One of the scarier negative emotions we all experience is anger. It can erupt in an instant and make us act in extreme ways with actions that on reflection we often regret.
Something as silly as a misunderstanding over a parking place at the grocery store can cause me – a usually polite, considerate, middle-aged academic – to seethe with rage. It’s a Hulk-like transformation that feels like it’s happening even before I can register what’s going on.
But from an evolutionary perspective, anger is a vital emotion. It allows us to have split-second reactions to threats to our survival. Our rage is there to tell us that there’s an issue that needs our immediate attention – either because we need to neutralize that threat, or take off as quickly as possible.
The problem is that many of the things that trigger our anger don’t really count as an actual “survival threat.” In the modern world my survival doesn’t require me to get that furious with another driver over a parking space.
“Society has evolved so much faster than human bodies,” says therapist and anger expert Faith Harper. “These things are meant for being chased by a tiger, not dealing with somebody not being aware of their surroundings in the parking lot.”
When I chatted with Faith for a recent episode of my podcast The Happiness Lab, she explained that there’s not much you can do to prevent your body alerting you to a perceived danger. “You're not responsible for your first thought,” she says. “But you are responsible for your second thought and your first behavior.”
When I feel the sensation of anger rising – the throbbing temples, the tightening muscles, the rapid breathing – I try to make my second thought a question.
"Why am I experiencing this anger?"
The neuroscientist Dr R. Douglas Fields has done great work in identifying the things that tend to trigger anger. So when my own rage starts building I try to take a moment and run though his acronym… LIFEMORTS.
• Life or death. Is someone trying to hurt me?
• Insult. Is someone treating me with disrespect or trying to belittle me?
• Family. Are my loved ones – the people I care about – in danger?
• Environment. Is my home or personal space being threatened?
• Mate. Is the love of my life being attacked?
• Order in society. Is some injustice being perpetrated against me or others?
• Resources. Are the things I need to survive being kept from me, or being taken away?
• Tribe. Are people I identify with being threatened?
• Stopped. Am I being held against my will or prevented from going somewhere?
When I walk through this list, I often realize that my anger has flared unnecessarily – I’m not in mortal danger, or at risk of my husband or family being snatched from me. Taking time to recognize where your anger is coming from can help you realize that fighting or fleeing isn’t a rational response.
Understanding what has triggered your anger is a useful step in regaining your composure and self-control, but there’s also a simple physical trick that can help you calm your body down when anger strikes. Just exhale deeply and slowly.
Faith teaches this technique to her clients. She says a long, slow out breath has a calming effect. “Breathing is free. It's worth trying. My clients say: ‘It felt really dumb, but it kind of helped.’”
As with all emotions – anger is still an important source of information. It’s trying to tell us that we need to pay attention to something.
“Anger is your body directing you to create change,” says Faith. “We have these ideas about anger being very negative and something that we shouldn't have. But we should be paying attention to our bodies wanting us to make some kind of correction.”
There are plenty of things to be angry about, but often the best way to address threats to us, our families or our communities is not to become The Hulk… but to find more considered and constructive ways to respond.
Feel free to remind me of this if you ever accidentally try to grab my parking space outside of Trader Joe's on Saturday morning.
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