how…
In the comfort of your own home,
A. review the strategy in your mind ==>
1. As soon as I become aware of my anger, I will stop and take a deep breath. If I need to, I’ll take two deep breaths.
2. Once my thoughts are more clear, I will think about the nature of the threat I perceive. If I can, I’ll try to get a fix on his or her perceived threat.
3. As my thoughts continue to clear and my energy level drops just enough, I’ll engage him or her in conversation.
B. Next, think about the last time you got angry and almost burst==>
1. Let’s say this is point B in the interaction.
2. Try to think back to point A when you first became aware of the anger.
3. Imagine yourself taking a deep breath and successfully implementing the strategy.
4. Do this several times.
C. You can also practice taking a deep breath with other feelings such as stress, anxiety and so forth.
The purpose is to give you a sense that you can do this (YOU CAN) so when you find yourself in the next angry encounter, you are more prepared to take effective action.
I hope the above 1. answers your question and 2. gives you some strategies you can use today. if you need to follow-up, note it in your comments.