Have you ever noticed how our body perpetuates our emotions? If you feel angry, the more you focus on the thing making you angry, the more angry you become.
A few weeks ago in a blog called The Moskstraumen I talk about the mental health spiral wherein anxiety leads to further anxiety and depression leads to further depression. I thought this was just to do with these mental wellbeing states however through reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama it's clear that this spiral extends much further.
This spiral is also in effect with our emotional states such as anger or hatred, but also happiness. Of course, you can feel angry that you're angry or happy that you're happy, but something's happening on a deeper level that serves to strengthen the effect.
When we feel angry it triggers an arousal response in our body. This surge of hormones (primarily adrenaline and cortisol) exacerbates our existing emotional state. The arousal response can also trigger the state of anger.
If we're driving and somebody cuts in front of us we feel threatened, the arousal response puts us on edge, we become uncomfortable and irascible. We can beep the horn, shout and gesticulate, all of which have no effect on anyone other than ourselves. We sit stewing in our car feeling the victim of a great injustice and we can even justify our own emotions by labelling the other driver a danger on the roads. Travelling further down this path, our anger does not dissipate, but perpetuates, potentially affecting the rest of our day. The more we think about it it seems, the worse it gets.
Some psychotherapeutic principles for anger management advise clients to let this anger out in a controlled manner. For instance screaming into a pillow for taking up boxing or martial arts as a channel to vent anger. Whilst I am very under qualified to comment on whether such approaches work, the Dalai Lama points out these only serve to strengthen the response to anger by training our bodies to release it. Like working out in the gym, the more we exercise certain emotions, the stronger they get. The body learns that this is an important response, we perpetuate the feedback loop and make it easier to jump back into the loop again in the future.
Avoiding these feelings or suppressing them isn't the answer either, this merely stores the problems up for later, and like a bad toothache, it'll probably kick in at the most inconvenient time.
Confronting our anger is the most important step in overcoming it. Reflecting on why we are feeling anger what has caused it whether the anger is a helpful response or whether it is destructive to us all those around us. This isn't always possible when we're in a heightened state of anger but certainly can be done at a later time when we are a little calmer. By confronting our own anger, we can interrupt the cycle and find a more constructive response.
When faced with somebody else's anger the obvious and often natural response for us is to respond with our own anger, yet this only serves to heighten the other persons anger and exacerbate our own feelings. It takes much greater strength and resolve to respond with patience.
This is the opposite of weakness.
Weakness is taking the easy way out. It's responding to anger with our own anger. It's our chimp brain jumping in to a fight response. Or it is trying to escape from the anger (flight) or a passive response (freezing) is also the chimp. Confronting the anger with patience, tolerance and compassion it takes much greater strength inner strength.
It's by allowing the other person to tell us why they feel anger and trying to understand their perspective (empathy) that we may be able to start to release the pressure of the situation.
It's far more likely to result in a positive outcome than responding with anger.
We have within our power the ability to reduce the impact of our negative emotions by breaking these perpetual emotions but it takes introspection and strength in a willingness to confront our discomfort.
I don't know what's worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
I don't know why I instigate
And say what I don't mean
I don't know how I got this way
I know it's not alright
So, I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit tonight