A friend recently visited the dentist – not the most pleasant of activities at the best of times. Worse, still, is that her visit was not precipitated by usual concerns such as tooth decay or tartar; my friend had, during repeated bouts of anger while dealing with a fiery boss and hostile work environment, literally ground her teeth until they had chipped.
While hers might be an extreme example, most of us are familiar with the feeling of wanting to hurl something at the wall just for the satisfaction of destroying it when we're in a foul mood. We've all had moments, days, even weeks when we've wanted to scream into the abyss. Some of us have even given into the urge.
Ignoring anger is unhealthy
There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Anger, like any other emotion, exists for a reason. Experiencing it and expressing it is normal and, most importantly, healthy. But far too many of us are taught early in life to bottle it up or brush it aside. The result is that too many people never quite understand the volatile emotion or acquire the tools to deal with it constructively. That, of course, is a recipe for disaster, and creates raging, maladjusted adults out of misunderstood children.
“Ignoring anger is not a healthy response or coping technique. Deciding to ignore the things that make you angry does not make them go away. Instead, it makes the anger build up until one day you blow up without really understanding where it even came from,” says Thrive Wellbeing Centre’s clinical psychologist Mina Shafik, who specialises in anger management. “You cannot remove anger from within yourself. Nor can you change your genes if they make you more predisposed to becoming angry quickly. What you can do is understand why you’re angry and ensure your anger doesn’t make you dysfunctional, where it starts harming your relationships, your health or your work.”
Psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat, founder of online therapy and mental health services portal Seraniti.com, says wanting to "manage" anger isn't the right approach. "First, you have to understand if it is excessive, and if so what the underlying reason is," he explains. "You don't wake up one day and have an episode of abnormal anger. When that happens, there is almost always a root cause, which could be a clinical issue like depression, anxiety disorder or traumatic past events. You can't solve a problem without knowing why it exists."
Those caveats about rage issues aside, what most people lack are useful strategies to deal with unavoidable situations that make our blood boil with good reason. Here are three research-led coping mechanisms for daily life that might keep you from painting yet another wall with a spaghetti dinner.
Focus on your breathing
The first physical symptom of anger is shortness of breath. You'll find yourself experiencing shallow breathing due to a quickening heartbeat. One way to instantly bring your anger-laced emotions control is by consciously taking deep, slow breaths instead of rapid, frenetic ones, exhaling through the mouth and breathing from the stomach, instead of the chest.
For a long time now, therapists have been using breathing exercises to deal with mental health concerns such as stress, fear, anxiety, trauma and rage. Meditation is another powerful tool believed to induce more balanced emotional states. In 2017, researchers from Stanford and University of California, Los Angeles finally drew a conclusive link between breathing and one's state of mind, when a cluster of neurons was found, which linked breathing to relaxation, attention, anxiety and excitement, thus showing that breath control calms the brain.
Roll your muscles regularly
Every pranayama expert worth their title will tell you the body carries powerful emotional memories. While stress-related sentiments affect the mind the most, they leave their mark on the body as well, mostly in the form of tense muscles. It is the reason most of us feel tight, painful knots in the neck and shoulders after prolonged periods of anger or stress.
The science behind this experience works something like this: every emotion sparked in the brain releases peptides somewhere in the body, which is why we feel particular emotions in specific areas. A 2013 study by Finnish scientists mapping bodily experiences of emotions found that both its European and Asian participants experienced anger in the head, neck and shoulders; while anxiety and fear fired up the chest; and love activated the heart region.
Neurophysiologists have also found that repeated and prolonged stress can lead to shorter neck and shoulder muscles. So it’s a good idea to sync your breathing with gentle neck, head and shoulder exercises. Slowly roll your head sideways, lift your shoulders in slight shrugs, and massage your neck gently while breathing deeply, to feel the anger leave both your mind and your body.
Exercise before entering a stressful situation
Regular workouts aside, try to fit in a session if you know you're going to encounter a person or circumstance that's likely to make you want to punch a hole in the wall. There's a lot of literature and research on the stress-lowering and health-enhancing impact of exercise, including one published in Clinical Psychology Review that asserts exercise reduces the negative impact of anger and stress by 17 per cent.
A 2010 study by stress physiologists at the University of Georgia found that when men who were identified as possessing "high trait anger" exercised before they were shown upsetting and stress-inducing images, they recorded less anger than when they were exposed to the slide show without exercising. The study's lead researcher, Dr Nathaniel Thom, said even a single exercise stint before a stressful situation can "have a prophylactic effect".
It's also worth remembering that working out after a tension-filled encounter is a lot harder than doing so before starting a stressful day. So dust those running shoes off and air the exercise mat – or even just put on gardening gloves – your food-free wall and intact remote control will thank you for it.