Anger is a powerful emotion that everyone experiences. Some people only get angry a few times a week and others experience this emotion every day. Anger can vary in intensity from mild annoyance to irritation to raging out of control and arises when we perceive a threat to ourselves, people we care about, our values, identity, or property. We can be aware of feeling angry in the moment, and also unaware that this emotion is driving our behaviour. For instance, we can act in a passive-aggressive way without being fully aware that our behaviour is driven by anger.
Like other emotions, anger tells us that something needs attention, drives us to act, and communicates how we feel to others. Often seen as negative, anger is the most powerful of all emotions in positively motivating us to act, whether this is righting an injustice, standing up for ourselves, or pursuing our goals.
When anger gets too intense, or out of control, it impedes decision-making, challenges relationships, and is physically unhealthy. People who regularly experience high levels of anger are more prone to the symptoms of stress, insomnia, high blood pressure and have a greater risk of stroke and heart disease.
Throughout human evolution, anger has served us as a motivating emotion of the fight-or-flight response when faced with a threat. So, when a dangerous animal appeared our body was quickly primed for action. The trouble is that evolution has not kept pace with changes in human lifestyle, so the threat response can be triggered even when it’s not necessary. For example, when we’re stuck in a traffic jam.
Like other emotions, anger involves thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. For example, imagine that you booked an important hour-long meeting and also sent an email reminder to a colleague the day before. Now fifteen minutes have gone, and he’s still not turned up. You messaged him, but there is no reply. “Where was he? He couldn’t have forgotten, as I sent the reminder. How could he be so inconsiderate and let you down like this?” You’re frowning, feeling annoyed and your body is tense and warm. You think, “This is not acceptable. I’m really going to have a go at him for wasting my time like this. Who does he think he is?” In this example, you’ve entertained negative thoughts, felt anger, experienced the physical symptoms of stress, and changed your opinion about a work colleague. What if you later discovered that your colleague had dropped everything and rushed to the hospital as his daughter had a serious accident that morning?
So how can mindfulness help us work more skilfully with anger?
Ways of working mindfully with anger include:
- Noticing anger as it arises. The quicker you notice, the easier it is to manage.
Being aware of changing physical sensations like some increased tension, warmth, or changes in facial expression, like frowning.
- Noticing angry thoughts running through your head, which are often about who’s to blame.
- Trying not to personalise the anger. For example, not saying to yourself, “I’m getting really irritated by this person”.
- Instead, acknowledging the anger in a non-personal way and referring to the feeling in your body by saying internally, “There’s some frustration” or, “There’s irritation arising”, for example.
- Being kind, compassionate, and open with yourself and other people involved if you can.
- Validating whether the anger and intensity you’re experiencing is appropriate. For instance, feeling a little bit annoyed about a colleague not turning up for an important meeting is understandable.
- Accepting the situation as it is. Maybe reframing the situation “as if you have chosen it” and, for instance, using the spare time not spent in the meeting as an opportunity to catch up on those important emails.
- Bringing your attention and awareness to your body; connected and grounded in the present moment.
- Taking some long, deep breaths and release any physical tension that has built up, as you allow the feeling of anger to take its natural course and release in its own time.
- Then beyond the angry event, watch out for angry thoughts about the situation that, if entertained, will keep the anger going longer than necessary. This could be the same day, the same week, month, or years after the event.
Here are three useful quotes on anger:
- “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
- “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Mark Twain.
- “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”. Aristotle.
Anger is a powerful emotion that can be positive and useful, as well as negative and destructive. By learning to work more skilfully with anger we can improve our relationships and lead a healthier, happier, and more productive life.
Suggested weekly practice
- Noticing when anger arises and seeing whether or not it serves you or others. Are you simply reacting, or is it the most skilful and appropriate response in the situation?
- Becoming aware of what parts of your body tighten up when you are angry. This could be around your face, jaw, forehead, neck, shoulders, or belly. Notice what happens in your body when anger arises.
- Using curiosity to notice a tendency to hold onto anger for a long time after the triggering event. Was this useful? How did you manage to keep the anger energised? What thoughts were around and were they unresolved and repetitive?
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore working with anger.