How to control anger (before it kills you)
New research links angry outbursts to significantly greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. These 12 temper-taming tips might just save your life.
Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 08:47 AM
Do you get angry a lot? Do you often feel like an enraged cartoon character with steam pumping out of your ears? You’re not alone. Everyone gets angry; it’s a normal human emotion borne as a natural response to threats. But anger is a sneaky thing and has a way of taking on a life of its own. When it gets out of control, it can not only hurt the people around you, but it can actually lead to a significant increase in health risks.
Recent research from Harvard found that in the two hours following an angry outburst, a person's risk for a heart attack shot up nearly five times and their risk of stroke was increased more than three times. Risk for arrhythmia was also increased. Researchers say that there are several mechanisms that link extreme emotion to cardiovascular catastrophe; psychological stress increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and vascular resistance. “Changes in blood flow can cause blood clots and may stimulate inflammatory responses,” notes the Harvard study.
So what to do? Get a handle on it, calm down, take a chill pill, loosen up, get over it, just relax. If only it were that easy — and we know it's not. Yet there are tools and tips to help you tame the peevish beast. So next time your feel your blood starting to boil, consider trying some of the following.
1. Know the danger
It’s hard to deny it, sometimes getting really riled just feels good … in a bad way, maybe, but still. So keeping in mind the deleterious effects that fury can incite may be one of the best tools at your disposal. Just remember, no matter how angry you may feel, the risk of heart attack or stroke is increased with each outburst you let get out of hand. Anger may feel good, but an untimely death? Not so much.
2. Identify the triggers
Many people are surprised when they first recognize consistent patterns in the things which push their buttons. If you know that, for instance, you get extra vexed when you’re tired, then you can try to avoid potentially volatile situations in the evening. Although keeping an anger journal may sound like a pastime for pessimists, it can help you identify the triggers; once you better understand the triggers, you can strategize ways to either avoid them or to work around them.
3. Take a time out
Once anger gets a hold, it has the knack for spiraling into something altogether more monstrous than what it started out as. At the first flutter of frustration, step away from the situation and slowly count to 10 … or better yet, 100. Slowing down can help defuse the anger and can give you the edge you need to control it.
4. Breathe deeply
Don’t forget to breathe! Deep breathing – also known as diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing – is the practice of breathing deeply and powerfully, you know you’re breathing deeply when your lower belly rises upon inhalation. The Harvard Medical School calls deep breathing one of the body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms, saying that, “deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.” Take that, anger.
5. Find a mantra
In the same vein as counting to 10, finding a good word or phrase to repeat is also a good tactic to tackle the temper. Take a few of them out for a test drive; you’ll know the right mantra when you find it. Some people go with a simple, “relax,” while others may prefer a yoga chant, a silly word, or an affirming phrase like, “this too shall pass.”
6. Employ your imagination
Another relaxation technique is to visualize a soothing experience, and go to that “place” as soon as something starts rubbing you the wrong way. Either an experience you’ve had (like feeling the wind and sun on your face during a sail) or one plucked from your imagination (like being on the back of a horse being ridden by a bare-chested Fabio, or anything that speaks to you personally!) will work. Just close your eyes, go there, revel for a bit, and hopefully return a bit calmer.
7. Write, type, scribble, scratch
One very effective approach is to get out a pen, your laptop, your phone, a crayon … whatever you can find and start writing. Let it rip, write down everything you’re thinking and feeling. Writing in a rage works wonders to diffuse the feelings and if there’s another person involved, they are spared the fury as hurtful things can remain on the paper rather than hurled in anger, which only makes things spiral more out of control. And while having a written record of painful feelings can be daunting to some, it can serve as a helpful tool to help later distinguish between out-of-control emotions and the real issues.
8. Try humor
There’s an old trope used to ease the nerves of jittery public speakers: imagine the audience in their underwear. While it may or may not work for those heading to the podium, a similar approach can be used when tempers are starting to flare. Call it a distraction technique, but sometimes thinking a funny thought can be just enough to derail the anger train. Imagine the person making you mad in their underwear. Or if you’re thinking, “ugh, what a jerk,” then imagine them jerking around like a marionette in the hands of a demented puppet master. Imagine them dressed up like a clown, or like a giant baby; anything that can nudge you out of anger and into humor just for even a minute can help diffuse the situation.
9. Get moving
While stopping in the middle of an argument to lace up your running shoes and go for a jog might not be the most practical advice, logistics-wise, getting out for a little exercise can knock anger on its head. At the very least, as soon as you notice your temper rising, try to escape and take a brisk walk. It will give you time to cool down, and plus, physical activity stimulates the body to make chemicals that make you feel happier and more relaxed.
10. Leave your ego out of it
One helpful approach when it comes to anger is to remember to leave your pesky ego at home. When a situation goes from being all about you to actually being all about the problem at hand, it is much easier to see things clearly. Maybe it’s a work situation or an ex-spouse situation and you feel like you’re being treated unfairly. Maybe you are, but if you can focus not on yourself but on what’s best for your job or best for your family, it becomes much less personal and consequently, much easier to be calm about.
11. Express yourself
Yes, we want you to talk about your feelings. While this isn’t easy for everyone, turning your rage into a constructive conversation – rather than yelling and throwing things – is the healthiest way to express anger. The American Psychological Association notes that, “expressing your angry feelings in an assertive – not aggressive – manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.”
12. Don’t do things that make you mad
This is from the “Obviously” file, we know. But seriously, sometimes we forget to take control of our lives by simply making the choice to avoid the things that rankle us. Does traffic make you crazy? Find a different route, carpool, listen to audiobooks, take the bus. Does looking into your kid’s messy room make you ballistic? Yes, you want them to clean up, but sometimes it’s just better to close the door. At some point we have to learn that we can’t control everything, and sometimes we just have to change our patterns to avoid the things that make us nuts. Because in the end, avoiding a stroke is far more important than a tidy room.
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