By Eric Barker
They’re one inch from your face, boiling with rage, screaming and yelling at you.
And all you want to do is scream and yell back. But you know that’s not going to be good for anyone…
I’ve talked before about how to deal with others who are angry and irrational, but how can you control those emotions in yourself?
Looking at the neuroscience, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.
So let’s dig into the research on how to get rid of anger, what you’re doing wrong, how to do it right and how it can make you and those around you much happier…
1. Suppressing Anger Is Rarely A Good Idea
You grit your teeth and hold it in: “I’m fine.”
The good news is suppression works. You can bottle up your feelings and not look angry. However…
It’s almost always a bad idea. Yes, it prevents the anger from getting out, but when you fight your feelings they only get stronger.
…when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss.
When you try to stop yourself from crying, the tears aren’t cathartic. You don’t feel better afterward.
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And anger is no different. What happens in the brain when you try to clamp down on that rage? A whole mess of bad stuff.
Your ability to experience positive feelings goes down — but not negative feelings. Stress soars. And your amygdala (a part of the brain closely associated with emotions) starts working overtime.
…experimental studies have shown that suppression leads to decreased positive but not negative emotion experience (Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Stepper & Strack, 1993; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988), increased sympathetic nervous system responses (Demaree et al., 2006; Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Harris, 2001; Richards & Gross, 2000), and greater activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala (Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008).
And here’s what’s really interesting: when you suppress your feelings, the encounter gets worse for the angry person, too.
You clamp down on your emotions and the other person’s blood pressure spikes. And they like you less. Studies show that over the long haul this can lead to lousy relationships that aren’t as rewarding.
Socially, experimental studies have reported that suppression leads to less liking from social interaction partners, and to an increase in partners’ blood pressure levels (Butler et al., 2003). Correlational studies support these laboratory findings. Individuals who typically use suppression report avoiding close relationships and having less positive relations with others; this dovetails with peers’ reports that suppressors have relationships with others that are less emotionally close (English, John, & Gross, 2013; Gross & John, 2003; Srivastava, Tamir, McGonigal, John, & Gross, 2009).
And fighting your feelings uses a lot of willpower. So afterwards you have less control and that’s why you’re more likely to do things you regret after you’re angry:
…bad moods foster risk taking by impairing self-regulation instead of by altering subjective utilities. Studies 5 and 6 showed that the risky tendencies are limited to unpleasant moods accompanied by high arousal; neither sadness nor neutral arousal resulted in destructive risk taking.
(To learn how to win every argument, click here.)
Now some of you might be saying, “I knew bottling it up was bad! You should let that anger out!”
2. Don’t Vent Your Anger
So you punch that pillow. Or yell and rant about the encounter to a friend. Not a good idea.
Venting your anger doesn’t reduce it. Venting intensifies emotion.
…focusing on a negative emotion will likely intensify the experience of that emotion further and thus make down-regulation more difficult, leading to lower adjustment and well-being.
Sharing your feelings with others constructively is a good idea but “getting it out” tends to snowball your anger.
What does work? Distracting yourself. But why would distraction help?
Because your brain has limited resources. Thinking about something else means you have less brainpower to dwell on the bad stuff:
Research suggests it is because both cognitive tasks and emotional responses make use of the same limited mental resources (Baddeley, 2007; Siemer, 2005; Van Dillen & Koole, 2007)… That is, the resources that are used to perform a cognitive task are no longer available for emotional processes. Accordingly, people can rid themselves from unwanted feelings by engaging in a cognitive activity, such as doing math equations (Van Dillen & Koole, 2007), playing a game of Tetris ( Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose , 2008)…
You know that famous marshmallow test?
Experimenters put a kid alone in a room with a marshmallow. If the child can resist eating it, they get two marshmallows later. The kids who succeeded in waiting went on to achieve better grades and more success in life. (They also stayed out of jail.)
Now this study has been covered a lot, but what they don’t usually talk about is how the successful kids avoided temptation; how they reduced those powerful emotions screaming, “EAT THE MARSHMALLOW NOW!!!”
They distracted themselves. Walter Mischel, who led the famous study, explains.
Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing. They transformed the aversive waiting situation by inventing imaginative, fun distractions that took the struggle out of willpower: they composed little songs (“This is such a pretty day, hooray”; “This is my home in Redwood City”), made funny and grotesque faces, picked their noses, cleaned their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys.
And this works with other “hot” emotions too — like anger.
(To learn the secrets of grit from a Navy SEAL, click here.)
I know, I know; when someone is yelling in your face it’s really hard to distract yourself. But there’s a way to do this that’s very easy and backed by neuroscience research…
3. The Answer? “Reappraisal”
Imagine the scene again: someone is screaming at you, one inch from your face.
You want to scream back. Or even hit them.
But what if I told you their mother passed away yesterday? Or that they were going through a tough divorce and just lost custody of their kids?
