Do you know what the worst feeling in the world is?
For me, it’s regret. The regret of knowing that I screamed and shouted at my loved ones. AGAIN.
I yelled. I was mean. I tried to prove someone wrong. I wanted my words to cause pain.
Anger is a nasty business.
But I’m not alone in this. From our earliest philosophers to neuroscientists today, people have been studying anger for centuries.
Why do we completely lose control? Where does this emotion come from? What are the best anger management techniques?
In this post, I’ll be revealing it all.
Anger Messes With Your Brain
The story of anger starts with your brain.
Fun fact: your brain is made up of many different parts. Each part is highly specialized and does different things. This Big Think video explains it well, in case you are interested.
The part of your brain that gets activated when you’re angry is the amygdala. It’s an ancient part of the human brain. (In fact, we have it in common with animals.)
The role of the amygdala is straightforward: it helps you deal with emergencies. It’s basically an alarm bell that screams “DANGER!”
Luckily, another part of your brain helps keep you sane—the cortex. It’s the moral and rational part of your brain. It’s what makes us human.
However, when you’re angry, the amygdala can take complete control of your behaviour. (This is literally called “amygdala hijacking.”) The result is that you freak out, leaving the people around you stunned.
By the time your rational brain (the cortex) gets back in action, the damage is done. And you are left thinking, “What did I just do?”
Put simply: When we’re angry, our brains are wired to act first and think later.
This is a big problem.
Yet there is a solution to this tricky situation. We can use our anger to empower us, instead of destroying our relationships and friendships.
Anger is a Signal
There is only one empowering way to look at anger—it’s a signal that tells you something is wrong with your life.
It doesn’t tell you what is wrong or how to fix it. It just tells you that something needs your attention.
Perhaps the other person did something wrong and you found their behaviour unacceptable. Maybe you need a heart-to-heart conversation with a loved one who is acting unfairly.
Or perhaps there is something wrong with how you are interacting with the world. Maybe you are, unintentionally, causing the angry situation yourself.
The point is, there is something underneath your anger. And you need to fix THAT. Letting anger control your behaviour will not solve your problem.
Unless you fix the underlying issue today, it will continue to make you angry tomorrow. On the other hand, dealing directly with the issue will empower you and your relationships.
How You Make Yourself Angry
Just like everyone else, I dream of a perfect and frictionless world.
But that world may never come. The reality is that people are sometimes impatient and a bit rude. Our loved ones have their flaws. And even kind people make mistakes now and then.
In our imperfect world, we can choose to spend our lives trying to fix everyone around us. I feel that is a hopelessly impossible task.
Because there is only one person we CAN change—ourselves. Personal development is possible. It’s also deeply fulfilling.
So here’s the question I ask myself: am I contributing to my anger in any way?
Here are a few things to think about.
“If he really cared, then he would know what I need.”
That’s not always true.
While your needs may be blindingly obvious to you, your partner may think and see the world a bit differently.
Emotional needs can be unique and complex. Not stating your needs is like playing an emotional guessing game with your loved ones.
This can lead to tragic results: we spend our time arguing about all the things we don’t like and the frustrating qualities of our partners.
To be sure, talking openly about our needs is tough. Our natural response is to avoid such conversations because they make us feel vulnerable.
But the results will be worth it—a deep sense of understanding and trust.
A trigger is a sensitive issue that will immediately make you furious. It’s also called a hot button.
Our triggers come from insecurity about values that are close to our heart. Here are some examples: approval, jealousy, respect, safety and pride.
Want to know my hot button? It’s independence. I freak out the moment anyone tells me what to do (”I hate being ordered around!”).
It’s perfectly normal to have triggers—everybody has them. Yet when we’re triggered, we end up making a big deal out of nothing.
Fortunately, dealing with our triggers is pretty easy. All you need to do is just be AWARE of them. This simple awareness will stop you from freaking out the next time it comes up.
So, what are your hot buttons?
I got to know about storytelling from Crucial Conversations. It made a surprising claim: what other people do doesn’t make us angry.
At least, not directly.
After someone does something and before we feel angry—we tell ourselves a story. By telling a story, we add judgement (Is it good or bad?) and a motive (Why did he do that?) to their behaviour.
We feel emotions based on the story we just made up. The facts, by themselves, don’t make us emotional.
When someone doesn’t pick up my call, I begin to tell myself, “She’s started avoiding me. I guess she thinks I’m boring. She probably doesn’t care much about me…”
That’s my story. But the facts are simply—I called. She didn’t pick up.
We often confuse the stories in our heads for the truth. But they are only stories. Even for a routine incident, like a missed phone call, you can choose to tell many different types of stories.
As you can imagine, an out of control story is very dangerous. Because our stories control our emotions. Our emotions, in turn, control our behaviour.
So what can we do about it?
Learn to separate fact from story. Anything that someone actually said or did is a fact. The rest is storytelling.
Out of Control Stress
When we are under a lot of pressure, it’s easy to get angry.
Sadly, stress is now an unavoidable part of our daily lives. Everywhere we look there are deadlines, targets, expenses and problems.
The modern world is dynamic and full of surprises. As new opportunities and threats keep cropping up—we are left in a blind panic to catch up.
Such unresolved stress can make you a ticking time bomb for your family. The solution is to make stress management a part of your life.
It’s time (finally!) to discuss what to do when you find yourself in the middle of an angry outburst.
Although we’ve discussed many steps to bring harmony to our relationships, you will still get angry now and then. It doesn’t matter how many hours you meditate in a day—you can’t completely eliminate anger. It’s a part of life.
The first step of anger management is simply to calm down.
When you’re angry, your mind and body are ready to fight. If you don’t calm down soon, you’ll end up doing some serious damage.
Here are some ways to cool off:
- My favourite is to take a few deep breaths.
- A good question can distract and calm your mind. (“What do I want from this conversation?”)
- Repeat a calming word or phrase to yourself, such as “Relax” or “Take it easy”.
- Slowly count to 10.
- Take a timeout, and sit away from others.
- Distract yourself by going for a walk, taking a shower, writing, or drawing.
The second step of anger management is to fix the underlying issue.
There is no packaged formula here. It all depends on your situation and why you are angry.
Is it a trivial argument with a random stranger? I am embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve screamed at delivery agents and Uber drivers. Don’t make the same mistakes.
Silence is any form of the silent-treatment, sarcasm, or subtle insults. It can also include looks of disgust and not delivering on your promises.
Violence includes verbal attacks, biased monologues, name-calling, cutting others off, overstating your facts, and speaking in absolutes.
Finally, keep in mind that sharing honest feedback doesn’t require you to destroy your precious relationships. It’s possible to speak openly and to be respectful.
Over to You
Life has its ups and downs.
Even so, you’ve just taken a step to make it a bit more beautiful and loving—congratulations!
It’s alright if you lose your temper sometimes. We don’t need perfection. Just be happy that you are improving and so are your relationships.
If you like these ideas and want to learn more, check out Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger.
Welcome to your new life…