Controlling Anger #2: on the physical problem of anger

Originally posted in “100 天不发火” on 6 July 2016. This is the second in a series of posts that begins with this master/TOC post. It is important to read the posts in the correct order; so if you have not read the previous posts in the serious, please follow that link and then go from there.

Anger is one of the primal emotions. It comes from deep inside the part of us that is shared with animals – and it is, fundamentally, a physical process. In order to manage anger effectively in the heat of the moment, we must understand that what we have in that instant is a physical problem to be solved.

I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t pray, “Lord, help me be calm,” any more than that you should not pray, “Lord, please help my back get better,” when you are in pain. Of course you should pray. But God generally likes to solve physical problems with physical solutions, and anger is no exception. When your back hurts, you pray, and also you go to the doctor or physical therapist. When your body throws you into anger mode, you most certainly pray, but you also do the physical things you need to do to break out of the physical state of anger.

So let’s start with understanding what happens when you get angry.

In the first place, you don’t decide to get angry – your subconscious decides, without asking you, “Uh-oh, this situation requires anger.” There are several different reasons that your subconscious might decide that, but the physical consequences are all the same. Your amygdala triggers a rush of adrenaline and cortisol and testosterone into your brain and bloodstream, and kicks your heart into high gear. Blood rushes out of your digestive system and into your outer muscles, which tense up for violent action. The adrenaline and rush of blood through your frontal cortex essentially shuts down your ability to think rationally – quite literally, angry people are stupid people, and indeed you could even say that angry people are temporarily sub-human, as the part of our brain that separates us from the animals largely stops working. Meanwhile your voice automatically gets louder and your face automatically grimaces – in other words, your body automatically, without your telling it to, starts trying to scare the people around you. Even worse, when you raise your voice and move around violently, your subconscious starts a feedback loop – it interprets your own behavior, which it caused to begin with, as evidence that the situation requires even more anger. Furthermore, since many people instinctively respond to anger with anger, and all angry people instinctively respond to anger with more anger, all of this stuff our subconscious is doing to us will usually trigger a response in the people around us that will be angry or fearful – and when our subconscious sees the people around us getting angry and scared it interprets that as more evidence that we need even more anger.

So the question of how to control your anger in the heat of the moment is really a physical question: how do we flush the adrenalin and testosterone and cortisol out of our bloodstream, and bring our heart rate back down, and get our voice lowered and our muscles relaxed? How do we get ourselves out of the physical state of anger and temporary stupidity, and back to a state of calm and clear-headedness? How do we get our brains back on-line?

Generally speaking, the biggest part of the answer is: breathe. Slow, relaxed breathing reassures those primitive parts of your brain that things are okay and it’s all right to calm down. You should practice deliberately slow, deliberately relaxed breathing when you are calm, and then you need to develop the habit of making sure the first thing you do when you feel anger seize you, is to very consciously and deliberately breathe like a non-angry person. Breathe slowly and consciously relax your diaphragm and chest muscles with each breath. If you just do that and nothing else, it will make a difference. (If you take high-end combat training in the military or in an American gun safety course, you will be taught breathing exercises explicitly as “this is how you keep your heart rate below 150 and your adrenalin and cortisol levels low enough for your brain to work properly so that you can make smart decisions in critical situations.”)

But there are a couple of other things you can do that will also help. So here is how I myself approach the problem when I feel rage building inside me. It doesn’t always work…but I think if you ask Helen she will tell you that she has seen me in a truly towering, out-of-control rage about three or four times in the five years we’ve been married. Once a year is a pretty good rate for a guy who as a child and young man had one of the world’s all-time terrible tempers.

Step 1: breathe. See above.

Step 2: I remind myself that, at this moment, I am very stupid, and therefore whatever I want to do I will probably regret – so I try very hard to do nothing at all. I look down at the floor so that I won’t run the risk of seeing expressions or body language from the other people in the room that my subconscious will interpret as threatening or disrespectful. I don’t allow myself to speak. (When I was a kid, most American parents would tell children, “When you get angry, count to ten slowly before you say anything” – perfect advice except that I would replace the word “say” with the word “do.”) On the rare occasions when I can feel myself getting madder anyway, if nothing else I leave the room, generally without saying anything (and I have told Helen that if we are having a disagreement and I suddenly get up and walk out of the room, she is absolutely NOT to follow me). Do nothing, because what you are going to do, is wrong.

Actually, “Do nothing,” is slightly overstated – it should really be, “Do nothing except what you have decided in advance, “Here’s what I will do when I get angry” – such as, “Breathe slowly and consciously relax your diaphragm and chest muscles with each breath.” Which brings us to Step 3…

Step 3. Deliberately express respect for the other person, most importantly with your body language.

