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How mindfulness can help you reduce your anger levels in 2018

A neuroscientist and mindfulness teachers explain how anger impacts the brain and how we can better cope with it.
Jan 2nd 2018, 9:31 AM 15,166 9

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

IN A YEAR that has seen political upsets solidified and the rise in conflicts between societal and political groups, 2017 could be taken for being a very angry year.

Stepping into 2018 what are some ways that we deal with this anger and understand how to deal with it?

In recent decades, mindfulness has become a buzzword in the west. The practice  has been introduced into a variety of settings – from sports training, to the workplace, even in schools.

Based on meditation techniques found in elements of Buddhism, mindfulness has been defined as a psychological process of bringing an individuals’ attention to the present moment – usually by focusing on something like the breath or posture.

But what does that mean and how can it help deal with strong emotions like anger and anxiety?

We spoke to author of the Stress Test and cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson and mindfulness teachers Padraig O’Morain and Kathryn O’Halloran to get a better understanding.

“Anger is an interpersonal tool – it’s a negotiation tool,” says Robertson, who currently lectures at Trinity College, Dublin.

“All species develop these threat displays because it increases your chances of getting a better deal. Of getting your way.”

shutterstock_453832783 Anger is a negotiation tool. Source: Shutterstock/Antonio Guillem

But he also says it’s a dangerous emotion – especially when there is no specific goal or target to that negotiation. And this is to do with emotion.

“The reason anger is a dangerous emotion is because the emotional symptoms – beating heart, breathing faster, tense muscles – they are identical to the symptoms of anxiety.”

So how do we know what emotion we’re having? Robertson says it’s all about context.

“People who have felt anxiety over situations like their standard of living going down, or feeling their jobs are less secure, that anxiety can transmute into anger.

If you mix that with a very diffused sense of injustice you get counter productive things like Brexit and Trump. The people who are economically deprived in America are going to suffer the most under Trump yet they vote for him because it’s this general mixed up emotion of anger and anxiety.”

He says without that clear goal or target the anger takes over because it is an approach emotion and it makes you feel like you are doing something, compared to anxiety which is a retreat emotion.

This is where mindfulness can come in handy.

“I think mindfulness is a very useful technique,” Robertson says. “We gain a sense of detachment from our emotions because the problem with these emotions is that we get caught up in them and they feel like reality to us – they distort our thinking.”

Mindfulness he says teaches you that you are not your thoughts and you are not your emotions – it provides distance so it is easier to maintain a sense of being in control without being a victim to them.

This is something that Padriag O’Morain agrees with but he cautions, “It’s not a magic cure-call.”

“One of the major ways we prolong stress and anger is by going over and over again in our head that thing that happened to us. We keep replaying it and it makes you angrier each time.”

He says that mindfulness doesn’t deny the anger, but it can help you stop rerunning those scenes in your head and gives you the space to see if you can do something about the situation.

shutterstock_577568599 Source: Shutterstock/GaudiLab

This works by using the present moment to come out of the stories in your head, something that prayer has in common with this practice.

“In order for people to pray, they have to step back long enough to do the praying. This is described in Zen Buddhism as taking half a step back. Being able to take in the reality and make a better choice or in turn accept the reality if change isn’t currently possible.”

He says a focus on breath and on your immediate surroundings are good techniques for practicing mindfulness.

“You don’t have to be sitting down – you can do this walking down a busy street. Just switch your attention to your breath and it will give you a bit of perspective.”

This helps draw energy from the amygdala (the part of your brain that controls the flight or fight responses) that often is associated with feelings of stress and anger.

Kathryn O’Halloran – a former nurse who now runs mindfulness sessions ranging from primacy schools to prisons with her Mindful Way practice – says you should try to set aside at least ten minutes a day to do nothing but practice mindfulness.

This particular focused practice is called Formal Practice, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which started in the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s and is now practiced in medical centres and health organisations around the world.

“You bring stillness to the body – maybe bring attention to your breath. Notice the mind wandering and as it does refocus that attention back on the breath and in the present moment.”

She said you don’t need props or music – just somewhere to sit. Over time you can learn to lean into the emotions you are feeling but then bring it back to the breath, an anchor that many practitioners of mindfulness and meditation use (though it is not the only anchor – some might like to focus on their posture).

screengrab kathryn practicing Kathryn practicing one of her mindfulness routines. Source: TheJournal.ie/Andrew Roberts

“Anger gets a really bad rap, doesn’t it?” she says. “People regard it as something we shouldn’t feel – but there is no wrong way to feel emotion.”

Mindfulness she says, introduces space – a pause – which allows us to be more discerning in what happens next.

“I’m I going to shout at that person? Maybe. Or will I notice what’s happening and respond to it in a way that is much healthier and helpful to me.”

She paraphrases a quote by Victor Frankl – Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist:

“Between all stimulus and response there’s a space, and in that space lives our power to choose our response; and in our response lives our growth and freedom.”

This is what mindfulness is helping us with, Kathryn says – freedom so we get to have more of a say in how we are, what we do, what we think and how we feel.

Read: ‘Mindfulness in schools and less focus on points: What politicians want for Irish schoolchildren’

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Andrew Roberts

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