Preventing Explosive Anger

By Desmond YSC

At one time or another, we would have encountered some event that make us forget ourselves and act in regrettable ways. After we have calmed down, we would feel extremely guilty about what we did and might have even hated ourselves for it.

The event that can trigger our explosive anger may not even be something big. It may just be an unintentional comment which hit some sensitive nerves or it may just be as simple as a person cutting queue in front of us.

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Why does explosive anger happen? It happens because our amygdala, the part of our brain that constantly scans the environment for threats, immediately shuts down the part of our brain used for rational thinking whenever it perceives a threat, such as an attack by a wild animal. It only leaves us two choices, to fight or to flee. This mechanism is necessary for our survival. However, our amygdala acts the same way whenever our ego is threatened, such as when someone insults us or say something that hurts our reputation. Clearly, in such circumstances, we would prefer not to turn on our ‘fight or flee’ instincts but use our rational mind instead; especially when the situation involves someone important to us.

In the previous article, ‘How Mindfulness increases Emotional Intelligence’, we saw that training in mindfulness could make our amygdala “smarter” in the sense that it does not activate our ‘fight or flee’ response unnecessarily. So, by practicing mindfulness meditation now, we can reduce the incidences of explosive anger in the future.

To complement mindfulness meditation, there is also a tool we can use when we are caught in a situation whereby our anger is just seconds away from exploding. Some of us may already be using it unconsciously.

In his book, ‘Search Inside Yourself’, Chade-Meng Tan (“Meng”) introduced the SBNRR Strategy to stop our anger from escalating into an explosive anger. SBNRR stands for Stop-Breathe-Notice-Reflect-Respond.

Whenever we find our anger starting to boil, the first step is to STOP. This important first step is dependent on our ability to notice our anger rising and this ability is strengthened every time we practice mindfulness meditation; especially if the object of meditation is our body and emotions. That is why we need to be friends with our emotions. If we can feel our anger rising, no matter how quick, we can quickly decide to stop and not react. In other words, we stop the ‘fight or flee’ instinct from taking over. Meng calls this the ‘sacred pause’. It is sacred because it could save our career, marriage, friendship or even our life. It is that important!

Next, we immediately focus our attention on our breath. This is a quickie meditation with our breath as the object of meditation. Take a deep breath; it will have a calming effect because it stimulates the vagus nerves which can reduce our heart rate and blood pressure.

We then draw our attention to our body (face, jaw, neck, shoulder, chest etc) to identify those areas with tension. This is the ‘NOTICE’ part. Whenever, we pay attention to an area on tension, it would immediately start to relax (Do this test right now; notice your jaw. If your jaw has been clenched, it will slowly relax the moment you pay attention to it). Part of your consciously can still be on your breath while another part of your awareness can be used to scan your body for tension.

Subsequently, bring your awareness to your emotions. Many of us will find that our negative emotions are very shy. Whenever we shine the light of our awareness on our anger, it will tend to dissipate and hide in some hole until we get distracted again before showing itself. This exercise is extremely important especially when the other person is hurling insults after insults at us. Awareness of our anger can act as a shield to protect us from the other person’s hurtful words.

We can then REFLECT on the situation. We may tell ourselves, “Hey, this person is giving me the opportunity to practice SBNRR. That’s great!” – this thought alone could dissolve whatever anger that we may be feeling. After all, there is a famous Chinese Zen saying, “The small retreat [meditation] is in the wilderness, the medium retreat is in the city, and the great retreat is in the emperor’s court”. In other words, the greater the challenge, the better it is for us to strengthen our mindfulness practice.

We may also remind ourselves that reacting aggressively will only put both parties in a defensive mode and no solution will come out of it. Whenever a person is defensive, he will not admit that he is wrong even if he knows it.

Another way is to try understanding the other person. Just like us, he is also a victim of his emotions and he may not have had the benefit of mindfulness training!

Just a word of caution; while we are reflecting on the situation, it may happen that negative thoughts may crop up to fan the fire of our anger again. The devil in us may say, “I know anger is not good but you are looking like a coward. Are you just going to take all this quietly?” When that happens, the best thing to do is to go back and be aware of our breath, body and emotions again. Let the anger fade away before going back to reflection.

The final step is to RESPOND. One way is to delay your response and come back to the problem later when everyone has calmed down. We can ask for some time to check on the matter or just to think about it. We can also take a bathroom break to give ourselves more time to practice SBNRR!

I like Meng’s approach to resolving conflict. He wrote, “Whenever I have a fight with my wife or co-worker, I go to another room to calm down and after a few minutes of calming down, I do this exercise in stealth: I visualize the other person in the next room. I remind myself that this person is just like me; wants to be free from suffering just like me; wants to be happy just like me, and so on. After just a few minutes of doing this, I feel much better about myself, about the other person, and about the whole situation. A large part of my anger dissipates immediately”.

Now that we have learnt about SBNRR, remember that the next person who irritates or challenges us will provide us with the opportunity to practice the tool. He/she is, at that point, our teacher and we should be thankful!

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