Anna Settle: Get a Handle on Angry Thoughts (article featured in The Tennessean)
When I mention the term “anger management,” it never fails that people assume that I am talking about “taking deep breaths” and “counting to 10.” Or, perhaps you have been offered the advice that, when you are angry, you should simply “walk away.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m so frustrated about something that I can barely stay focused on the task at hand, I have rarely found myself counting or fleeing the situation. Walking away from conflict does actually work in many cases if, when appropriate, you are willing to reconvene and work through the problem once both parties are calm. Sure, counting or walking away allows you to think before reacting, and deep breathing facilitates a decrease in heart rate and autonomic response. But, are there ways in which we can proactively prevent our anger from escalating to a level that impedes our ability to resolve the conflict?
People often forget that feeling anger is part of being human. And, in many instances, anger is a normal, healthy response to a frustrating situation. Perhaps we should no longer tell ourselves to stop being angry and focus more on preventative strategies that reduce the likelihood of healthy anger manifesting as irrationality and/or rage. Here are a few basic tips that are likely to facilitate the prevention of unhealthy anger and reduce harmful responses to angry thoughts and feelings:
Practice good sleep hygiene: Go to bed at a consistent time each night. Have a “no screens” policy for at least 1 hour before going to bed. Artificial lights activate our brains and trick them into thinking that it is daytime rather than a time to rest and recharge. Adequate, uninterrupted, restful sleep is needed in order for our bodies and minds to function healthily. If we don’t get adequate sleep, our tendency to feel impatient and become angrier more quickly significantly increases.
Stop being so “busy”: Soccer practice, work meetings, dinner with friends, volunteer work, and so on… Our society has placed so much emphasis on being overcommitted and under rested. Piling on the commitments in an effort to be “successful” merely results in you spreading yourself so thin that you are engaging in numerous tasks, but doing so with mediocrity. It is impossible to give your best effort, or even an average one, when you are engaged in a countless number of daily, or even weekly, activities. Paring down your number of obligations enables you to focus more energy on any one given task, also leaving you time to rest and relax. This is imperative because, when we deprive ourselves of downtime and relaxation, our patience wears thin and angry thoughts are much more readily triggered.
Exercise regularly. Exercise leads to an upsurge of serotonin in our brains, increases our energy level, improves our sleep, and contributes to optimal emotional and physical health. These things concoct the perfect recipe for coping with anger effectively and rationally. However, when physical activity is neglected, we are left feeling more tired, have less self-confidence, and, therefore, are more vulnerable to the angry thoughts that enter into our consciousness.
Practice daily deep breathing and mindfulness. This is different from just employing deep breathing in a stressful situation. Practice regularly, learn to control your breathing, and also allow yourself a reprieve from all of the judgments and criticisms that frequently run through your mind. You don’t have to chant mantras or be an expert in yoga to engage in simple mindfulness techniques that are scientifically proven to promote empathy, reduce anxiety, and increase psychological well-being.
Overall, remember that anger, in and of itself, is not unhealthy. It is what we do in response to our anger that is either constructive or damaging. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the tendency to become over angered by minor irritants. And, in those cases where the situation is extreme and an angry response is warranted, perhaps these preventative techniques will facilitate a healthy response to an otherwise frustrating situation.