Nostrils flaring, heated skin, curled fists, and a sweaty brow. You’ve gotten angry before — we all have. It happens, and maybe more often than we’d like.
But you don’t need to let anger take over every time it creeps up. Calming down isn’t out of reach, no matter how furious you may feel. You can learn to curb your anger and calm yourself to better manage difficult situations and prevent yourself from saying or doing something you may regret. If you learn to calm down quickly, you’ll see improvements in your well-being and relationships.
This article will show you how to calm down every time you feel anger rising up.
Why People Get Angry
Why do we get mad? Researchers believe that anger may have once served a valuable purpose for us — at least back in the Stone Age.
Researchers at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology propose a new way to think of anger. They suggest that we evolved the ability to feel angry as a tool in bargaining with others. Through anger, primitive humans had a tactic with which they could put pressure on a contending party. This placed them in a better bargaining position in conflicts.
Additionally, anger was helpful in creating frightening and intimidating responses. Anger, being a passionate emotion, was a powerful indication to a tribe that an item was of special importance to an individual, which helped manage relationships in the tightly bonded tribe.
But is anger still helpful? Thousands of years of evolution certainly has not diminished the intensity of anger, and we still experience anger in the same way our ancestors did. However, we live wildly different lives. We no longer live in tight-knit, extremely personal tribes. We are sedentary and we don’t need to chase something to get our next dinner.
Given our relatively comfortable situation, it would seem like there are few instances where anger would be helpful. But anger still happens. Even something small, like a co-worker taking a pen without asking, can set someone off. What does this mean for present-day humans?
The Physiological Effects of Anger
Anger is expressed physically in different ways for different people, but several responses are fairly typical.
All emotions start their lives in the part of the brain called the amygdala. It is composed of two, tiny, almond-shaped twin structures. The amygdala launches the chain reaction which triggers the physiological reactions of anger by releasing hormones.
As a response to anger, the amygdala also triggers the flight-or-fight response. This is the primordial response to threats, where the body’s resources are recruited to either “fight” or “flight” (run away). Flight-or-fight gives you a burst of energy. This explains the enormous amounts of passion and energy you feel when angry.
The response also causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat, and your muscles to tense. It enhances your awareness, which explains why you become hyper-focused on whatever is making you angry. The object your anger often becomes the only thing that you can think about.
When you come out of feeling angry, the flight-or-fight response starts to gear down. Energy levels plummet and you may feel exhausted, emotionally and physically. In this calmer state, reflection can begin and feelings of regret bubble up. The rational brain once again takes the wheel, which might lead to a lot of critical self-evaluation.
Is Anger Healthy?
Your intuition may say “no.” But it turns out that the answer is more nuanced.
Anger is not generally “socially” healthy. Anger can often cause us to act in ways we may later regret. Uncontrolled anger can often alienate family and friends, isolating us. It scares those around us, causing us to lose out on important opportunities and connections. It may even result in negative legal consequences if anger prompts us to act out in destructive ways.
Anger puts high levels of stress on the body. Anger’s effects on our physical health are similar to those of anxiety and fear, which also trigger the fight-or-flight response. During anger, our bodies are flooded with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. While handy in troubling situations, these hormones are harmful to the body.
Over the long term, cortisol causes weight gain and immune function impairment. Excessive levels of adrenaline can lead to high blood pressure. Chronic anger can also lead to depression, and angry people are predisposed to heart disease. Anger may also lead to more unpleasant symptoms such as digestive issues, including gas and abdominal pain.
Anger isn’t a great emotion to harbor. But in small amounts, anger can be motivating and can lead to improvement. For example, we might use anger to express injustice or unfairness with how the world works and demand answers from our politicians and leaders. Anger is not something to completely erase from your life. Instead, it’s an emotion to be managed carefully.
How to Calm Down From Being Angry
A common suggestion for dealing with anger is to “let it all out”: Express your anger directly with little to no restraint. Rather than de-escalating anger, research has found that this technique actually causes it to increase.
It’s better to develop strategies to stop yourself from getting too angry and losing control. Managing our anger and calming down requires that we understand why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling and figure out a way we can better express ourselves.
The American Psychological Association recommends five steps when managing anger:
- Cognitive restructuring: This is all about changing the way you think about a situation. Don’t let yourself fall into negative self-talk, swearing, and insulting. It’s always better to approach a situation through reason and thoughtfulness rather than brash emotion.
- Problem-solving: Redirect the energy from anger into productive problem-solving.
- Better communication: Too often, anger is caused by misunderstandings. Don’t jump to conclusions. Get more information and act on the facts. Learn to listen uncritically to what others are saying instead of getting offended immediately.
- Use humor: It’s hard to be mad when you are making light of a situation.
- Change your environment: Give yourself a break, go for a walk, and relax with a few moments of calming breaths.
Let’s walk through a stressful, anecdotal situation to put color into these tips. Imagine you’re in a fight with your brother. He borrowed $200 from you and promised to pay you back with his next paycheck. However, instead of paying you back, he treated his girlfriend to a lavish dinner.
When you find yourself growing angry, take a step back, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Use relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or pressing on pressure points. Your priority is to stay calm: The last thing you want is to immediately react without thinking about your actions. Try to identify why you are feeling the way you are. For example, you might say, “I’m angry because my brother didn’t keep his promise.” Don’t try to figure out what the other person’s motives are or their internal thought processes. The key is determining what set you off.
Once you have calmed down enough to think rationally, confront the situation. Explain to your brother how you feel: “I’m angry because you didn’t pay me back like you promised.” Invite him to share his side of the story. Maybe it was your brother and his girlfriend’s anniversary. Maybe he forgot. You won’t know unless you ask.
Think about how you and the other person can solve the problem. For example, you might suggest your brother pay you back in small increments.
Remember that excessive anger is never a necessary part of the solution to a difficult problem. You can solve most of life’s issues through patient communication, conflict management and rational strategizing.
How to Banish Anger From Your Life
Incorporate relaxation in your daily life to develop a calm, anger-free disposition. Things like breathing exercises and physical activity are both immensely healthy ways of releasing pent-up stress. When you relieve stress in an incremental way, you’ll find that you still feel calm even in the face of the worst provocation.
Using Spire can help you become far more self-aware in situations which may be triggering intense emotions. Spire tracks your breathing and identifies when you are getting stressed and angry. By being able to watch your anger starting to form, you can take immediate steps to ensure that anger stays in check. Often times, anger jumps up on us when we least expect it. With Spire, you won’t be caught off guard and you’ll know when it’s time to implement the anger management techniques outlined in this article.
The key to learning how to calm down effectively is learning how to better express your emotions. Anger can be a healthy way to identify why you feel the way you do and learn how to manage conflict in a way that affirms your feelings. But anger can only yield these positive effects if it is managed properly.
Master your anger, don’t let it master you.