November 20, 2014“Anybody can become angry—that is easy,” Aristotle once said, “but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
When you get angry, it’s easy to blow your cool and shoot from the hip instead of the head. In neuroscience parlance, this means you’re in the throes of an amygdala hijack. The amygdala is the brain’s center for emotional reactivity, and it constantly scans our environment, looking for threats. When it perceives a threat, in an instant, it hijacks the entire brain, getting you to act quickly even before thinking. You experience an intense emotional reaction; when the dust settles, you realize that it was inappropriate.
Even though an amygdala hijack is sudden, there’s a range of emotional tricks we can use to deal with it and even learn to prevent it. Here are some tips for chilling out in the moment and also to help you preempt an angry response.
What to Do in the Moment
In order to chill out before you do or say something you’ll regret, try these tactics:
Pay attention to your body’s signals. Emotions are messengers, so be mindful of the physical signals they’re giving you. When you experience an amygdala hijack, there are usually some physiological manifestations. For example, your heartbeat races, or you might clench your jaw or feel hot in the face. You might feel yourself shaking or trembling or notice a tension in your neck and shoulders. You might even find yourself cupping your fist with your other hand, raising your voice or rubbing your head.
Increasing your awareness of what’s happening with your body at this initial stage is your first point of intervention in dampening your arousal so you can choose a more appropriate reaction. This mindfulness is a key aspect of emotionally intelligent individuals.
Take a few deep breaths. One of the most effective things you can do as soon as you start to feel the manifestations of anger is to train yourself to take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing can slow your heartbeat and lower or stabilize your blood pressure. Don’t breathe from the chest—that won’t help relax you. You need to breathe deeply from your diaphragm. If you’re not used to doing this, take a hint from the American Psychological Association (APA): The APA recommends that you picture your breath coming up from your “gut” and slowly repeat a calming word or phrase, such as “relax” or “take it easy.” Continue to repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply.
Press pause. When we’re in the throes of an amygdala hijack, our brain starts to release adrenaline and other stress hormones. According to brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, it takes less than 90 seconds for these chemicals to dissipate. Here’s how Bolte Taylor explains it: “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it’s because I’ve chosen to let that circuit continue to run.” Getting used to briefly pausing in these stressful episodes is a smart move—it gives our brain time to enlist the left prefrontal cortex, which has an inhibitory circuit for the amygdala.
What can you do during that brief pause? You can count to 20 in a foreign language, think of all your passwords or name all 44 U.S. presidents. In short, use any activity that engages your cortex and dampens your emotional reaction so you can think about what to do or say next. You can also change your physical position. If you’re standing, sit down and lean back in your chair to relax your muscles and signal to your brain to calm down. If you happen to be sitting down in a meeting, you could stand up, if that’s workable, and grab a coffee or water, or excuse yourself for a few minutes. You can also cough, which will disguise your rising anger and buy you some time. You can also make some brief notes to get a momentary distance from the stressful occurrence.
Interrupt the doom loop. This idea comes from Mark Maraia, a relationship development coach. In the Harvard Business Review article “How to Keep Your Temper at Work (And Everywhere Else),” Maraia advocates a technique that works to interrupt the flow of anger or other distressing emotion. Rather than trying to control your anger, release it completely. You do this by asking yourself, “What am I feeling at this moment?” Once you acknowledge that you’re getting angry, make a silent declaration that you don’t want it anymore. It’s as simple as telling yourself, ‘I don’t want this anger. I choose to be at peace instead.” As Maraia concedes, this may be difficult to do, but with practice, this can be a powerful tool in your business and personal life.
What to Do Before You Blow Up
Here are a few preemptive strategies you can use to help control your anger before you ever begin to feel it:
Use the “If/Then” technique. Raise your awareness of your triggers—those incidents that make your blood boil. It may be a particular person in your business environment who has a way of getting on your nerves. For example, this person might habitually interrupt you when you’re talking and monopolize the discussion. The “If/Then” technique is a defensive tactic that can act as an emotional armor, a shield to prevent you from losing your cool in the moment. Here’s how it works: You simply prepare for such recurring eventualities by making a promise to yourself: “If Bob is up to his usual antics at the meeting, I will not get angry.” Then keep that promise.
Of course, this requires self-control. The secret to self-control, psychologist Walter Mischel says, is to train your prefrontal cortex to kick in first. Specific “If/Then” plans help you develop that self-control.
Visualize your personal power as a physical object. Any time we fail to put a muzzle on an angry reaction, we end up giving our power away. We do this by allowing others to be in charge of our emotions in that moment. You can avoid this by using a tool that comes from psychologist Dr. Christian Conte, author of Advanced Techniques for Counseling and Psychotherapy. Conte advises that you visualize your power as a physical object, then decide that the next time something happens that angers you, you won’t give away your power.
This simple visualization trick can be a highly effective anger management tool. That’s because visual images are powerful. As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku explains in this video, a huge chunk of our brain power is devoted to processing visual images; it’s how we communicate and share information. “It defines who we are … It’s by images, pictures … that we understand the universe,” Kaku says. Why not make use of this pictorial power to turn your personal power into a concrete, valuable object that you wouldn’t want to toss away? Try it out.
Pay attention to your glucose level. Recent research from Ohio State University shows that levels of blood glucose in married people, measured each night, predicted how angry they would be with their spouse that evening. It seems that low blood sugar makes people more prone to get angry. Why is that? Brad Bushman, lead author of the study, says the self-control needed to deal with anger takes energy, and that energy is provided in part by glucose. “Even though the brain is only 2 percent of our body weight,” Bushman explains, “it consumes about 20 percent of our calories. It’s a very demanding organ when it comes to energy.” Glucose is high octane fuel for our brain. So the simple advice is, if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone, make sure you’re not hungry.
Does learning to control our anger mean we should never express it? Not at all. There are certainly circumstances when voicing your anger is desirable. But a person who is emotionally intelligent learns to do this in a way that respects the other person’s dignity and allows them to save face.
In the end, Aristotle may have been only partially right—managing anger is within everyone’s power. All we have to do is be mindful that we’re in the grip of an amygdala hijack and be strategic in our use of emotional intelligence tools. It’s simply another way of being smart.