By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts
Anger covers a large umbrella of feelings like irritability, frustration, bitterness, resentment, impatience, jealousy, fury…the list continues. So even though anger is a universal emotion, it might be more difficult than we think to get to the bottom of why we lose our cool.
Most of the time, we either feel justified in being angry or ashamed of it. But just like every other emotion, anger isn’t good or bad. The only way to understand it is to spend time being present with it. That’s where meditation and mindfulness come in.
Applying mindfulness to the heat of the moment gives us a chance to work with anger instead of fueling the fire. When we react from a place of frustration or anger, we might snap at someone we love or act recklessly in other ways. At that moment, it can be hard to remember that we have the option to press pause. But when we use different anger meditation techniques to become more aware of our feelings, we learn that it’s possible to respond from a calmer, more collected place, no matter how riled up we feel.
Anger is an adaptive reaction to perceived threats, or it can stem from suppressed feelings of resentment. It inspires aggressive behaviors that trigger our fight or flight mode and helps us restore some control over a situation.
Maybe we’ve been on hold for a long time, and the phone call suddenly disconnects. “Click.” Biologically, what happens next? Our blood pressure increases, heart rate quickens, adrenaline spikes, and our attention gets narrow. This physical state can lead us to lash out or make irrational decisions, which might resolve our immediate frustration, but have not-so-great future implications. Let’s say we slam our phone down on a table to let off some steam. But seconds later, we might think, “Did I just crack my screen?”
Anger can cue us to snap into emotional survival mode, too. It is nearly always trying to convey something to us that requires our attention. It can give us clues about our needs, values, boundaries, and unaddressed resentments. Anger is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience, and we tend to do one of two things when it pops up: disappear into the emotion and let it take over, or hide from it and resist. Either way, the result is often the same: we get stuck with the feeling longer than we need to — and no one loves being angry all the time.
Say a friend didn’t text us back for a week about something important. Anger might make us want to rant at them and cancel our plans or pout and ghost them. We feel angry, then we react. But could we do something else with anger instead of reacting? In this example, our anger might signal that we should tell our friend that we need a quicker response to texts like this. Instead of getting caught up in the emotion, we use anger like a compass to tell us where we need to go to feel better — in this case, setting a clear boundary with a friend.
Anger is an energy, like hot air, that the mind turns into a negative story when we react, resist, or dedicate our thoughts to it. We’re on the hook for learning how to manage it best. Eve Lewis, Director of Teaching and Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher at Headspace, says, “It’s important that we take a certain level of responsibility towards our anger. It’s not that we’re intentionally developing it or cultivating it in our mind, but through habit, we often don’t realize what’s happening. Circumstances outside of ourselves might cause or trigger anger to arise, but then, more often than not, we take it over ourselves.”
When we connect the energy in our body to the negative thoughts in our mind, we’re more likely to direct our anger externally or blame others. But it’s helpful to remember that we’re accountable for our own emotions and how we process them. We can learn how to reduce anger and to let these difficult feelings go more easily with practice.
We can learn to manage anger using meditation to defuse the mind and make us less reactionary. A regular practice can help us take a beat so we can check in, cool down, and think clearer every day and in the heat of the moment.
Meditation is about being present with our mind and body. To help us connect with the present moment, we can focus on our breath as we let any thoughts come and go. So when we’re angry and people say, “Just breathe,” they’re referring to a science-backed tool that can calm us down. Research also shows that specific breathing exercises can reduce stress and help us get better sleep.
We can even use our breath as a barometer for how we feel. When we’re irritated, a sense of hot air gets trapped in our body. If we’re really angry, it might feel like we’re about to explode. We take quick, shallow breaths and involuntarily hold onto some air, which creates tension in our chest, shoulders, neck, or jaw. Our nostrils might even flare more intensely.
Meditation boosts our awareness so we can recognize these physical changes and label them as a symptom of anger. And whenever we become aware of a symptom, we can better identify the root cause and how to handle the emotion more skillfully. With practice, we can learn to put out the welcome mat for our anger, rather than treating it as an emotion to be avoided or ashamed of. As long as we’re constructive in how we manage anger, and learn how not to land it at other people’s door, we can meet our anger with a sense of compassion.
Say we use physical sensations to identify anger. Now what? The next time our partner does something that upsets us (like leaving dirty dishes in the sink), and we notice the steam coming out of our ears, what do we do? Because we’re ready to blow.
The benefit of meditation for anger is that we learn feelings are just feelings. They will come and go, and anger doesn’t have as much control over us as we might think. We can learn to accept that anger is simmering, that anger is within us, that anger might even be justified, but we also know that it will simmer down and we don’t have to react to it. Science also says we can use meditation to release anger. This study reports that meditation leads to better emotional regulation, eases fear of strong emotions, and decreases the suppression of anger and aggressive outbursts.
Meditation for anger can also help us:
When we’re resilient, our mind is cool, calm, and collected enough to help us “bounce back” from challenging events more quickly instead of letting them dictate how we feel about ourselves or others. Developing strength of mind through meditation means we’re less likely to react in the heat of the moment. So, when we get upset with our partner over the dishes, we can decide what we want to do about it, not just explode the next time we see them — or rage clean the entire house.
Meditation has been shown to increase resiliency, making it easier to recover from anger. One study showed that 30 days of meditating with Headspace resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience.
