Keeping your cool in stressful situations

We have all been there… in that place where our amygdala hijacks our prefrontal cortex and we blow our top. Although anger is a natural, and sometimes useful, part of our emotional toolbox, uncontrolled anger can be devastating to our relationships, and even dangerous to us and those around us.

What is anger, and how does it work?

Anger is an emotional state. It can range from mild annoyance, to intense rage. Typically, anger is acted out in various forms of aggression. These forms may be active or passive.

Active aggression is fairly obvious, as it is overtly directed at something or someone, most often in the form of attack. The attack could be verbal, emotional, or physical – such as cursing at someone, glaring at them to make them feel uncomfortable, or punching someone in the nose.

Passive aggression is also usually obvious to the target, but is more subtle. Forms of passive aggression may be ignoring, using subtle sarcasm, or acting in subtle ways that intentionally annoy or inconvenience the target of the aggression.

Like all emotions, anger is generally a response to how we perceive the environment around us. Our emotional responses consist of three distinct components: behavioral, autonomic and hormonal.

The behavioral component is the physical action that we take in response to anything that happens in our environment. This could be smiling, frowning, running, fighting… whatever our physical response is to a given situation.

The autonomic responses facilitate the behavioral responses by providing quick energy to enable them. For instance, if a person hears a loud bang behind them, that person will most likely jump and turn around very quickly, without consciously thinking about it. This behavioral response is made possibly by the quick energy that is provided by the autonomic response.

Finally, when we react to our environment, there is a hormonal response. The release of hormones such as epinephrine and neuropinephrene, to increase blood flow to muscles and cause nutrients stored in the muscles to be converted to glucose so that instant energy is available to allow those autonomic responses we just discussed.

And all of this happens so quickly we do not usually think about what we are doing. And our ability to “feel” emotion and take quick action to threats in our environment has assisted greatly in our survival and evolution as human beings.

But what about today? What purpose does the anger response serve in modern society where there are no saber toothed tigers to fight or run away from?

The purpose of anger

Anger is generally considered to serve the purpose of signaling to the person who is angry, as well as to those around him or her, that a need is not being met. In this sense, anger serves a valuable purpose. However, uncontrolled anger that results in severe hostility or aggression is generally unacceptable in civilized society.

Unmanaged anger most often actually prevents us from getting our needs met, or encourages false interpretations of the things that are happening around us… further reinforcing the anger response.

But when anger is managed and directed in a controlled way, it can be quite useful to us and to those around us. If we can express our anger in healthy and constructive ways we can negotiate to have our needs met, learn to adapt to our environment, or even change the way we view our environment by giving ourselves time to better understand the events that are making us angry.

How do you keep the amygdala in its cage?

So how do you keep your cool in stressful or intense situations? The first step is knowing which situations or events are most likely to make you angry… and either learning to think about those events differently (reframing), or possibly avoiding them.

So, if you know that discussing politics with your best friend is likely to make you angry… don’t do it! Or at least prepare yourself for the discussion ahead of time so you have a better chance of keeping your cool.

Another important step in managing your anger is to recognize the warning signs of an impending outburst. What sensations are you feeling in your body? That subtle headache or pounding in your temples is likely your pulse starting to race. Do you feel your muscles tightening up? Do you feel warm? Are you breathing more rapidly than normal? These are all common signs that you may be getting angry.

You may also notice a difference in your thoughts. They may be more negative or aggressive. It is useful to be aware of when your regular thinking turns negative or aggressive. These kinds of thoughts actually help your anger along, making it more intense.

These are all warning signs. And to prevent that most primitive part of your brain (the amygdale) from overwhelming that most modern part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), you must take action when you first notice these symptoms.

Here is one way to go about soothing your anger and keeping the amygdala at bay. I call it the “Stop  Breath  Think  Act” method. It is only one method – there are others – but this one works well for me.

Stop  Breath  Think  Act

Stop. Of course, it goes without saying that you should only stop what you are doing when it is safe to do so. But if you can do so safely, then stop whatever you are doing that may be making you angry, and try and let your muscles relax a bit.

Breath. It may seem like common sense, but you must remember to breath when you are getting upset. Many people do not remember to breath, or allow their breathing to get out of control. Doing either actually increases stress and speeds up the anger process. However, if you take several deep, cleansing breaths – breathing all the way into your stomach and all the way out, very slowly – this can very effective at slowing down the autonomic responses that lead to anger getting out of control.

This deep breathing also allows you to take the next step in the process…

Think. Once you breathing is under control, and you are able to feel more relaxed, think about the situation or problem. What is causing you to become angry? What are you responding to? Is it real, or worthy of you becoming angry? How can you change the situation, or the way you are thinking about the situation, to get your needs fulfilled? Can you talk about it, negotiate it, fix it, mitigate it?

Act. Now that you have calmed yourself down, and thought about the situation and how to handle it, act on those thoughts.

Now what?

So you have averted a crisis using the “Stop  Breath  Think  Act” method. Does this mean you will be able to do it again the next time you feel threatened, or that your needs are not being met? Well, maybe…

You must be on guard for those signs that anger is rising, and learn to combat them automatically. This takes practice… a lot of practice. The important thing is that you are aware of the signs and that, even after you have a setback, you think about what happened and learn from it.

Anger management is a learning process. With practice you can get control of your anger. Doing so will ultimately improve your quality of life, and help you achieve your goals.

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