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How to Control Anger – 3 Steps for any Situation

Posted Jun 01 2012 4:13pm

How to control anger… in any situation? Here is a light approach to this very heavy subject exploring 3 simple steps on how to control anger – starting with a recent run in with our provincial police…

Imagine this, I’m on my way to a meditation session riding my new shiny bicycle (yes I love riding my bike and calling it a bicycle), it’s a beautiful sunny day, the birds are chirping, the warm breeze flowing through my hair – which is long overdue for a cut – a big smile on my face…

All of a sudden a police blockade of armed officers materializes before me. Without thinking anything of it I cruise on by whistling my favorite tune…when to my dismay, with a loud shout, a police officer jumps off the sidewalk in front of me  bringing me to a dead stop – my heart races – I almost hit him!

Turns out I don’t have a bell on my bicycle, a provincial offence of $110. They ask me where I’m going and what I do “I’m a meditation teacher en route to a private client that needs some help with stress…” They cringe…

A few thoughts arise about the financial impact and the foolishness of this all, the warmth and constriction in my chest follows – I realize that I need to honor and be present in a nurturing space with my client and, now more than ever, I need to engage these skills on how to control anger.

I know, this is minimal to the situations in our lives that can engage a heavy reaction of anger thought the experience of anger really is similar across many situations.

At a recent conference neuro-scientist Richard Davidson, author of the Emotional Life of the Brain and director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds  said that the brains first reaction when we are in a situation that we don’t like, is aversion  - hormones start pumping and the body sends us signals telling us to fight or get out.

We can’t change what is happening but we can remember that we have a choice; to react to what’s happening or to respond skillfully to the situation.

Step 1 - Ask yourself, where do I feel this anger in my body? 

In this situation, I felt a warmth/tension/holding in my chest and stomach. 

Sounds simple, but it takes practice and it isn’t easy – in the moment, the first thing we can try to do is realize that our body is having a reaction to the situation and try to zoom in on the sensations before we react. This allows us to contextualize this situation as an experience in this moment that will change. Usually in stressful situations we feel bracing, tension, anxiety or pressure most commonly in our head, neck, shoulders, chest or stomach.

Step 2 - Ask yourself, will a few breaths help me calm down in this moment? Is there another way of thinking about this that might serve me and the situation better?

In this situation my meditation practice helped immensely – I focused on my breath, calmed it down and to the best of my ability brought an open and accepting approach to the situation – viewing it as a learning experience to teach me how I react in situations like this.

It’s all about “accelerators and brakes” when the hormones, thoughts and feelings start kicking in, we need to realize this and shift to putting the breaks on. Here we remember we have a choice.

We can take a couple of breaths and shift towards re-framing our perspective about the situation (we might need to move away from the situation to take these breaths and cool down). 

Step 3 – Ask yourself, what action will I take for myself, the person I am interacting with and the situation I am in that will serve the most healthy outcome?

In this situation, I chose to be calm, patient and as open and accepting of the situation as possible for me. Allowing me to transition quickly and calmly to my client and find the smoothest way to deal with this ticket. Remembering to repeatedly do this every-time thoughts of the situation would arise. 

Finally, we make the choice and as Jon Kabat-Zinn says “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. Still feeling the emotions, we learn how to be with them rather than get pushed around by them - repeatedly making the choice to respond skillfully to the situation.

*A tip from Buddhist contemplative traditions is to quietly say to yourself “this person in front of me is just like me, wishing to be happy and avoid stressful, anxious situations.”

It helps to have a good laugh after it all as well. I still have a good chuckle when I reflect back to the situation… Our own Provincial Police “Fighting Crime, One Bell at a Time!”

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