MINDFULLY MANAGING ANGER

Anger can be a healthy emotional response or a serious health risk.  Managing anger appropriately does not require that we deny it, repress it or get completely rid of it. Brief, mild-to-moderate episodes of anger and righteous indignation can be a useful stimulus to positive and constructive action on both the personal and societal levels. However, severe, repeated or uncontrolled anger can lead to serious harm to oneself or others.  The body’s stress (“fight or flight”) response is triggered by anger.

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MINDFULLY MANAGING ANGER

Anger can be a healthy emotional response or a serious health risk.


Managing anger appropriately does not require that we deny it, repress it or get completely rid of it. Brief, mild-to-moderate episodes of anger and righteous indignation can be a useful stimulus to positive and constructive action on both the personal and societal levels. However, severe, repeated or uncontrolled anger can lead to serious harm to oneself or others.


The body’s stress (“fight or flight”) response is triggered by anger. It was an important evolutionary development in our primate/human past. It permitted our ancestors to successfully flee or fight off an attacker. To prepare the body to defend itself or escape a threat, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol impact every organ system in the body, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension, body temperature, perspiration and overall metabolic rate. These changes can be helpful and even life saving in an emergency but lethal if sustained or repeatedly experienced in daily interactions at home and work or angrily being with ourselves. They can contribute to the development of hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, mood disorders and a host of other medical conditions.


Some people are inclined toward anger by having witnessed it in their family. Ayurvedic medicine explains people with a

predominance of pitta dosha are predisposed to anger constitutionally. Anger can also be the superficial expression of underlying emotions such as fear and hurt, which may be more difficult to express. Whatever the origin of anger, there are signs that suggest you may need help to constructively manage it. These signs include frequent or intense feelings of anger, cynicism, irritability, impatience, hostility, aggression, road rage, conflict and arguments at home or work, thoughts of violence, actual violence, hateful speech, tantrums, throwing things and destroying property.


Anger management skills can be learned from print or online media, group classes or individual work with behavioral health professionals. Classes can be specific to anger management or take a more general approach to emotional awareness, overall self-awareness and mindfulness.


Mindfully managing anger includes non-judgmentally becoming aware of all emotions – happiness and joy, sadness and grief, fear and courage, depression and anxiety – as well as anger. Developing self-awareness of the wide spectrum of your emotional life makes it easier to feel and communicate underlying

emotions that may be at the root of anger. This alone may diminish anger significantly. Journaling about emotions each day helps you develop the capacity to notice the triggers and other emotions that precede episodes of anger. This helps you recognize that people, events and circumstances are probably not the cause of your anger and that you have options in emotionally responding. Other people are not necessarily wrong or bad and may actually be your best allies in healing your anger.


Keeping a journal of pleasant and unpleasant events can be very enlightening. Write down each day a memorable pleasant event and an unpleasant one. Write down what caused you to label one event pleasant and another one unpleasant. Write down what sensations were present in the physical body at the time of the events. Write down what thoughts were present. Write down what feelings and emotions were present. This kind of journaling can lead to remarkable changes in emotional awareness. You may notice that your opinions, assumptions, biases and prejudices are wrong or outdated and need to be altered. Such journaling can be the basis for conversations with important people in your life. Mindful movement such as yoga, tai chi and qigong can enhance this journaling process by putting you in touch with your moment-to-moment experience of physical sensations, thoughts and emotions. This can gradually lead to greater equanimity and acceptance of life just as it is.


Living more closely aware of each moment permits you to choose how to respond to yourself and others and to life events. You can learn to feel emotions without necessarily reacting to them. You can learn to accept and allow uncomfortable emotions. You can even learn to follow the advice of mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches us to embrace and take good care of our anger and remember our capacity for love and peace is also present within us. He reminds us that our anger is part of us. It is like our screaming, crying baby and needs our protection. He advises us to hold our anger and all emotions close and care for them as we would a newborn baby – not reject, judge or repress them.


In my experience, two of the most useful and heartwarming mindfulness practices are forgiveness and loving kindness. These practices are like a balm for most emotional difficulties, including anger. Practicing forgiveness for oneself precedes forgiveness of other people. Practicing loving kindness for oneself precedes offering loving kindness to others. These heart-opening practices can have an immediate impact on difficult emotions such as anger.


If you need help with anger, you may well find relief from mindfulness practices that have been helping people for thousands of years.


Sources and Resources


•  Mayo Clinic. Anger management.

•  Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions by Thich Nhat Hanh (2005)

•  The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace by Jack Kornfield (2002)

DR. JOHN PATTERSON

Dr. John Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, D.C.). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations

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