Anger mastery transforms your life and our world
While treating a music industry executive for dangerously high blood pressure, I noticed that in the mornings it was high and in the afternoons almost normal. This man loved his job and was otherwise very healthy. One afternoon after a normal reading, he told me about his road rage that morning. The next recording I took was dangerously high. Simply remembering, he spiked his blood pressure high enough to consider hospitalisation. With simple practices to drive calmly and considerately, his blood pressure resolved completely.
Whether in executive health, leadership coaching or team development, inappropriate outbursts of anger and its relatives destroy health, careers and teams. Those who learn to master anger skilfully progress. Those who don’t, suffer endless carnage.
At a global level, anger fuels our wars, genocide, political impasses and terrorism. If there were an emotional cancer, it would be anger.
Anger is a natural, primary emotion. From an evolutionary perspective, anger motivates an organism to attack another. The effect on us is profound:
- Physiology: heart rate and blood pressure jump, adrenaline surges, cortisol activates
- Physical: blood rushes to jaw, fists and chest muscles (fighting systems)
- Emotional: caution, calm, joy, bonding and care evaporates
- Cognitive: the mind tunnel-visions to exaggerate the target and minimise alternatives
- Spiritual: we are reduced to the biology of our worst selves. Regret and shame follow
Anger, of course, has benefits. It is a territorial protection system. If our territory – land, mate, family or self – is threatened, anger equips us to defend what we love. In nature, anger is periodically deployed in threat or ritual fighting. It is generally brief and violent, followed by rest and reconciliation.
In social species such as higher primates, elephants and dolphin it is largely ritualised. Unchecked, anger becomes a serious disadvantage to survival and leadership. Reconciliation, grooming, bonding, consolation, perspective-taking and targeted helping become increasingly adaptive. And so it is with humans…. with two added twists.
Thanks to memory, we have learned to sustain anger long past its useful signal leading to avoidance, hate and revenge. The physiology, feeling and thoughts of anger churn away destroying our immune system, damaging our hearts and brains. It wrecks a good life.
With the churn and turbulence of our time, many of us do not enjoy the connection, bonding, touch and consistent care (love) to counter the effects of anger. We know that children who grow up in violent and abusive families face massively increased risks later in life. As adults, we rarely allow ourselves the closeness, touch and gentle caring that our closest relatives live by.
Where anger wreaks havoc
- Angry outbursts at someone who does not meet your expectations
- Persistent, low grade frustration with colleagues or loved ones
- Chronic impatience and frustration in queues, with slow communicators, etc.
- Hatred and revenge against someone that is held over weeks or months
- Rage on the road, airline check-ins or poor customer service
- Violent outbursts or abuse at home and with loved ones
For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:
- Jill: “He is an idiot! I simply cannot work with him”
- John: “She is such a bully. I hate her and hope she breaks a leg”
- Result: distress, illness, contempt, performance failure, toxic leadership and war…..
In these situations, we allow our amygdala and primitive brain to execute behaviour. The more sleep deprived, hungry, distressed or alone we feel the more this part of the brain is primed for action. While research challenges the idea that we have free will, here is an opportunity where we can choose between constructive and destructive actions.
There is, in my view, no more important cause in our modern lives than to be more skilful in our interactions. Anger is not skilful. We do not function, feel, decide or act properly when angry. Whether your goal is wellbeing, a good life, success, leadership, teaming, parenting or creating social good, mastering anger is primary.
How to master your anger
Wake up and dial into the experience
Start by noting and reflecting – preferably in writing or with another person – the experience. Define the trigger, see clearly how you behaved, describe how you felt, and explore if you could have done better. This is situation awareness. Situation awareness exercises the advanced part of our brain. The insula, anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and dorsolateral PFC get exercised. As you increase the amount of activity in these circuits, they get stronger. The amygdala deactivate and shrink. You are becoming a better version of yourself.
Target a simple but important situation for practice
With an upcoming event in mind, take time to prepare. Visualise, in advance, the two alternatives. First, what will happen if you let anger erupt. Second, how could the situation evolve if you could stay calm and skilful. Resolve not to react if triggered but rather to take a few moments to exhale slowly and notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Consider how the other person is feeling. This is level one impulse control and it might be enough. In the car or the queue, you relax and move on towards a better day.
Critical situations – parenting, managing and leading
Skilful conversation is required. This is challenging and requires deliberate practice. If it triggered a feeling of anger, it is important. Stay calm and considerate of the other, own your anger and explain what triggered you. Give the other person a chance to share their side. Explore what you can do together to resolve the situation.
Consider the solution as built from 3 parts. First, is your view. Second, is the other’s view. Third is a creative solution neither can see until you come together – the third way. The more consistently you can execute this skilful conversation, the more you will bring creative solutions into your life, your family and your team.
For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:
- Jill: “We need this completed. You have let me down and I am feeling angry”
- John: “Sorry Jill, my kid is sick. I know it is important and will do it before I leave today”
- Jill: “I understand, I will be here to help sign off at 5.30pm”
- Result: resolution, reconciliation, performance and increased trust
Once you master angry confrontations, extend the skill to complex business, political and social issues.
Anger is a real emotion. It signals something important to you is being challenged. Own the anger and use the energy to focus on skilful behaviour. Use your human brain and PFC. Don’t let the snake brain take over. Connect. Seek the third way. Reconcile. If necessary, apologise sincerely and resolve to be more skilful next time. Start immediately. Help your children master their anger. The ultimate conquerer of anger is love.