No one wants to feel angry. In fact, in the great litany of negative emotions, anger may be the worst because it makes both you and those around you feel bad. It may also have the greatest potential to transform into violence in those who don’t know how to respond to their anger appropriately.
Like a fire, anger can gently smolder beneath the surface, or it can flare up, destroying everything around it - but developing a meditation practice can help quench the flames.
How can meditation compete with a powerful emotion like anger? While in an era of anger management classes and concern over interpersonal violence, taking up meditation may seem like an insufficient response to such feelings, but the reality is that anger and anxiety are intimately related emotions. This may be particularly surprising to trauma survivors whose anxiety is triggered by others’ expressions of anger, but remember that the underlying biological function is known as fight or flight mode. When anxiety manifests as flight, we understand it to be anxiety, but when the fight impulse rises to the surface, underlying anxiety is erased in favor of the label of anger.
Once we understand what these two emotions have in common, it’s much easier to understand how meditation can help you manage your anger. That being said, there is a widespread cultural understanding that meditation may help with anxiety; even if people are initially resistant to it, most know that it’s worth trying. Anger doesn’t have this built in association, though, and that reality coupled with the fact that anger is often seen as a more socially acceptable way for men to express emotions, may have also slowed such practices’ adoption.
In order to get the most out of meditation for your anger, one of the best things you can do is try to understand a little more about where you anger comes from. In many cases, anger is triggered by a lack of control. This doesn’t have to be about something significant, and often angry responses emerge over insignificant issues - being out of milk or being unable to find the remote - when you’re already feeling overburdened by other kinds of stress.
Another common reason that people experience anger is because we don’t feel acknowledged or we think we are being treated unfairly. This is linked to control in another way - or at least to predictability, in that we expect a different response to our actions and it doesn’t manifest. Lacking positive acknowledgement, anger calls out for whatever attention it can get.
The more you know about the source of your anger, the more you can do to prevent such responses before they happen, but that’s not the only reason to reflect on this emotion. Better understanding your anger can also help you identify the best kind of meditation practice for controlling it.
Start developing a meditation practice today with Aura’s wide range of meditation tools, soothing sounds, and community of supportive coaches ready to share their wisdom. With daily practice, you can gain control over your anger, and other difficult emotions, and find a more peaceful posture from which to relate to the world.
When seeking to address anger via meditation, one of the most valuable lessons comes directly from the Buddha. While we often think only of the destructive side of anger, it is more realistic and productive to take the Buddhist view that all experience is fleeting - and that includes anger. It is not inherently harmful to feel angry, but it is our own responsibility to be present with it, to observe it, and to let it pass. It is not a weapon against others, but an internal state.
Of course, containing anger, ensuring that it remains an internal state, is precisely where our struggle over anger tends to occur. If people didn’t externalize their anger, inflicting it on others, we likely wouldn’t have much to say about it. On the other hand, any therapist will tell you that repressed anger will eat you from the inside. It can’t be left unattended, to grow and do more damage.
Meditation can help you see the temporary nature of your anger without repressing it by giving you the tools, such as breathing exercises, to understand your experience. Breathe in and observe your emotional state. Mentally take note of it, or even speak your sense of your anger out loud. How are you present with it? Does it feel familiar or foreign? Can you be angry and calm at the same time? Enter the anger, spend time with it, and then leave it behind.
Another way you can use meditation to address anger is by getting to the root of the physiological processes that can trigger it or make it worse. For example, as with anxiety, you may experience increased blood pressure and heart rate when feeling angry. Practicing breathing exercises can slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure back down to a normal range, both of which can actually trigger your body to enter a calmer state. Additionally, if your anger is fundamentally rooted in anxiety, as is so often the case, breathing slowly and deeply can also reduce how anxious you feel.
In yet another collision with anxiety, anger is often made worse by high levels of epinephrine, which is released when your brain is on high alert, regardless of the cause of that feeling. In fact, there are even some rare, adrenaline-secreting tumors that can cause otherwise unexplained anxiety and anger. Breathing slowly and intentionally helps you to communicate with your body. With each breath, you’re informing your body that you are safe, that your environment isn’t a threat, and that it can relax.
If you struggle to control your breathing on your own, you can use tricks like counting your inhales and exhales, visualizing a scene like waves and timing your breaths with the rise and fall of the wave, or using a guided meditation that tells you when to inhale and exhale. The key, though, is to practice this kind of breathing regularly, even when you don’t feel angry, because that will help you build the skills you need to put such controlled breathing to work when you need it most.
Developing a meditation practice is important for those trying to address broader anger problems, but simply knowing how meditation works in the most basic sense can also help those experiencing more acute fits of anger. That’s because, when it comes to all those physical manifestations of anger, even first-time meditators may see results in as little as 20 minutes.
In one study, researchers asked people to relive an experience that made them angry, and measured their physiological responses. Working with both new and experienced meditators, they then guided them through a simple 20-minute meditation practice. That brief period of calm breathing helped deprogram that past experience of anger, such that when asked to relive the initial trigger experience after meditating, people showed fewer of the typical signs of anger, such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Of course, meditation isn’t meant to be an instant fix, and new incidents that also incite anger may require similar rounds of deprogramming, but seeing that meditation works can make a big difference for those who question its value. Those who benefit from basic breathing-focused meditation for anger may also want to try other practices as they become more comfortable, such as metta meditation, also known as loving-kindness meditation.
Metta meditation is a traditional Buddhist practice that uses similar breathing techniques along with a positive, affirming mantra to cultivate positive feelings like gratitude and joy. For those who have struggled with interpersonal relationships because of their anger, this practice can also help strengthen social bonds. Though there is no particular mantra you have to use in metta meditation practice, the goal is to extend those positive expressions - things like “May I be safe and happy” - to others, such as your friends and family. It is a meditation that begins by facing inward, by opening your heart to yourself, and then extends outward, to family, friends, neighbors, and even animals.
Another advantage of metta meditation is that, because it also integrates calming breathing practices, it also helps deactivate your body’s alarm systems - epinephrine and cortisol. This reduces your feelings of anxiety and stress, both of which can make anger worse. As noted above, deep breathing helps you communicate with your body. Metta meditation combines those biological signals aimed at your autonomic nervous system with intentional language designed to cultivate good will and positive emotions, for magnified results.
Anger is as natural as other emotions, but it’s a feeling we have to be extremely cautious with because of the damage it can do.
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