You’d let it go. You’d probably even respond to their anger with compassion.
What changed? Not the event. Situation is the same. But the story you’re telling yourself about the event changed everything.
As famed researcher Albert Ellis said: You don’t get frustrated because of events, you get frustrated because of your beliefs.
Research shows that when someone is exploding at you a good way to “reappraise” the situation and resist getting angry is simply to think:
“It’s not about me. They must be having a bad day.”
As one of the neuroscientists behind the study said:
“If you’re trained with reappraisal, and you know your boss is frequently in a bad mood, you can prepare yourself to go into a meeting,” Blechert suggested. “He can scream and yell and shout but there’ll be nothing.”
When you change your beliefs about a situation, your brain changes the emotions you feel.
In one of Ochsner’s reappraisal experiments, participants are shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally makes participants feel sad. They are then asked to imagine the scene is a wedding, that people are crying tears of joy. At the moment that participants change their appraisal of the event, their emotional response changes, and Ochsner is there to capture what is going on in their brain using an fMRI. As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.”
And what happens in your brain?
Your amygdala doesn’t get worked up like it does with suppression. In fact, the little guy calms down.
Evidence that reappraisal can directly influence this amygdala circuitry comes from consistent findings in positron emission tomographic (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of healthy individuals showing reappraisal-dependent decreases in amygdala activation in response to negative stimuli.
As opposed to bottling up, when you tell yourself “they’re having a bad day“, angry feelings plummet and good feelings increase.
By contrast, experimental studies have shown that reappraisal leads to decreased levels of negative emotion experience and increased positive emotion experience (Gross, 1998a; Feinberg, Willer, Antonenko, & John, 2012; Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia, & Crockett, 2011; Ray, McRae, Ochsner, & Gross, 2010; Szasz, Szentagotai, & Hofmann, 2011; Wolgast, Lundh, & Viborg, 2011), has no impact on or even decreases sympathetic nervous system responses (Gross, 1998a; Kim & Hamann, 2012; Stemmler, 1997; Shiota & Levenson, 2012; Wolgast et al., 2011), and leads to lesser activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala (Goldin et al., 2008; Kanske, Heissler, Schonfelder, Bongers, & Wessa, 2011; Ochsner & Gross, 2008; Ochsner et al., 2004) and ventral striatum (Staudinger, Erk, Abler, & Walter, 2009).
What about the social results? People who reappraise report better relationships — and their friends agree.
Reappraisal, by contrast, has no detectable adverse consequences for social affiliation in a laboratory context (Butler et al., 2003). Correlational studies support these findings: Individuals who typically use reappraisal are more likely to share their emotions— both positive and negative— and report having closer relationships with friends, which matches their peers’ reports of greater liking (Gross & John, 2003; Mauss et al., 2011).
You know when you get angry and start telling yourself, “They’re out to get me! They want to make my life miserable!”
That’s reappraisal too — in the wrong direction. You’re telling yourself a story that’s even worse than reality. And your anger soars. So don’t do that.
As the infomercials always say, “But wait there’s more!” Reappraisal holds another big benefit: remember how suppression sapped self-control and made you do stuff you later regretted?
Well, just like the kids in the marshmallow experiment, reappraisal can increase your willpower and help you behave better after intense moments.
Walter Mischel explains:
The marshmallow experiments convinced me that if people can change how they mentally represent a stimulus, they can exert self-control and escape from being victims of the hot stimuli that have come to control their behavior.
(To learn the secret to how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)
Okay, let’s wrap this up and learn the research-backed way to make sure that anger doesn’t come back…
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Here’s how to get rid of anger:
- Suppress rarely. They may not know you’re angry but you’ll feel worse inside and hurt the relationship.
- Don’t vent. Communication is good but venting just increases anger. Distract yourself.
- Reappraisal is usually the best option. Think to yourself, “It’s not about me. They must be having a bad day.”
Sometimes someone gets under your skin and suppression is the only thing you can do to avoid a homicide charge. And sometimes reappraisal can cause you to tolerate bad situations you need to get out of.
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But that said, telling yourself a more compassionate story about what’s going on inside the other person’s head is usually the best way to go.
And what’s the final step in getting rid of that anger over the long haul so you can maintain good relationships?
It’s not for them, it’s for you. Forgiveness makes you less angry and more healthy:
Trait forgiveness was significantly associated with fewer medications and less alcohol use, lower blood pressure and rate pressure product; state forgiveness was significantly associated with lower heart rate and fewer physical symptoms. Neither of these sets of findings were the result of decreased levels of anger-out being associated with forgiveness. These findings have important theoretical implications regarding the forgiveness–health link, suggesting that the benefits of forgiveness extend beyond the dissipation of anger.
As the old saying goes: Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
So remember: “They’re just having a bad day.”
If it can stop these tykes from gobbling marshmallows it can stop you from going ballistic on people:
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.