Do you want to be less angry? Here are seven proven ways to diffuse anger, shrug off frustrations and minimise the fallout for those times when we inevitably lose our cool.
When the tennis ace smashed her tennis racquet at the US Open after the umpire accused her of cheating (an accusation she strongly denies), she was slapped with a hefty $17,000 fine and sparked a thousand think pieces. Would the backlash have been less harsh if she were a man? Probably. But why is it that so often an angry woman is seen as rude while an angry man is seen as normal or justified?
No matter how hard we try, sometimes we just can’t extinguish the fiery rage that burns within us when someone pushes in the front of us in a queue or our partner tells us they’re going to be late for plans. Again.
The inward wrath rapidly bubbles upwards and before we can bite our tongue, we’ve blurted out a snide remark or displayed our best passive aggressive smile. We immediately regret it.
Anger is the emotion that can bring out ugliness in all of us. Unlike anxiety or stress, it is socially frowned upon and can lave you feeling very embarrassed. You might have a sibling that has told you to “calm down” for snapping at them or a stranger receive your loud tut with complete surprise and innocence.
We confess, our tempers bring out the worst in us (although we will bring ourselves to laugh about our spurt of tube rage the next day). And so we decided to look into the proven ways to diffuse anger, shrug off frustrations and minimise the fallout for those times when we inevitably do lose our cool.
Focus on your breathing
It’s a simple idea we’ve been told and read many times - “just breath”. But there is strong evidence that shows our emotions and breathing patterns are closely interconnected.
In a 2002 study by Université de Louvain in Belgium and Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada, participants were instructed to generate emotions like sadness, fear, anger and happiness to the best of their ability. When the participants felt anxious or afraid, they breathed more quickly and shallowly and when they felt happy, they breathed slowly and fully. The follow-up study was even more fascinating: when researchers told a different group of participants to breathe a certain way and then asked them how they felt, the participants began to feel the emotions that corresponded to the breathing patterns. So we can quickly change how we feel by simply changing our breathing rhythm.
In public: When you’re fuming on the train platform or on the other end of a phonecall start to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, says the American Psychological Association. Breathing from your chest won’t relax you, you have to picture your breath coming up from your gut. Make each inhalation last for seven seconds and each exhalation last for eleven seconds.
At home: Preliminary research suggests that breathing through the right nostril oxygenates the left side of the brain, while breathing through the left nostril oxygenates the right side of the brain. By forcefully alternating nostril breathing it can induce calming and balancing effects on the mind, says Emma Seppala, an Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
Place the index and middle finger of the right hand on the center of the eyebrow, place the thumb on the right nostril and the ring and little finger on the left nostril. Rest your left hand on your lap, palm facing up. Take a deep breath in and, closing the right nostril with your thumb, breathe out through the left nostril. Then take a deep breath in through the left nostril, close the left nostril with your ring and little finger at the end of the inhale and exhale through the right nostril. Take a deep breath in through the right nostril and exhale on the left side. Do this for five minutes in a quiet space.
Hold off from reacting
In the heat of the moment your default response is to immediately retaliate. But science shows, any reaction caused by anger can fuel it even further rather than stopping it. In fact, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing.
A 2002 study by Iowa State University found that doing nothing at all for two minutes was actually effective in reducing anger, whereas punching a sand bag for as long as one wanted while thinking of an offending person increased anger towards that person. “In the heat of the moment it is vital to contain your feelings,” says Mike Fisher, an expert in anger management in the UK.
In public: Tell yourself your rage is only temporary and the worst thing you can do is feed it. Control that rage for 2 minutes until you can respond appropriately (if needed) without any aggression or resentment. If you’re in the midst of a conversation, say “I just need a second (or minute) to think” to give you time to clear your head and any tension you feel, and ask them to repeat or rephrase whatever they’ve said so that you can digest it.
At home: Try lying down. A preliminary study on body position and anger in 2009 showed that in the sitting position we’re much more ready to approach whatever’s annoying us than when we’re flat on our backs. When participants in the study were angry and sitting up, the left frontal lobe in the brain was much more active than the right (an indicator of anger), but when angry and lying down, there was no difference. This suggests lying down could help temper our anger.
Do not vent after the incident
"In study after study, the conclusion was the same: Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse," says Jeffrey Lohr, a psychology professor and and his colleagues at the University of Arkansas in the 2007 study The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger: Implications and Alternatives for Mental Health Practice. "If venting really does get anger 'out of your system,’ then venting should result in a reduction of both anger and aggression. Unfortunately for [Freud’s] catharsis theory, the results showed precisely the opposite effect."
By reviewing the results of anger expression research - some dating back to 1959 - Lohr and his team found that venting is a negative emotional expression, describing it as "similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong".
