Taming your anger can have important benefits to your health
The goal: an easy system, based in sound psychology, to employ in moments of annoyance
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
Do you get easily annoyed? At times, does that emotion quickly escalate to anger? You are not alone.
You shouldn’t live with it, though.
Beyond improvements to your general mood and happiness, taming your anger can have important benefits to your health. Constant stress and aggravation is linked to a range of issues including overeating, insomnia and depression, and angry outbursts increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Despite how common it is for us humans to become annoyed and angry – from road rage to air rage and work frustrations to parenting – there are few easy solutions. Maybe we’ve just accepted outsize irritation as a part of life, or maybe simple answers are antithetical to a problem that can be ingrained.
Easily getting bent out of shape, even angry, is my problem, too. It was happening more than I wanted and was cumulatively stressing me out, which is why, a couple of years ago, I set a goal to come up with an easy system, based on sound psychology, that I could employ in moments of annoyance.
Anger “is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control,” the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. I aimed to teach myself how to rob it of oxygen and snuff it out.
“We all have a ‘fight or flight’ trigger,” explained Dr. Mark Crawford, a clinical psychologist. “It is adaptive. Some of us have a more sensitive one than others. However, the good news is that we can almost ‘reprogram’ this by techniques like breathing and particularly mindfulness meditation.”
For me, that reprogamming was best achieved by gaining perspective.
Below are the 10 simple steps I use to give perspective to, and gain distance from, unbridled irritation and anger. Employing them has significantly reduced the number of instances in which I get irritated, or at least has shortened their duration.
It’s important to note that these are progressive steps. I rarely need to escalate through all 10.
Many smaller annoyances (someone cutting in line, traffic jam, kids not listening) can be tackled with just the first step. Others (unfair parking ticket, public rudeness) may send you halfway up the steps. And bigger situations (a blow-up with a family member, being denied a promotion at work) may require the collective effort of them all before it is defused.
You may also find it more effective to change the order, or a step itself.
Step one: 10 breaths
At the first moment you realize you are experiencing annoyance or anger, just breathe. Ten slow, deep, even breaths do wonders. Sometimes, the annoyance will have passed in just that time.
Even if it hasn’t, the breaths still help. Diaphragmatic or abdominal (as opposed to shallow) breaths, in which you breathe from deeper inside your belly and fill your lungs, deliver more oxygen to your body, which stabilizes blood pressure and helps invoke your body’s relaxation response.
It may help to add a mantra (“I have the patience of the Buddha” is one I like to use when the kids’ bedtime-delaying tactics are keeping me from relaxing on the couch) or a calming image to hold in your mind. I sometimes accompany my 10 breaths with a memory of a surfer I once watched paddling into the sunset of the Pacific Ocean. He is often capable of pulling my annoyance out to sea with him.
Step two: Explain it to yourself
If the breaths don’t make a dent, try explaining what’s happening to yourself. “I’m annoyed right now because …” is a good sentence to finish. Articulating the issue changes your response from emotion to logic.
The explanation itself may be all you need, either because it creates an even longer mental break from the situation than just breathing or because when you say it to yourself, it makes more sense. It may even sound petty or even funny.
Step three: Walk a meter in their shoes
Make use of this step when another person is part of the reason you are upset. Tr