How To Stop Anger From Ruining Your Life
Get better at managing your anger with neuroscience and philosophy
Nothing has done more damage to my personal life than anger. When I was young, I was aggressive with timid friends, I’d yell at video games, and I’d cry angry tears whenever I lost at anything.
When I was older, I learned to keep my anger hidden –– most of the time. But eventually, it would come out:
- I’d swear up a storm while navigating Tampa traffic
- I’d yell at my computer and phone when they loaded websites too slowly
- I’d get frustrated and passive-aggressive when people (roommates, coworkers, partners) didn’t behave the way I wanted them to
- I would complain loudly and often at work, at the bar, at parties, on nights out, etc.
- I’d berate people with opposing views on social media
- I’d have explosive outbursts when I was drunk –– the kind where I’d lose lifelong friends forever
I was a walking volcano, and my anger was magma, swirling inside me until the pressure became too great and caused a catastrophic eruption. I left broken relationships and a tarnished reputation for myself everywhere I went.
Then, in 2019, I found the early Greek philosophers. I don’t know which school influenced me the most: the Epicureans, the Stoics, or the Skeptics. Most likely, I took a little bit from all of them.
I discovered that anger –– and every other emotion, for that fact –– wasn’t some uncontrollable state of being to which I had to yield every time it presented itself.
No, anger was just a signal: an invitation to action that hijacked my neurochemistry to fling me into conflicts that weren’t actually happening and didn’t have to happen.
Quote Of The Week
“Some of the wisest of men have . . . called anger a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self-control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.” — Seneca
Anger Is All In Your Head
Anger always feels good at the moment, but it tends to leave the angered person with deep regrets. Ya know, like a drug .
Here’s how it works:
- Something upsets you, and a part of your brain called the amygdala releases a handful of chemicals known as catecholamines, along with some hormones including adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine
- Your body prepares for action: your heart rate, breathing pace, and blood flow increase to help you react quickly to what your brain perceives as a physical threat to your life
- At this point, your body begins to restrict other functions, including your vision center, your memory center, and your prefrontal cortex (the judgment, decision-making, and goal center) –– in other words, your brain transforms into a focused killing machine
- If you’re anything like me, this is where you act impulsively because you’re hyperfocused on the subject of your anger, and you end up becoming a person that you might not even recognize under normal circumstances
So, if anger is a built-in biological response, what can we actually do about it? Well, this is an area where philosophy, psychology, self-help books, and neuroscience intersect.
Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce the size of the amygdala and increase the size of the prefrontal cortex. It literally changes your brain.
However, when you try to “bottle up” or suppress your feelings, it has the opposite effect –– building up the emotion in a similar way to my volcano metaphor from earlier.
Basically, meditation, along with other mindfulness practices, can compound over time, making you less impulsive and giving you better judgement, not just in a spiritual sense, but through physical changes to your brain.
So, if you want to get better at managing your anger, here’s what you can do:
- Start apologizing –– even if you know your apology won’t be accepted. This allows you to get better at swallowing your pride by allowing you to rehearse it during a calm moment.
- Start preparing yourself for predictable hardships in advance, and practice your response ahead of time (the Stoics called this premeditatio mallorum). This is the power of negative thinking; it prepares you for the worst so that adversity doesn’t catch you off-guard and tempt you to do something foolish.
- Start reminding yourself daily that anger is a choice, and that you don’t have to give in to it. Each morning, either meditate or journal about all the benefits of staying calm, and everything you could lose from anger: for example, your peace, your relationships, your career, or even your life. (I prefer journaling).
- Start giving people the benefit of the doubt. When someone cuts you off, assume they’re rushing to the hospital. When something makes you late for an appointment, assume that you were lucky enough to avoid some disaster all thanks to your delay. Even if you get mad at first, you can always go back and reframe the situation afterward.
- Start forgiving everyone for everything. Here’s the thing about people: few people, if any, want to do stupid, annoying, or cruel things. The problem is, most people are either intrinsically foolish or they lack self-control. It’s not their fault, that’s just how they are, and your anger can’t fix them, but if you let it control you it will make you just like them.
You can change your brain. You can change your life. The thing is, it won’t be easy, and you will fail.
However, that’s what’s awesome about your brain: the more you try to do a thing, the better you’ll get at it, because every time you practice a skill, like anger management, you physically transform your brain just a tiny bit.
If you’re tired of anger ruining your life, then decide today, right now, to stop inviting it in.
I believe in you.
Question Of The Week
When was the last time you exploded in rage? Did it feel good at the time? Did you regret it later?
Now, when was the last time you managed to hold back your anger, just for a moment, and avoid a major conflict? Afterward, were you glad that you didn’t let anger take over?
Who would you rather be: the type of person who rages uncontrollably at circumstances they can’t control, or the type of person who has physically reshaped their brain to allow them to experience more joy on a daily basis?
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