“Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”
- Thomas Jefferson.
While anger is a habitual choice that we make it is one of the hardest habits to kick. How we react to stress is something that we learn from our environment at a very early age. Sometimes we get upset and we don’t even understand why. Things that don’t even phase other people cause us to obsess and/or explode.
Last time we talk about how anger is a secondary emotion. We said that underneath the anger there is usually another pain or hurt of some kind. Anger is often a cover up and can be an easier emotion to express than anything deeper. We must deal with the underlying hurts and when we do sometimes the anger still lingers because we have learned to react to issues that way. In this blog I will talk about how anger and stress go hand in hand and how you can take control of it.
Anger is a form of stress that triggers many natural responses in the body such as a heart rate increase, blood pressure increase, and nervous system stress that over time can cause heart disease, cancer, chronic high blood pressure, fatigue, and a weak immune system. Not to mention the toll it takes on your self-esteem and your relationships.
Anger triggers a stress response in the body that alerts the nervous system and, just as the stress of anger is keeping the nervous system on alert, the aroused nervous system keeps the body on alert. The body goes around and around in this cycle until something changes in the system that calms it down.
Do you ever wonder why you blow up at little things just like it were a big thing? I have totally been there and it can be embarrassing because you don’t really know why you responded the way you did. The reason is that over time, as the nervous system gets used to being overly sensitized, it automatically puts out the same hormones that would normally show up on a big issue but on all issues which then becomes toxic to the system.
“The structure and function of the nerves change so that smaller irritations are now more likely to trigger full -blown stress/anger responses!” The Anger Management Sourcebook.
This is evidence enough to learn to manage our anger. Managing it truly can save your life.
In the last blog I talked about using distractions as a coping mechanism when you feel the rise of anger. I believe this is why so many of our teenagers benefit from good distractions like art, music, and sports. But we must address the fact that sometimes we loose control and positive distractions are not enough. This is when we need to dig down deep and realize that our mind and body influence each other. If we can reduce the stress in the body we can cool down and think clearer.
Taking it One Breath at a Time
It seems like anytime we get angry someone instructs us to breath and calm down. I remember watching an episode of Family Matters when I was a kid, you may remember the show with Steve Urkel who went around terrorizing Carl Winslow (the dad) and then he would delivered his famous nasally line “did I do that?” The episode that comes to mind was when Carl went to Anger Management classes and was instructed to breath into a paper bag every time he began to feel stressed and before he would become angry.
It sounds really funny but we don’t realize the importance of breathing and how it truly works in the anger system. Breathing in the bag never worked for Carl because it was the way he was breathing that kept him from really calming down. Counting to 10 never worked either and I can explain that too in a minute but first let’s look at the breathing issue.
When someone is under ‘angry stress’ the muscles around the abdomen, chest, throat, and jaw contract which leads to shallow “cheat breathing” also known as hyperventilation. But because the body is in fight or flight mode it is counting on the speedier breath to change the chemistry of the blood, make the heart work harder, and keep the nervous system sensitized so it can hit the road or hit the person standing in the way.
So why did counting to 10 not work for Carl? The reason is when the body begins to ‘over heat’, your heart rate increases, and your blood pressure rises and it takes a lot more than 10 seconds for it to cool down. Actually it can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes for your body to stabilize and for you to be able to think more clearly. We see this in the everyday spousal spat, when an argument gets heated it is important for you to give each other the cool down time you need. But you must promise to reconvene and talk about the issues once you've calmed down.
How to Breath
So how should we breath? The best way to breath is the way we did when we were babies - slow, low, and deeply. Our shoulders should not be worn as earrings so when you breath your shoulders should stay neutral. If you put your hands on your stomach you should feel your stomach expanding forward. Low and slow breathing allows your skeletal muscles to relax and your heart and lungs can begin to relax as well.
Try practicing your breathing laying down. You could put a phone book or some other heavy book on your naval to strengthen the diaphragm muscle and so you can see the stomach expand and deflate just like a balloon. It shouldn’t be forced, rather let it just move naturally. Try focusing on your breathing several times a day and at night while laying in bed.
We’ve talked about how muscle tension increases or prolongs the stress in your body. There is quite a bit out there on relaxation techniques. Take a look at work by Dr. Edmund Jacobson who originated the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique. Also, the Anger Management Sourcebook is very helpful if you would like to read further about anger management.
Personally I have noticed, when I get angry it can be hard at times to come out of my emotions to focus on breathing. I have had a lot of success talking to myself and repeating to myself “I can do this, I am in control of my anger”. Other things you can say to yourself is just relax, peace, calm down, it’ll be alright, life is good, anger won’t help, and my favorite I can handle this. Speaking this out loud is better in my opinion then just saying it in your mind. It carries more authority and weight.
Also, thinking about the perspective of the person you are allowing to make you angry, like we talked about in the last blog about respect and compassion, helps too. If you can realize that what they are doing is because they are sad or hurting, you can begin to forgive them for their flaws and save yourself from a heart attack. It takes some practice, but if you can look into the face of the person you are angered by and try to experience their pain it can help.
4 Practical Ways to Breath More Calmly
Check your posture and make sure you are not tense. Try slouching over into a relaxed slump. Imagine you are a marionette puppet and there is a string attached to the crown of your head and you are being pulled straight up toward the ceiling. While you are being pulled upward your shoulders, stomach, and chest remain relaxed. Keeping your skeletal muscles relaxed helps you to breath better. More oxygen to brain makes it easier to think and be alert.
Relax your facial muscles. Muscle tension tends to spread so think about relaxing your forehead and your mouth and jaw. I like to pretend that someone is watching me and if I smile then I could really brighten up their day.
Don’t wear tight fitting clothing. Keep your clothing loose especially around the waste because your diaphragm needs room to expand and deflate. It will encourage you to loosen the muscles in your stomach and help you not feel like you have to “suck it in”.
Think about talking slower. When you talk fast you are forced to gasp for air and breathing becomes much harder and your blood pressure raises.
Remember, your mind and body are connected. You can more easily relax your mind when your body is able to relax. Practice breathing slow, low, and deeply, talking slower, and being mindful of how you are being perceived as you go throughout your day at the grocery store, in line at an event, or chatting with friends. Try to enjoy your day and your life by being present, reflective, and relaxed. You can do it!
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“Brad Robinson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an expert in infidelity recovery in Tulsa, OK. Together with his wife Morgan Robinson they teach people about how to understand and overcome infidelity and how to make their marriage thrive even after betrayal. You can learn more about their work by visiting www.familyandlifesolutions.com”
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