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How to Use Mindfulness for Anger Management

Mindfulness can be a useful counterbalance to the fiery emotion of anger, helping you channel this strong emotion in more helpful and healthy ways.

Note: This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions and is not a substitute for consulting with your personal healthcare professionals.

It happens in a flash: One moment you're driving along feeling fine, and the next, you see red, your heart starts pounding, energy surges down your arms, and you begin hurling insults at the driver of the car that just cut you off.

You’ve been hijacked by anger.

Whether anger rises abruptly in a fiery explosion or burns slowly over time, it can effectively take over.

Employing mindfulness can help you manage angry feelings and protect you (and others) from their most damaging effects.

What is Anger, and What Causes It?

Anger is a psychophysiological response to perceived threat or danger.

But it’s also a complex emotion, one that can be triggered by thoughts or circumstances that may not be actual threats but that still trigger an angry response.

Anger is also often tied up with other emotions, such as hurt, guilt, or shame, and linked to underlying conditions such as anxiety or depression.

You might feel angry because you're lonely.

Anger may mask unresolved hurt.

Sometimes, anger emerges when our values or personal boundaries have been violated.

Your anger trigger may be witnessing injustice in the world.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Anger

What is true is that you’re not wrong for feeling anger. We are responsible for how we express and act on our anger, but feeling it in the first place is not a flaw.

Anger, in fact, is a vital emotion that can motivate us to act. Social movements are typically sparked by anger that “This isn’t right.”

And anger can be a catalyst to make personal changes in response to something that isn’t working for you.

These are examples of healthy anger: You witness or experience something that doesn’t feel right, anger stirs, and you channel that energy into a response that has a better trajectory.

Unhealthy anger is a different story.

When anger causes you to explode in fury, you may experience relief, but the wake of that angry outburst can have far-reaching consequences for our relationships, our health, and how we get along in the world.

If anger is chronic or all-consuming, over time it can negatively impact your social, mental, and physical well-being.

What Anger Does to the Body

When the brain registers “anger,” the stress response is activated—an instantaneous fight-flight-or-freeze reaction that prepares you to face a perceived threat:

  • Digestion slows as blood is redirected to your muscles
  • Heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels spike
  • Hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, flood your body
  • An increase in blood oxygen and glucose to the brain provides short-term hyperfocus

These physical changes help us deal with danger, and the body is equipped to manage them. When we perceive that we are safe, the body naturally comes back into balance.

The trouble begins when anger doesn’t recede and we remain on high alert. Some of the health concerns associated with chronic or unchecked anger include:

Anger can also be addictive, creating an adrenaline-fueled sense of power and invincibility and forming a hopped-up habit loop whenever you perceive a slight, feel inconvenienced, or experience any circumstance that you don’t like. Anger management training is often used to control anger caused by an addictive response.

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How Mindfulness Helps With Anger

Mindfulness meditation helps calm the part of the brain that controls emotional regulation, making angry outbursts less common. It also strengthens the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning, giving us access to a wider range of cognitive tools and responses in any situation.

Meanwhile, regular mindfulness practice can quell the rumination that often fuels anger. By keeping attention in the present moment, instead of dwelling on the past or anticipating the future, mindfulness helps redirect attention away from repetitive thoughts and storylines that make us angry.

And there’s this: When we meditate, we allow thoughts and feelings to rise and pass, without judging them or needing to hold on to them. In this way, mindfulness meditation helps us to see that feelings are often transitory, changing on their own when we don’t identify with them so strongly.

Practicing mindfulness cultivates a more relaxed state overall, where even normally upsetting circumstances are less likely to trigger us. It’s like there’s a buffer between the upset and us: We recognize something isn’t right and we may feel anger rising, but instead of flying into rage, we control anger by holding a broader awareness of the situation, checking in with ourselves, and choosing how to best respond.

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How to Use Mindfulness to Cope with Anger

One of the best ways to deal with anger is to recognize it. Trying to suppress your anger or push it away isn’t helpful. It’ll only make it stronger and more likely to show up elsewhere.

So, acknowledge it. You might even say, “Anger is here.” Naming an emotion helps us to be with that emotion instead of being controlled by it.

Next, slow down. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling audibly out your mouth.

Focus on your body. Are you sitting or standing? Where are your hands? Tune into any physical sensations, such as heat or pulsing. Maybe your jaw is tight or your breathing is fast and shallow. Just notice what’s there.

If you’re sitting, you might stand up and move a bit. If you’re standing, shake out your arms and walk around. Moving your body will help discharge some of the energy.

As your heart rate and breathing begin to slow down—signs that the stress response is receding—see if you can explore your anger. This isn’t a deep psychological exploration, but a curiosity. Sometimes just underneath anger is another emotion, such as fear, frustration, or shame. Just notice what’s present.

Offer yourself a moment of compassion. You’re not “wrong” for having anger. There’s a reason you feel the way you do, perhaps a very good reason.

And know that by taking these steps you are already working to overcome anger and to channel these strong feelings in a healthy way:

In pausing, breathing deeply, and slowing down, you are disrupting the stress response.
And you’re giving yourself an opportunity to determine how things go from here.

Take another deep breath. Check in again. Where is anger now? Has it shifted or changed in any way?

Consider what you might do next. Here are some ideas:

  • If you need more time, give that to yourself and let others know you’re not ready to talk.
  • Check in with your body. Do you feel hungry, tired? Can you attend to your physical needs?
  • Burn off excess energy by going on a run or hitting some golf balls.
    Write about your feelings.
  • From this more spacious perspective, you may realize that you need to take action. What might it be?

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Frequently Asked Questions

Does Mindfulness Reduce Violence & Aggression?

It can. Aggression and violence are expressions of uncontrolled anger, when the emotion feels so overwhelming that you lash out to expel the energy, typically toward someone or something.

Research suggests that mindfulness can help reduce violence and aggression in some important ways.

Mindfulness meditation develops greater emotional regulation and executive functioning, giving us access to a wider range of cognitive tools and responses in any situation.

It also quells rumination that often fuels anger, and helps us feel more relaxed overall.

Live a Mindful Life

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Rhonda Magee - Rhonda is a law professor at the University of San Francisco, mindfulness teacher, fellow of the Mind & Life Institute, and author of "The Inner Work of Racial Justice"

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