"What people fail to realise is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented. Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead," the report read.
This is backed by a 2013 study Anger on the Internet which showed that users of popular rant websites were more anger-prone. Nearly half reported that someone had told them they had an anger problem, while over a third admitted that this was true. They also experienced many negative consequences related to anger, such as verbal and physical fights, damaged relationships, property damage and dangerous driving.
In public: Try to avoid telling your partner, colleagues and friends about an unimportant incident that has made you angry. Not because it isn't important or any less irritating, but because by talking about it, you are letting the problem fester. Each time you allow another person to get under your skin, you're choosing to give up control over your emotions. So the rule is, don't give that anger-inducing incident time of day. Let it go.
At home: If you find you need an outlet or a person to talk to, try putting it on paper...
You might also like; 10 proven ways to make or break a habit
Write it down
While venting can have a negative effect, expressing your frustrations in writing has proven to be constructive. A 2008 study which asked chronic pain patients to carefully describe their anger in letters, found that expressing their emotions in a thoughtful and constructive way - free of nasty, bitter or aggressive intentions - helped them to take hold of their anger. Most participants reported less depression and greater feelings of control over their pain.
In public: Open a new sheet in your notebook or on your smartphone and type out the following questions.
1. What are you angry about?
2. Describe your reaction.
3. What would you like to happen to make you feel less angry?
These instructions will help you to stop, think and take a look at the bigger picture.
At home: Go to a quiet room and complete the above. Anger is often a response to emotional or physical pain, so take the time to identify the things that are causing you to suffer. By being mindful of these things you can have greater control of your reactions and emotions. Take a look at how to be more mindful and calm in everyday life here.
Build your self-confidence
The root of all anger is low self-esteem, says Mike Fisher an expert in anger management in the UK. “Anger is the symptom and shame is the cause,” he explains. “Everyone here suffers from what I call ‘toxic shame’. They feel worthless, that they’re ‘imposing’, that they’re not as good as other people.”
Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis once said we have two choices; accepting ourselves conditionally (such as when we pass an exam) or unconditionally (under all circumstances). The first option he described as “deadly” - if we don’t fulfill the conditions we set for ourselves, we see ourselves as a failure and a loser, rather than accepting failure as a normal part of life and moving on. Low self-esteem means you may want to change an aspect of yourself, meaning you dwell over what is wrong and can’t move ahead with yourself, and with a happy life.
In order to increase your self-esteem, you need to challenge and change the negative beliefs you have about yourself. This might feel like an impossible task, but there are a lot of different techniques you can try to help you. Here are a few:
- Set tangible and realistic goals
- Try not to compare yourself to other people
- Find a new hobby - find an area where you feel you have some natural ability or things that you have always wanted to try
- Express your feelings (when you feel calm enough) if you have been upset
- Try to speak in the first person where possible
- Get into the habit of thinking and saying positive things about yourself
- Learn to challenge your negative beliefs
- Straighten your posture and keep your head up
- Make eye contact when interacting or passing someone in the corridor
- Eating a well-balanced diet at regular meal-times with plenty of water and vegetables will help you to feel healthier and happier
Go for a run
It’s no surprise exercise has positive benefits on the mind and body but a 2010 study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine shed light on the effect it has on tempers.
A focus group of 16 undergraduate students who showed “high trait anger” or, in less technical terms, a very short fuse, were shown images intended to induce anger such as Ku Klux Klan rallies and children under fire from soldiers, reported The New York Times. The volunteers who did not exercise showed considerable difficulty controlling their racing emotions, but the group that did exercise handled what they saw with more aplomb. Their moods were under firmer control.
What the results of the study suggest is that “exercise, even a single bout of it, can have a robust prophylactic effect” against the buildup of anger, said Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist who was the study’s lead researcher. “It’s like taking aspirin to combat heart disease. You reduce your risk,” he said.
In public: If you’re prone to commuter rage, try go for a run or workout you feel comfortable with in the morning.
At home: Exercise can be useful not just because it works off some excess energy but because it gives you a chance to think about what made you angry in the first place - or what you really want to do about it. If you’ve had a particularly anger-inducing day, take some time out to work out by yourself.
Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.
- Maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep
- Making your bedroom a comfortable sleep environment
- Establishing a calming pre-sleep routine
- Going to sleep when you’re truly tired
- Not watching the clock at night
- Using light to your advantage by exposing yourself to light during the day and limiting light exposure in the evening
- Not napping too close to your regular bedtime
- Eating and drinking enough — but not too much or too soon before bedtime
- Exercising regularly — but not too soon before bedtime
Images: Getty, Unsplash / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise