by Mimi O' Connor
Decades of research have reported on the negative health consequences of living with high levels of hostility.
In his book Anger Kills, Dr. Redford Williams clarifies that of the several components of the Type A behavior pattern (the kind exhibited by people who are tense, driven, competitive and hostile), it's hostility that is most highly correlated with cardiovascular disease. It is important to note the distinction between experiencing anger, which is a normal emotion, and fostering hostility.
Hostility results from unchecked, unexamined anger. It involves the toxic harboring and projection of angry thoughts, feelings and actions that result from a combination of protracted fear, judgment, defensiveness, cynicism and aggression. Hostility contributes not only to physical illness, but also to the deterioration and destruction of relationships. In order to prevent feelings of anger from escalating into debilitating hostility, we must turn toward a deeper understanding of how anger works. Anger acts as an emotional flare, signaling to us the acute and painful awareness of feeling threatened or hurt when a personal boundary has been violated. Thereby, it is a valuable messenger of our perception and state of well-being that we cannot afford to ignore. As we pinpoint the cause of our anger through compassionate self-exploration, we can learn how to simultaneously decode its helpful warnings and respond to it constructively.
Tips for Responding to Anger Constructively
Respond First on the Inside
Anger often feels dramatically alarming and commonly elicits an impulse to aggressively stuff down or fling out a response. To counter this tendency, take a "Time-In" in order to turn your attention away from energy depleting, external attempts to control the situation or others. Turning toward tender and inflamed feelings, sooner rather than later, will aid you in responsibly exploring and understanding your valid and pressing needs at hand.
Focus on Your Breathing
When anger arises, it highjacks us physiologically. The body prepares to either fight or flee through activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This causes our heart rate and blood pressure to rise as adrenaline levels surge and muscles tighten. The antidote for this is to activate the "rest and restore" or parasympathetic part of the nervous system by slowing and deepening the breath. Try this 4-minute practice video, "Breathing to Relax and Renew."
Interrupt the Anger Response by Pausing
Our consciousness has a hard time focusing on two subjects at the same time. We can break the tension by temporarily distracting ourselves with a soothing, re-centering alternative. Taking a walk, calling a best friend, getting a cool drink of water, listening to a favorite song, or reading an inspirational passage from a book, will aid in loosening anger's grip. Resist falling into the trap of not allowing this respite because it "won't achieve or fix anything." In fact, it can achieve quite a lot. As the heightened, physiological response begins to calm, stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure can return to normal. Our anger doesn't need to be fixed, it needs to be recognized and understood. When we feel better, we can think more clearly, kindly and decisively about whatever caused our anger.
Turn Toward Your Feelings
Remind yourself that you have a right to feel whatever it is you are feeling. Begin to deconstruct your anger by asking yourself gentle, empathic questions in order to explore the cause of your anger. If the circumstance allows, journal your answers to questions such as: What hurt my feelings? What frightened me? What made me feel unsafe? What disappointed me and/or led me to feel disrespected rejected or betrayed? In what way is this present, provoking situation similar to past, painful occurrences/memories? Could my anger be uncovering feelings of being overextended... mentally, emotionally, or physically exhausted? Am I feeling used and/or unappreciated? Am I feeling overwhelmed by circumstances that seem to be outside of my control? If I did not fear the rejection or disapproval of others, what would I want them to know right now about my wants and needs?
Responding On The Outside
Too often underlying, valid needs are overshadowed, even lost, because of the misguided, inappropriate ways in which anger is expressed. Raising our voices, projecting blame and arguing will only serve to throw more fuel on the fire. When this happens we lose a critically important opportunity for much needed communication and resolution.
Replace "You" Messages With "I" Messages
Dr. Carl Rogers, the seminal founder of the human potential movement, was the first to identify the efficacy of this method. In her book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner suggests using this same method for shifting from "You are..." statements into "I feel..." communications. She writes, as an example, "We can maximize the opportunity for constructive dialogue if we say, 'I feel like I'm not being heard' rather than 'You don't know how to listen.'"
In order to deescalate angry exchanges, focus your full attention on the other person when they are talking. This will aid in absorbing not only the surface content, but the deeper message they are attempting to convey. Focused attention through deep listening benefits all parties.
Assertiveness, as opposed to aggressiveness, involves sharing directly with others what you want and/or need. It involves stating what you want and letting that suffice, without detailed explanations and justifications. Remember that you are the only authority on your wants and needs. No one can deny your feelings, even if he or she disputes the situation at hand. On that note, the oft-quoted wisdom of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt is instructive for us: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Assertiveness is an effective communication skill that involves respect for oneself and others. It promotes cooperation instead of coercion. Be sure to seek additional support if your anger seems out of control, causes you to do things you regret, or is taking a toll on how you feel about yourself and others. Learning how to respond constructively to anger is a vital component in the sacred, unfolding process of personal growth and change.
What helps you to respond constructively when you feel angry?
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