Meditation helps us change how we talk to ourselves. We can reframe negative self-talk by choosing kind, loving words. Not critical ones. When we get angry, it’s easy to let that negative story build. “Our partner never does a good job cleaning up after themselves,” or “Why would they do this to me? They must not care.”
When we intentionally sit with the mind, let our negative thoughts come, then let them go, we’re teaching ourselves to be kind to our mind. We can follow up with, “Maybe they were rushing out the door and forgot. We all forget sometimes.” Now we can set the intention to remind them kindly when they get home. The more we practice, the more we’ll be able to notice but not engage with critical thinking that can fuel anger.
Our body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline when we feel stressed. Like it does with anger, our mind and body engage in a fight or flight response when we’re stressed. But when we take a slow inhale through the nose and a big, long exhale through the mouth, we’re signaling to the brain and body that we’re safe, that it’s okay to calm down.
Feeling stressed makes us more susceptible to frustration, irritability, or anger. So it becomes really important to manage anger by also relieving stress. Research shows that just 10 days of Headspace can help us reduce stress by 14%.
We can use different meditation techniques to help us meditate when we’re angry. But before we do, it’s important to set expectations.
If we’re really heated before we sit down, it’s not likely our mind will immediately become quiet and calm. But that’s okay. All we need to do is to sit and breathe. It might be uncomfortable at first, but over time, it will be easier to let angry thoughts and feelings go. Becoming more aware of what’s going on in the mind helps ease the intensity of anger and gives us more perspective.
Breathwork is when we intentionally control how to breathe to feel more relaxed. When we take a deep breath, we signal to the brain and body that we’re safe, that it’s okay to calm down. Within a matter of seconds, we start to feel more relaxed.
When something out of our control happens during the day, like major traffic when we’re already running late, it can affect our emotional state. Breathing exercises can help us regulate our system — and keep us from losing our cool.
Start with an easy technique called box breathing. Imagine a box with 4 equal sides. This visualization will help us breathe and hold our breath for the same number of counts, all the way around the box. Take slow, deep breaths, inhale through the nose for 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale through the mouth for 4, and hold the breath for 4 before we inhale again.
No matter how angry we’re feeling, we can always press pause, find a quiet space to be alone, and then imagine ourselves sitting in warm sunlight. That sunshine is going to help thaw our body. First, we can imagine the sunlight beaming above our head and into our body. Then, as it flows down, we can let it wash away any sense of anger and dissolve away areas of discomfort. This warm space allows us to let go of whatever storyline exists so we can react from a more calm, collected, thought-out place.
The more we can focus on the sensation of an emotion rather than our thoughts, the better we will be at preventing anger from spiraling. To do that, we have to step out of our head and into our body.
A body scan is a meditation technique where we mentally scan our body from our toes up to our head at a steady, even pace — like how a copy machine scans a piece of paper. As we scan, we take long, deep breaths and focus on how each part feels. We might feel tightness in our chest, shoulders, neck, and jaw. We might notice pins and needles in our fingers or toes. When we do this, we’re not trying to physically change anything, just be aware of it and see if breathing into it helps us to release some of that tension naturally. If not, that’s okay too. Simply take another deep breath and continue.
Headspace meditation teacher Dora Kamau says, “Living and existing in this world as we are, there’s a lot to be angry about, but if we allow our anger to consume us, we can lose sight of our sense of connection with those around us.” Loving-kindness is a practice of compassion for ourselves and others. We’re not invalidating our anger, but learning how to hold anger in a way that won’t burn us.
Take a long deep breath through the nose and out through the mouth. Then, we can use words of affirmation to create warmth and tenderness for ourselves.
Repeat: May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I be at ease.
Bring to mind someone we’re upset with. Notice how the body responds. Then offer them the same feelings of warmth and kindness.
Repeat: May you be safe. May you be peaceful. May you be at ease.
Again, just sit with these feelings. Notice resistance. Allow it to be there. Let it go. This creates an awareness of anger within us while creating space to transform it into compassion. We can recognize the humanness that exists, not only with those we love, but also with those we may be at odds with.
Focusing on the extended exhale is another breathing technique that helps us relieve stress. Making our exhales longer than our inhales slows down both our heart rate and thoughts. It also helps us transform our anger.
Take a normal breath, and then allow our whole body to exhale. Breathe out whatever it’s holding on to. Breathe slowly through the nose to the count of 3, then exhale through the mouth to the count of 6.
Anger tends to last because we get frustrated with ourselves about being angry. Then we try to justify why we’re mad, which only causes us to get angry all over again. So we start to cycle between directing our anger inwards and directing it outwards. But it’s important to remember that we can only experience peace of mind when we make peace with our mind. It’s not a destination but an aim to accept all of our feelings. The next time we feel angry, let’s remember to treat ourselves kindly, without judgment, and give ourselves some patience to do better next time.
When we experience anger, one of the best diffusers is to go for a walk, whether that's downstairs to pace around the basement or outside to circle around the block. Even better if we can escape to a garden, park, or trail. Research shows that stress levels can decrease significantly after spending just 20 minutes out and about in green spaces.
One good tip is to bring our breathing and footsteps into sync — exhale and one step forward, inhale and one step forward. We’re connecting mind and body and allowing our anger to melt away.
The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you build your practice. Start by searching these three meditations to help you let go of anger. A happier, healthier you is a few breaths away.
Transforming Anger course.
Holding Anger With Kindness meditation.
Losing Your Temper meditation.