A careless driver cuts you off on the interstate. The cable company keeps you on hold for more than an hour and then disconnects the call. A co-worker takes credit for your idea in front of the boss.
All sorts of occurrences can spark anger — and why not? It’s a perfectly normal emotion: at its core, simply a biological “fight-or-flight” response to a threat. Anger bolstered us to fight to protect ourselves, back when humans often had to face dangerous matters of life and death. It’s not quite as useful when the “threat” is someone who spilled a drink on you or jumped ahead of you in line, but often it pops up at those moments.
When something triggers you to anger, rationality goes out the window and the body reacts right along with the brain. The breath quickens, the heart pumps faster, the muscles tense up. Regular red-faced outbursts don’t just make you unpleasant to be around, they have been shown to have health consequences, including contributing to or worsening:
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
Fortunately, when the seething, fuming, heart-pounding feeling comes bubbling to the surface, there are ways to turn down the heat and give your body a break.
Numerous studies show that meditation and mindfulness can help people deal with their anger. When practiced daily, these techniques shrink the amygdala, the “fight-or-flight” part of the brain that reacts to perceived danger. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, which gets engaged in problem-solving, awareness and focus, grows thicker. The part of the brain used for reasoning is now stronger than the part used to respond with anger. That allows practitioners to shrug off common irritations because they physically feel less stressed by them.
“With mindfulness meditation we investigate and explore the difference between knowing you are experiencing anger and being hijacked by the anger,” says Claudio Barrientos, owner and instructor at The Mindful Center Knoxville. “We want to shift from an automatic reaction to a wiser response.”
You can’t eliminate anger from your life, so you need to have a way to handle it when you feel overcome to the point of rage. Mindful meditation is a process that requires dedication, but some of the techniques used can be adopted right away by almost anyone.
The moment you feel irritation building you can take three steps:
Taking a moment will immediately create a space in your mind between the emotion of anger and the incident that’s causing the reaction.
2. Be aware
Anger causes a physiological reaction, so notice your breathing, the feeling in your chest, your posture, the set of your jaw, and
Think about what is making you get angry and examine it with a sense of curiosity.
It won’t always be easy while learning mindfulness to take each of these steps, and in those cases distracting your thoughts is an effective and practical solution.
“Sometimes it is okay to go for a walk,” says Barrientos. “Go out and exercise. That can provide a temporary relief. But by learning mindfulness you can become more resilient in the face of stress.
“Anger, like all emotions, does not last. Once you bring awareness to the process, the anger dissipates, at least for a moment, and that can be the difference between lashing out or not. Awareness is the magic sauce.”
To learn more about how to practice mindful meditation, read our beginner’s guide.