Here you are taking advantage of the fact that there are at least two emotions that are incompatible with anger, and one of them is respect. There is a book called Outsmarting Anger that points out that it’s almost impossible to be angry with anybody if you feel like that person respects you; also, when you are angry with somebody, at that moment you do not feel respect for them. Your subconscious wants you to express intimidation and rejection, through your body language. Instead you deliberately express respect. This keeps the other person from getting angry, which would cause your subconscious to ramp up your own anger in response. But just as important, it sends a message to your own subconscious: “Look, I respect this person; so obviously I’m not really mad at them.” This may seem silly but it will make sense to your subconscious.

I cannot overstate the importance of body language, by the way. When we talk to somebody face-to-face, something like 10% of what they hear is what we say. Something like 20% to 30% of what they hear is our tone of voice. And the other 60% to 70% of what they “hear” from us is what our body language is saying. (This is why e-mails can be so easily misunderstood – 90% of the information we rely on to understand other people is missing in e-mails. It’s also why emoticons are so widely used in e-mails and WeChat – they stand in for the missing body language.)

Now I am a little bit handicapped in giving you brothers and sisters specific advice on what “respect” looks like…because I am an American, and what respectful body language looks like in America is not necessarily what it looks like in China, as these things are to a certain extent culturally determined. So this is something for the group to discuss: when you talk to somebody you respect, in China, what do your hands do? What is your voice like – its pitch, its volume level, its timbre? What is your posture – if you lean forward, does that say “respect” (it does in some cultures) or “threat” (as it does in others)? I think it’s close to universal that with someone you respect you are physically open – that is, your shoulders are back and your hands are at your side or further out, rather than crossed defensively across your chest. But other things vary from culture to culture, and you guys are the experts in Body Mandarin, not me.

A different way to think of it is to ask yourself, “What does contempt look like?” In America, for example, there is a particular way of sighing and rolling your eyes that says, “I think you are stupid and contemptible and infinitely inferior to me,” and you are much better off saying verbally, “I think you are stupid,” than you are cutting loose with that particular eye-rolling sigh. China will have its own code for contempt, of course. But whatever contempt looks like, respect in most cultures looks like the opposite of that.

I am completely serious – you guys should have a discussion about what exactly contempt and respect look like in China. Then you should practice deliberately “saying” with your body, “I respect you.” And when you feel yourself getting angry, you breathe, you remind yourself not to do or say anything that you feel like doing, and then you deliberately “say” to the other people in the room, with your body rather than with your mouth, “I respect you.”

Step 4. Find a way – any way that you can – to laugh, or at least chuckle, unless you happen to know that you are dealing with somebody who will go absolutely insane with rage if you laugh.

I said there were two emotions that are incompatible with rage. One is respect. The other is…well, I don’t know that there’s a word for it, but it’s whatever we feel when we feel like laughing.

You know how I talked about breathing as a way to reduce the adrenaline and testosterone levels, and bring your brain back online? Well, breathing properly will do that…over the course of a few seconds, if you are not too terribly angry. But laughing – if you can manage to laugh sincerely – kills anger (on a physical level) instantly, even if you’re really, really angry.

I don’t know why this is true, though I suspect it’s because laughing is a very human thing to do and it restores the humanity that we lose when we get angry. But it doesn’t really matter why it’s true – what matters is simply that it works. For this reason I have never forgotten some very wise words from Bill Flett, a twentieth-century New Zealand minister (dead now these thirty years, alas) who said that in his lifetime the most important and frequently used prayer of all was probably, “Lord, please help me see the funny side of this.”

You can’t always find a funny side; and you have to be careful to make sure that when you laugh, you are not sneering – that is, you need to not laugh at the other person for being so stupid, because that gets in the way of respect. But if you can manage to laugh, the simple physical act of laughing will trigger a release of all those clenched muscles and that racing heart.

So that’s my four-step recipe: breathe, remember that you are temporarily very stupid and therefore should not do or say anything, say with your body, “I respect you,” and if at all possible laugh.

One more piece of advice: you should actually rehearse all of this. You should practice breathing slowly. You should practice looking down at the floor (or, if that is disrespectful, then looking at the other person’s knees or whatever is culturally acceptable) and saying nothing. You should practice saying, “I respect you,” with your body language. You should have some sessions where your husband or wife or friend stands in front of you and says, “I say something insulting in three…two…one…NOW!” and you do all of those things at once. This is really just like athletics or playing a musical instrument – you don’t want to have to think about how to do all of these things when you’re angry; you want to practice until it becomes part of what in English we call “muscle memory.” By that I mean, the only way to get really good at playing the piano is to play your scales and exercises over and over until your fingers can do the right things without your thinking about it – you can see on the score that you need to play an A-major-7th chord sforzando, and your hands play an A-major-7th chord without your having to think about the individual notes, because your fingers know the chord and don’t need your brain’s help anymore. It’s the same thing here: bringing your brain back on-line from anger mode is a physical process, and physical processes have to be practiced until your body can do them without your having to think about how.

And that is more than enough for one day.

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