Temper Your Temper. At Least Pay Attention
Are you noticing that many people aren't at their best right now? I haven't lost my optimism about humankind, but I am definitely more aware of behaviors, conversations and interactions that are more charged and challenging than they need to be. While the clip below doesn't exactly reflect my attitude, I do know we could be doing better..
There is a current of anger running through our culture right now. Individually and collectively, we are seeing covert and overt manifestations of anger. With viral videos featuring the worst in human nature, a polarized political system, adversarial and disrespectful discourse around our most critical issues, anger over privilege, power and disparity, and a pandemic that threatens our health and economy, there are plenty of hot-buttons for anger. Safety, predictability and joy in our daily lives can feel compromised right now.
The vulnerability and anxiety we experience can translate very quickly to anger if we don’t pay attention to it. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a story titled “Anger Management in an Angry Time,” by Elizabeth Bernstein (June 20, 2020), which offers some useful insights on anger and speaks to both its benefits and its costs. (Link cannot be provided to article without a subscription to WSJ).
Anger has its function, Bernstein notes in her article. If we can view anger as an emotion that helps us to more adaptively respond to the world around us and provides us with motivation and clarity, we can use it purposefully to guide our choices and behavior. If we attend to it, we have a greater opportunity to use it constructively.
However, internalizing too much anger for too long, Bernstein warns, has risks. Dr. Srini Pillay, psychiatrist and brain researcher, notes that “anger can drain our physical and emotional resources and is linked to major health problems like high blood pressure, inflammation and heart disease.” He further asserts that, “anger can overwhelm the emotional brain and compromise the efficiency of cognitive processing and decisions making.”
We see this play out routinely in our current culture as many people demonstrate a limited capacity to empathize or understand views that are different from their own. Bernstein writes that angry people judge others more harshly than themselves, share less with others, have diminished empathy, a narrower perspective and an impaired ability to think strategically or expansively.
We do not have to be hostages to our anger, however, and it helps us to examine what we are experiencing and how we can use our anger constructively. Bernstein offers this advice from experts:
• Pinpoint the source of your anger. Get curious about what you are feeling and identify potential triggers. The more aware you are about what impacts you, the less reactive you will be.
• Be strategic in taking control. Explore whether your anger is serving you or undermining you. Anger can motivate, clarify, alert us to risks or cue us to change how we are thinking or behaving. If anger can energize you to manage something adaptively, use it. If not, discard it.
• Calm your nervous system. Get exercise. Be outside. Practice meditation, gratitude or deep breathing. Set limits and boundaries with others. Be still and quiet your mind.
• Reduce other irritants. Manage your environment. Be aware of what overstimulates, distracts or frustrates you and limit or eliminate those stressors. Control what you can.
• Reframe the story. Change your lens to compassion or empathy. When we make the effort to see things with compassion, it can soften our anger or judgement. Right now, many of the unlikeable behaviors we see in others stems from their anxiety or vulnerability. It helps both the giver and receiver to extend generosity and kindness in our interactions.
And to ponder: “The challenge of staying human in the middle of this comes down to how we respond to the suffering around us and in ourselves.”
- Tim Desmond, Author, Psychotherapist and Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Antioch University