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When was the last time you got really angry? We all know the feeling. In fact, we all know it so well that anger has been classified as one of the six universal emotions, inherent in every individual. But have you ever really thought about why we get angry and what anger really is?
Anger is often defined as an ‘emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel have has deliberately done you wrong’ and can be caused by anything from a barrier to attaining one’s goal, to physical discomfort, to unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, or even just environmental factors such as temperature. It’s amazing we’re not angry all the time.
We all get angered by different things and have various levels of tolerance for frustration, but the physiological reactions are the same for us all. Our blood pressure increases, heart rate quickens, and levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline increase, causing a state of arousal, all in preparation for a response to whatever angered us. In that same moment, our attention is narrowed so we can make quick decisions on how to act to restore this unpleasant situation. In that sense, anger is an adaptive response to threats, inspiring aggressive behaviors to help us fight or flight and restore control over the situation. Although this sounds like a smart mechanism, it can lead to irrational decisions, which might resolve our immediate frustration, but have poor future implications. [Editor’s Note: if you’re worried about “poor future implications” right now, try the SOS meditation.]
A recent study examined the biggest triggers of anger in everyday life, rating the top five. It turns out, other people are the biggest trigger of anger in today’s society, which does make sense as we are constantly in contact with others and whether we attain our goals or not often depends on other people. The next biggest triggers were psychological and physical distress, interpersonal demands, and environment or unknown/unidentified triggers. As it seems, basically anything and everything around us can provoke feelings of anger within us. Centuries ago, we could afford to be aggressive toward the source of our anger, because more often than not, our life depended on it. Anger aided us when being attacked by predators, or when competing with other humans for prey. And although anger is adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, our societies have evolved in such a way that it is no longer appropriate to react in this way whenever we feel angry. So, what can we do instead to keep our calm? Well, that’s where meditation comes in.
The link between mindfulness and emotion regulation has been examined by many researchers with accumulating evidence showing that mindfulness helps reduce negative affect in both clinical and non-clinical populations in as little as seven weeks of training. Research comparing long-term meditators and demographically similar non-meditators found that mindfulness is related to fewer difficulties in emotion regulation. What’s more, a recent review has concluded that difficulties in emotion regulation subside with higher levels of mindfulness. Through concepts of mindfulness such as non-judgment and openness, we may learn to experience negative feelings without getting emotionally upset by them, which is thought to be the main mechanism behind the well-established link between mindfulness and emotion regulation.
Research examining mindfulness specifically in relation to anger has found that increases in mindfulness correlate with significant decreases in anger expression, following eight weeks of in-person mindfulness training. A study showed the potential role of mindfulness to alleviate aggression and concluded that more mindful individuals are less likely to interpret ambiguous behavior in a negative way or as reflecting anger and the less aggressive they are likely to be in response to an anger-inducing situation. Mindfulness training has further been found to reduce rumination, thus having an indirect effect on anger, suggesting that mindfulness allows us to notice, but not get swept up in negative emotions, which in turn helps us let go of anger quicker. The existing scientific literature proposes that mindfulness enables us to better understand our emotions and current experiences, resulting in healthier emotion management and expression, without under- or over-engagement in transient states such as anger.
The better we are at understanding our emotions and viewing them as passing states, rather than perceiving them as our reality and getting overwhelmed by them, the easier it is to cope with these emotions in a healthy way. Mindfulness just might be the way to achieve this.