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Meditation for Anger

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Anger is a complex emotion and, for many people, a source of shame or guilt if they struggle to control their temper. Whether it’s red mist clouding the moment, a bubbling irritation that boils over, a long-held grudge finally expressed, or an injustice endured or witnessed, we’ve all experienced anger in one form or another.

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When viewed through the lens of mindfulness, anger is just energy that is neither good nor bad. It’s only when we engage with anger — identify with it, fuel it, hold onto it, become consumed by it — that things can become problematic. So how can meditation transform anger before it spirals out of control or becomes destructive?

Transforming anger

In meditating and in applying mindfulness in the heat of the moment, we are offered an opportunity to work with anger — whenever and however it arises — in a skillful, measured way.

When any emotion rises up, we tend to first get caught up in it and then act it out, through speech or action. This couldn’t be truer for the heightened emotion of anger. Meditation, though, can teach us how to change a rash, reactive mindset into a more considered, responsive, and productive one.

We start by first learning to recognize anger’s onset without stepping into it. Imagine a cauldron full of red-hot, bubbling liquid — it’s there, we see it clearly, but we can watch without reaching in and hurling cupfuls of it around the room. We don’t have to get involved.

Understanding emotional reactivity

Emotional reactivity is sparked by provocation, but that doesn’t have to mean person-to-person conflict. Anything — a traffic jam, the grocery store being out of milk, politics on the TV, our sports team losing, being clumsy — can be provocation enough to prompt an emotional reaction.

The ability to transform anger also involves taking responsibility for the fact that our anger is a part of us, regardless of what situation presses our buttons. Few of us purposefully get angry, so familiarizing ourselves with our emotional reactivity helps us understand what makes us hot under the collar and what it brings up for us.

As we stew on what upset us, our angry thoughts fan the flames until we reach the point when we project our ire outward or seek to blame others, and that’s where we need to understand the role our mind plays in stoking the fire.

With practice, we learn to see that anger doesn’t need to erupt in a matter of seconds; in fact, once we learn to view anger as a fleeting energy, we come to realize that we can be in control of it, not vice versa. We also come to see our anger with more clarity, realizing that it can actually be a healthy emotion if channeled in the appropriate way.

Healthy versus unhealthy anger

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If we’re easily angered and suddenly erupt, breathing fire onto undeserving bystanders, then we’re likely exhibiting unhealthy anger that comes with little awareness. By contrast, if our anger stems from a wrongdoing or an injustice and we bring reflection and awareness learned in meditation to the situation, we can properly assess and respond rather than react. This way, we are acting proactively and productively; that’s a healthy anger, appropriately harnessed and expressed.

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When anger rises up, the idea is to honor it, feel it, and be aware of it without letting it burn us up. That’s the kind of skill we can achieve through emotional regulation and meditation, a skill that begins with the breath through a technique called “focused attention.”

The breath as a barometer

Paying attention to our breath is a handy way of determining how calm we are — or how calm we’re not.

The breath is a reliable barometer of how we feel in body and mind in any given moment. If our breath were an alarm, it would sound every time we felt irritated, overwhelmed, impatient, or downright angry. Thankfully, for the mercy of everyone, “focused attention” is a much quieter signal system.

When angry feelings start to swell, it’s as though the body were full of hot, rising air that has nowhere to go; the breath can become shallower and more rapid. Hence why we feel we might blow a gasket.

Our emotional regulation begins by finding a way to release this intensity, and that release is through the out breath. We bring our focus to the breath and allow the body a deep exhale. And if we continue to exhale — two, three, four, even five times if necessary — the anger dissipates.

When we experience anger, we notice it beginning but rarely pay attention to when it has left us. By following the out breath, we are not only releasing tension, but we are also deliberately noticing anger’s beginning and its end. In noticing the end, we notice its impermanence.

It takes a certain amount of willingness to be vulnerable enough to sit with and understand one’s anger. It also requires patience to follow the natural out breath in this way, especially in the heat of the moment. Tuning into this internal barometer has the potential to make a real difference in how we calm ourselves and become less reactive.

What anger does to the body

Anger can simply be limited to an emotional reaction. But the more anger escalates, the more it turns into a physical thing.

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Once we cross the threshold into extreme anger or a rageful state, the physiological reactions are the same for everyone: blood pressure increases, heart and breathing rates quicken, the muscles tighten, and our adrenaline spikes, releasing the “stress hormone” cortisol into our system as our “fight or flight” mechanism is activated. We don’t quite reach the cartoon stage of steam coming out of the ears, but there’s a lot happening internally.

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If one area of the brain sees a lot of activity in response to anger, it’s the frontal lobe — a part of the brain that governs reasoning. With adrenaline kicking in at the same time, snap decisions are made, and, in anger, those decisions might not be the smartest. It’s not hard to understand how difficult it must be to see straight when seeing red.

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For people who are constantly angry, the health impact is potentially considerable: the body is flooded with cortisol, the nervous system strained, and blood pressure heightened. Analysis of one scientific study found that people who easily get angry “are at increased risk of progressing to hypertension and developing coronary heart disease.”

The science

Researchers have examined the link between mindfulness and emotional regulation, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that long-term meditators have an easier time processing negative emotions without getting swept away by them.

One study found that an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction led to “decreases in fear of emotions, suppression of anger, and aggressive anger expression.”

Another strong demonstration of meditation’s influence on our emotional reactivity is “the hot sauce study", which took college students who were new to meditation and introduced them to the practice, using the Headspace app over a three-week period.

The students were then brought into a lab and asked to give a two-minute speech on their life goals to another person (who they didn’t know was an actor). The actor was deliberately unfair, harsh, and provocative in the ego-bruising critiques he was scripted to deliver in response.

Fresh on the heels of that unwarranted criticism, participants were asked to prepare a taste sample of food for the actor. They were told 1) they could add hot sauce or lemonade powder or chocolate syrup to the dish, as much or as little as they liked, and 2) the person would have to finish the plate even though he didn’t like spicy food. The participants’ capacity for vengeance was measured by how much hot sauce they chose to use.

This format, using hot sauce as a proxy for aggression, is used in numerous studies to assess aggression. The results? Participants who meditated with Headspace for three weeks prior to the “provocation” were 57% less aggressive and reactive to the feedback than the non-meditators who took part.

The benefit of these findings is obvious: the better we are at viewing heightened emotions as passing states, the easier we cope with them. Yes, the red mist will still drift in, but we are more equipped with a sense of objectivity. And that’s ultimately we how we reframe anger.

A personal guide to health and happiness right in your pocket

Headspace on anger

If you like the idea of finding a new way to work with anger, the Headspace app features a specific 10-day pack called Transforming Anger. These guided meditations utilize “focused attention” to train the mind to witness anger and then let it go, providing a go-to technique that can be applied at the moment, whenever anger starts braying at your door.

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