In the first article in this series, Why Does Anger Matter?, we learned how anger can harm us. One of the most frustrating things about anger is that it boomerangs. We usually can’t just destroy the problem in front of us. Instead, we wind up with a bloodstream full of toxic hormones that can kill us. We need relaxation for Mindful Communication.
To overcome our anger, we need concrete solutions. We need a specific plan of action that can let our higher, thinking mind control and channel our survival mind. This takes three basic steps: 1) Relaxation Techniques 2) Self-messaging Techniques, and 3) Expressing Techniques. Yes, we have to apply them in that order. We all know what happens when we try to express before we have relaxed and refocused, and it isn’t pretty
Today, let’s look at Relaxation Techniques. These are really great, because if they work well, we may find that whatever we’re angry about doesn’t really matter. We can spare ourselves steps 2 and 3.
Don’t think that I am suggesting that we simply use relaxation to repress our anger. That’s dangerous, and not what we want. But relaxation may allow us to gain perspective and distance on our anger. This shrinks anger down to size, and may make it too small to notice. That is different from repressing the big angry T. rex inside us.
The Relaxation Chain
Here is my suggestion for a chain of relaxation responses:
- Realize that you are angry. Anger can happen so fast that we go into combat survival mode before we even realize it. We start doing things we will later regret, without realizing that this is our angry amygdala speaking, and not our human brain. We need this step to trigger our relaxation program instead of a rage response, never skip this step.
- Take five deep, slow breaths. Never mind counting to 10; that’s baby stuff. We need oxygen, and we need to get that oxygen to our brain. Real deep breaths take practice. You have to breathe like an opera singer, with your diaphragm and belly, not your chest. Chest breathing is part of the anger response, and we need to avoid it. Relax your abdomen and let that fill your lungs. Do it five times. You’ll still be angry, but you’ll be aware of that, and your mind will feel clearer. This clarity of mind may encourage you to start expressing yourself—DON’T DO IT!
- Distance yourself. Anger makes us want to close in and destroy. But you are clearer now, and you know that’s not allowed. Make any excuse at all, and walk away. The bathroom is a good zone of retreat, but do plan where you will go when anger strikes.
- Release Muscle Tension. One of the most obvious and uncomfortable body reactions to anger is that all your muscles tense up. This can cause pain in your neck and back, as well as tension headaches. (Now you know where THAT comes from.) Some relaxation techniques start from the toes, but the extreme tension in your head, neck, and face when you’re angry mean that it’s better to take it from the top. Focus on your scalp, and relax it. Move to your forehead, and unwind all those wrinkly lines until it is smooth (a mirror may help). Close your eyes and relax your eyelids. Relax your face and loosen your jaw. Relax your throat. Unclench your neck. Rock your head gently forward and back, then turn it side to side. Whenever you think of it, relax your eyelids.
- Walk. If all else fails, walk. I have had to walk miles and miles sometimes to use up the adrenaline/cortisol charge. Steps One through Four will usually work, but some triggers just cut too deep, or the stakes are too high, or we’re still learning how to channel our anger and we’re not ready yet. Get out and walk as soon as you can. Make whatever excuse seems workable, or try to hang on until a break, and then walk as fast as you can for as much time as you have.
How to Practice Phase 1
I’m not going to sugar-coat this: Daily practice is required for this to work. This is something you have to teach yourself to do, so that you can apply it at the critical moment. It’s a learned skill, but definitely one worth mastering. You will improve with time, but you have to be patient.
Here’s how to practice: Give yourself 15 minutes. Sit alone in a warm, comfortable, quiet room. Dim the lights or use candles. You can lie down if you like, but do not fall asleep; this is why sitting in a comfortable chair or sofa is better.
In Phase 1, focus your mind on anything you enjoy, or on someone or something you like. Realize that you feel good. Take the five deep breaths, and start relaxing from your scalp down. Pass your neck, and relax your chest, back, abdomen, hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet. As you do this, continue your deep, steady breathing. Don’t worry about what you’re thinking about, this isn’t meditation. But when you can, think about something good.
Do Phase 1 every day, twice a day if possible, for a month. If you feel angry during this month, breathe deep and relax if you can, but don’t stress if you don’t really relax. We’re rehearsing, and may not be ready for showtime yet.
Practice Phase 2
In Phase 2, we’re going to inoculate ourselves. Again, sit comfortably in a quiet room. Instead of going immediately to pleasant thoughts, though, we will think of something that made us angry. This shouldn’t be the most enraging thing you can think of, but something more on the level of an irritation or annoyance. When you start feeling your anger building, go into your relaxation routine. Take five deep breaths, relax from head to toe, and focus on things you enjoy. Do this until the anger ebbs away.
Do Phase 2 every day, twice a day if possible, for a month. During this month, keep a journal of emotional incidents and whether or not you were able to relax into them. Be sure to congratulate yourself when you do well.
After a month of Phase 2, return to Phase 1. Alternate Phases each month until you are relaxing predictably as a response to your anger. When you get there, you won’t need Phase 2 anymore.
You Will Win
Anger can be an unhealthy emotion, but if we learn to manage it, we can make it a constructive motivator. Anger is a signal that we are not being treated the way we should be. Giving in to anger, either by exploding or repressing, will not improve our situation. But staying cool and expressing our needs can accomplish that goal.
In the next article, we’ll discuss self-messaging techniques that help us structure our emotions and prepare for expressing our needs and desires. Meanwhile, practice the Phase 1 Relaxation Technique for fast relief. If you find the time, let me know how you’re doing!