“Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools.” — Albert Einstein
Everyone knows what it’s like to feel angry. Our heart beats faster. Our chest tightens. We become fixated on the person or thing that caused our anger, and we start thinking about how we can get even.
Anger is a natural human reaction to situations that we dislike, but it isn’t a very effective one. If we take a moment to think about the consequences of anger, we’ll realize that it rarely solves whatever problem provoked it. If we become angry about another person’s behavior, it probably won’t result in them changing that behavior. If we become angry about an unfavorable event that befalls us, our anger will do nothing to reverse what has happened.
What’s worse is that anger inhibits our ability to respond to the situation intelligently. Psychological studies have shown that people process information less thoroughly and judge others more harshly when they are angry. This can cause us to behave in ways that only perpetuate anger instead of addressing its cause.
In short, being angry makes us dumb. Fortunately, it’s possible to live without anger if we train our brains to respond to anger-inducing situations differently.
The Function of Anger, Then and Now
In his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson suggests that anger is closely related to our instinctual “fight or flight” response. Anger is marked by physiological activity that prepares our body to fight off an aggressor, such as the release of adrenaline in our brain and increased blood flow to our muscles.
For our earliest ancestors, Dr. Johnson argues, anger was a useful emotion. It helped them confront or kill animals or other humans who posed a threat to their life. Anger’s natural intensification of “us vs. them” thinking also might have been useful for protecting the tribe during conflict, thereby increasing the individual’s chances of long-term survival.
However, the survival benefits of anger have been rendered mostly obsolete by modern civilization. Physical assault and murder are not acceptable in our society, nor are they necessary for day-to-day survival. To solve interpersonal disputes today, we must use logic, reason and understanding—which is much harder to do when we feel angry.
So, how can we become better at relying on these higher-level problem solving skills? By changing our thought patterns to weaken anger’s control over us.
Rewiring Our Brains for Calm
According to Dr. Johnson, anger is caused not only by what happens to us, but also by how we habitually think about these things. For example, if a stranger on the street makes a rude comment toward you, you can view it in one of two ways: as a personal attack on your character or as an outburst that reflects more on the speaker than on you. If you think about the situation in the first way, you are much more likely to become angered by it.
Fortunately, it’s possible to change our way of thinking so we’re less easily angered. The first step is to desensitize ourselves to our environmental “triggers.” Make a list of every situation you can think of that typically makes you angry, and then imagine these situations in your mind. As you picture each one, concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your body. With practice, you’ll become much better at controlling your emotions and staying calm when confronted with these anger-inducing situations.
Once we’re desensitized to our anger triggers, we can work on reframing our thoughts about them. If we take some time to think about why we become angry, we’ll discover that it’s usually because we assume the worst intentions. Work on questioning these assumptions. Consider if there could be a positive intention behind the behavior, if there are compensating factors that make it more understandable, or if there might be a hidden benefit that comes out of the situation. In the above scenario, for example, you might consider that the rude person could simply be having a bad day. Alternatively, you might decide that their actions provide you with a good opportunity to practice compassion.
If we work on changing the way we think about situations that anger us, we’ll find in time that anger no longer controls us. This is the best way to help ourselves make smart, effective decisions in anger-inducing situations—instead of ineffective and dumb ones!
For more tips and information about dealing with life’s stressful situations, give these posts a read!