Sunday, February 6, 2011

Conquering Anger

I was talking to a friend recently and he asked me about anger control. He stated that he is usually calm and does not feel angry unless he is provoked. He alluded to the fact that he was not to blame as he is generally not angry unless there is external provocation, in other words, the source of his anger is outside him. This is a very common situation we face, myself included.

Luckily for me, discussing anger is not as difficult as trying to prove the presence or absence of the human soul. We have all experienced anger, so we know that it is real. There are any number of scenarios where emotion is expressed as anger. We cannot say that avoiding certain situations will cure anger, as no two persons interprets a situation the same way.

How do we appear to others when we are angry?
Let’s compare two very different animals in the wild, a lion and a deer. A lion kills prey for food and a deer eats grass. By nature, a lion is ferocious and this is a form of anger. This instinctual ferociousness is required by the lion, otherwise it would not be able to kill its prey. Have you seen a friendly look on a lion? Do you feel like approaching a lion? Now contrast this with a deer. It eats grass and by nature is very timid. A deer does not appear threatening and you would approach a deer and would try to feed it grass if you could. It has a friendly look. When we get angry, no one wants to be around us. When we are smiling and happy, we attract people.

Is there a common basis for anger?
As I have just mentioned, every situation where someone is angry is different from others. There are 2 things that are common when we get angry. It starts off with expectation. We expect something from someone, we expect to be treated a certain way, we expect to have no obstacles to what we want to do. When this expectation is not fulfilled, whether it is in the form of not getting what we want from someone, not being treated in a certain way or if we encounter unexpected obstacles to our perceived happiness in trying to do something, we get to the next link in the chain that leads to anger. This is our ego. Our ego suggests to us that we have been denied and this is very unfair to us. This clash of expectation and ego leads to anger. The same ego prevents us from looking at ourselves and seeing that the root for our anger lies within us. When we cannot see this, we start the blame game and this aggravates the situation leading to more cycles of anger.

What does anger do to us?
Anger affects us on physical, physiological and psychological levels. Let’s take this example. When you throw a rock into a very still lake, three things happen. There is a big splash that does not last very long. Ripples are formed, and this disturbs the surface of the lake depending on the force of the splash. Finally, the rock hits the bottom of the lake and kicks up dirt that clouds the surface of the lake. These three things are analogous to what happens to us on the physical, physiological and psychological levels.

When we have an angry outburst, we make a big splash in the form of raising our voice, banging our fist on a table etc. In the process of doing this, our muscles get very tense. This is how anger affects us on the physical level. Once this splash subsides, ripples are created. Our heart rate quickens, blood pressure shoots up in response to anger. The extent of the heart rate and blood pressure rise depends on the intensity of the angry outburst. These changes in heart rate and blood pressure can result in shearing forces on the lining of our blood vessels and can sometime lead to a heart attack. This is how anger affects us on a physiological level. Once a rock enters the water, it has to settle at the bottom. Once you have an angry thought, it has to settle at the bottom of your mind, otherwise you will be angry about that situation forever. As this angry emotion enters the mind and settles in, it kicks up dirt in the form of loss of mental equilibrium. It takes a while to regain our mental equipoise once we get angry and if repeatedly get angry we start to forget what it feels like to have peace of mind. The mind then adapts to anger as a baseline and this is how anger becomes habitual to people. This is how anger affects us on a psychological level.

How do we overcome anger?
It is said that anger can be conquered by love. However, anger and love cannot exist in the same sentence. There is no such thing as “angry love”. Anger burns whatever love and compassion you may have at that moment. One of the harder things to do is to suddenly give up expectation and ego. It is a gradual process. Believe it or not, anger is our best teacher to overcome ego and expectation (which ultimately results in grief). If we remind ourselves that expectation and ego is the basis for anger, we can learn to cope with any anger provoking situation. If you are faced with a potential anger provoking situation, do these three things simultaneously.

1. Smile. It immediately relaxes your muscles and counteracts what happens when anger hits you at the physical level. You use more than twice the number of muscles to frown than what you use to smile. Smiling requires very little effort.

2. Take slow deep breaths. It slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure and this counteracts what anger does to you on a physiological level.

3. With the slow deep breathing, mentally say one with the first inhalation, two with the first exhalation, three with the second inhalation, four with the second exhalation and so and so forth till you count to thirty. This counters what anger does to you on a psychological level and for a brief period of time, gives you clarity of thought to ask yourself if you want to proceed with the angry emotion.

If you still want to get angry, repeat steps 1,2 and 3 till anger dissipates. Once anger dissipates, have the courage to look within yourself and see what unmet expectation started the chain resulting in anger. Then, mentally cauterize that thought and resolve that it should not show up again. In this manner, anger can be conquered by facing the root of anger within yourself.