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Seeing red?

Danielle Fox discovers how to deal with anger – from the moment you feel the heat rise and knowing when (and how) to cool off to the positive outcomes of anger.

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Photo by Gabriel Matula

When did you last feel angry? Perhaps it was an angry outburst at a loved one, internal raging when you were thoughtlessly cut-up whilst driving, or frustration with a colleague at work. Whatever the cause, we tend to think of anger as a wild, negative emotion, but new research suggests that anger comes with many positives too. The trick, according to experts, is channelling that energy into change or focus. Once you’ve allowed anger to move through you in a healthy and safe way, you’ll find yourself feeling clearer about how to move forward and you might be surprised to find that you even feel physically better too.

So, what is anger? “Anger is a reaction”, says Jane Haynes, Psychotherapist at The Blue Door Practice (and an IKIGAI Thought Leader). “It blocks rational thought and changes the body physiology by raising the blood pressure and the heart beat”. Tempting as it might be to repress our rage, doing so can have negative health consequences. Studies have found that suppressing anger can worsen pain, put stress on the cardiovascular system and has even been linked to anxiety and depression. But allowing ourselves to consciously express that anger can actually be very healthy, both emotionally and physically. “Pent up anger can make us sick, whereas its healthy expression is good,” says Haynes. “It can be a motivating force that makes people feel more optimistic and confident and acknowledging anger can help lower stress on the heart”.

Maintain a perspective

Anger, the experts say, is like a lemonade bottle that has been shaken up – it has nowhere to go without exploding on the inside, or shattering the bottle and being expressed for the world to see. “Try and take stock when you start to feel a growing frustration and deal with it in advance of it becoming anger,” says Liz Villani, Founder of Courageous Success (and an IKIGAI Thought Leader). “The key is to keep a perspective and be aware of your mounting anger, particularly in the workplace, and stop its amplification. I get some of my clients to draw a small circle in the corner of a Post-It note. Then I ask them to imagine that the square of yellow paper is filled with everything in their world; work, home, friends, family, to do lists etc. When the challenge happens remember that it is in fact a small circle in the grand scheme of the whole Post-It note, not so big that it needs to take over”.

Anger can be empowering

“Anger is an energy and, just like stress, if it is used in the right way, it has the power to transform,” says Villani.  “Often the greatest changes in our society are borne out of channelling anger and frustration –the women’s rights movement, the forming of new political parties, the rise of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.” Take what you are angry about and vow to create the opposite – be the force for good that creates and moves things forward in the work, or even just in your world,” she advises.

Anger can be extremely good if it serves a purpose that moves goodness forward.  “Being angry at your boss may push you to resign, enabling you to go on to create real change in your profession. In our world of conformity and self-focus, people hold back from expressing their truth and the results create stalemate. Nothing changes, nothing improves.  Anger is at its most powerful when positive action is the result”.

Dealing with anger from others

The simple solution to dealing with anger from others is with compassion and kindness, not drama and judgement. “We generally shy away from confrontation, especially at work or at home, where most of us try to portray an image of calm but in our avoidance we actually close ourselves off from those involved or add fuel to the fire if we react with drama” says Villani. So what is the solution?  “The best reaction, particularly in the workplace, is to stay calm, be open, supportive, kind and don’t join in,” says Haynes. “If you feel a growing frustration, try and deal with it in advance of it becoming anger through a non-defensive discussion – share the positives and outline the challenges to deal with and learn from”.

The most important thing is not to become the victim of someone else’s anger, or for it to turn into something that is ongoing. “In this situation it is probably better to approach them once the attack is over and ask to discuss it. “Everyone loses their temper, whether at home or at work,” says Haynes. “If it is an uncharacteristic one-off, it may well be better to come to the conclusion that the anger was not ‘personal’ and allow the whole thing to pass by. When the anger amounts to repetitive behaviour then a decision has to made; are there enough positives to offset occasional attacks without challenging the ‘aggressor’? If not, then wait until the next day and ask in a non-confrontational way if the outburst can be discussed”.

Photo by Ruebn Bagues

Your anger action plan

Pause and start counting to 10. “Where possible excuse yourself from the face to face contact and leave the room to go to the bathroom or a neutral place and take several (maybe 10) deep breaths with a twice-as-long exhalation, this will lower the blood pressure and calm the system.  Even something as simple as drinking a full class of water can deflect an eruption,” explains Haynes.

Avoid creating drama. Overreacting or making a mountain out of a molehill is the greatest creator of anxiety and stress. Try and do a quick body scan releasing the facial muscles particularly around the mouth and neck and have a mantra that you repeat ‘I am letting go of this anger’. And picture the consequences if you lose control — for both you and the person with whom you’re angry (e.g. I’ll feel worse; I’ll be embarrassed in front of my coworkers; I’ll hurt my loved one).

Keep your power. “Create a filter around you, not to cut people out, but to ensure any negative mood or energy from others does not affect you”, says Villani. You decide how you are affected. Instead, focus on identifying your needs (after all, the definition of anger is all about unmet expectations). Work to figure out how these needs can be met in a healthy way. If this requires another person’s involvement, then talk to that person about it — but only after you’ve calmed down. Even sleep on it if you can.

Take time to cool off. “Avoid drinking stimulating coffee if you’re feeling angry”, says Haynes. “Instead, try taking a walk, showering, listening to relaxing music, journaling, calling a friend, working out, meditating, or doing a few yoga poses. What’s important is that you return to the situation with a level head and the ability to communicate your needs and negotiate conflicts in a calm manner. Whenever it’s time to have a conversation, use “I” statements (“I felt hurt by your words” instead of “You always hurt me”) and listen to the other person’s feelings to minimize the chances of triggering another round of fighting”.

Words by Danielle Fox

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