Angry For No Reason!

While everyone else was deeply relaxing into savasana (the corpse pose) at the end of the yoga class I taught, I was sitting on my cushion feeling angry. It had been a fully balanced and relaxing posture practice so my body felt pretty awesome. But, there was definitely a shit storm going on in my head.  Being practiced in mindfulness and how to observe thoughts and feelings with curiosity, I noticed my anger was a result of thoughts about an imagined future that had not even happened. I saw the person involved, the sights of an incident that was sure to bother me, and my reactions to the event that hadn’t even happened.

I know I’m not alone in having experienced such a reaction to things that haven’t happened; and I believe there are a number of reasons which can explain this phenomenon. First, there had been previous incidents in the past that were similar to the one I imagined happening in the future. Second, life had felt a little too full and there were many things going on that I needed to attend to.  I wanted to assure that life would go without a hitch so that I could get them all done. And this imagined thing would be getting in my way.  Third, I probably hadn’t spoken up about the previous incidents sufficiently to feel like I had been heard in the past. And last, but not least, my brain (like your brain) is designed to be “sticky for the negative and Teflon for the positive,” as my friend Rick Hanson* would say.  

So, here I was, feeling angry for no reason. I felt a little silly when I realized what I was doing, but the sticky emotion was still there. I knew the incident hadn’t happened but I was left with anger at all the other things that had. Now what to do?

I know there are a number of things one can do with the feelings of anger (both real and imagined). I will list a few of them here in case you might need them.

1. Notice the feelings with a compassionate heart. It hurts to be angry. Soften and relax your body, take a few deep breaths and bring your hands over your heart. Just feel it for a moment or two. Sometimes just acknowledging your anger can result in it passing or lessening a bit. Touch is a very powerful healing tool and it can definitely help you reverse the stress response.

2. If you are imagining something that hasn’t happened, remind yourself to come back into the present. If it does happen, deal with it then. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through a lot of terrible things in my life, some of which actually occurred.”

3. If something actually did happen that you are angry about, take some deep breaths and allow the body, heart, and mind to settle down before you do anything or say anything. Nothing said in anger comes out the way we want it and we will be creating more problems when we speak out of anger than we had to begin with.

4. Smile. I’ve said this before, but it is very hard to be angry and smile at the same time. When you smile you are sending messages to the brain that you’re happy. Neurotransmitters responsible for an improved mood like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are all released when you smile I tried this once when I was driving from Kansas City to Columbia (about 120 miles). I was angry about an email I had gotten from a co-worker and I remembered to try smiling. I literally could not stay angry and smile at the same time.

5. When you’re a bit more chill, consider how you might address the situation and/or person who was in your anger story. I strongly advise the use of Non-Violent (or Compassionate) Communication. If you don’t know about it, start by reading Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book, Non-Violent Communication or listen to this great workshop that he led in San Francisco years ago. Sometimes you will end up having the conversation with someone and sometimes you will discover that by doing your own work, the anger releases during the process of understanding your own feelings and needs.

As a last thought, I want to assure you that there is nothing bad about anger. I have spent years struggling with my own desire to keep anger at arm’s length. But, when you look at it and befriend it through the practices above, you don’t have to make it bigger than it is. Anger is a messenger that you need to look at something more deeply. Looking at it helps you have a more intimate relationship to yourself and hopefully a better relationship with others.

*Rick wrote The Buddha’s Brain and it’s a great book about the neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom.