Originally answered on Quora, this question was raised ...
When you’re really angry, what can calm you down in an instant?
This was my response.
Let me challenge your thinking here - no matter how good you get at calming your anger, that’s not the same thing as dealing with it.
As a young child, I grew up in an abusive home, with a dad who didn’t know how to manage his anger. When it came out, it came out big, and made a mess of things.
To my little kid brain, this was interpreted as-
“Holy crap anger is SO bad, look how much damage it causes, I never want that.”
So like you, I learned to suppress anger, I learned how to calm down in seconds, breath deeply, get perspective by looking back from the future… basically, to strengthen my rational mind enough that it could take control away from my emotional mind.
And I got pretty darn good at it.
Why This Doesn't Work
By the time I was a teenager, I was calm, cool, collected, even in emotionally intense situations.
This seemed to work OK until something sudden would happen that I didn’t expect. In sudden situations, my rational mind couldn't react quickly enough to intervene between emotions and behavior.
There's a scientific explanation for this...
Your emotional/feeling mind (aka “System 1”) is far, far faster than your rational/thinking mind (aka “System 2”).
When emotions like anger trigger suddenly at a high intensity- your rational mind has basically zero chance to put on the brakes.
… even the smallest, stupidest thing, like stubbing my toe on a step.
I will just say that I got fairly decent at drywalling.
The intensity of anger I’d feel in these moments was overwhelming. I could keep making my rational mind stronger, and learning new techniques, but the emotional mind was collecting this huge pile of repressed anger that wasn’t going away.
When a tiny thing would make me angry suddenly, the whole weight of that repressed anger would explode out with it.
It was like locking a tiny “anger puppy” away in the closet, only to have that closet burst open a year later with a full grown rabid rottweiler at your throat.
Why Does This Happen?
Anger is GOOD.
Anger is an essential, fundamental emotion, and it’s one of the main reasons you’re alive.
Anger is your brain saying “I feel threatened.” If you, or your ancestors had been incapable of feeling anger, you would have been eaten or killed by mother nature long, long ago.
Anger is your primary motivation to defend and protect yourself, and avoid being taken advantage of by others.
The foundation, roots, and neurochemistry of anger are wired deeply into the most fundamental parts of your brain's operating system. Short of a chemical lobotomy, you're not getting rid of it, and neither would you want to.
How I Deal With Anger
My process is very different now, and I find journaling helps tremendously.
Here’s the thing- no matter how much we try, we will always have both an emotional mind and a rational mind. We will always be half mammal, half human. Freud’s ego and superego. This is a fundamental human struggle, which many of us think we are supposed to fight.
When we try to shut one of these two brains down, and “be” the other one, we suffer terribly, because it goes against our fundamantal nature and design.
Once I learned the basic truth that all emotions are helpful. I stopped trying to suppress them, and instead, focused on learning how to listen and use them in my decision making.
When you feel any strong emotion, especially anger, here's what I recommend;
- Stop and take a moment to investigate what’s happening in your head
- Create space if you need to. You’ll need less space later - once you’re using anger effectively, you’ll no longer have the massive pressure of repressed anger adding to the situation.
- Ask yourself “why do I feel threatened?”
- If possible, record your answers - by writing or audio recording to your phone. I find saying this out loud to myself, to my phone recorder, is the easiest and quickest way for me to journal strong emotional states, and I get to learn more from them by listening to past recordings.
This process connects your rational and your emotional minds, so they’re speaking the same language.
Once the thinking part of your brain understands why the feeling part is throwing a tantrum, it becomes very clear what’s happening, and what the best course of action is.
Then, your energy gets to go towards solving the problem, rather than trying to control your emotions.
Your anger is NOT the problem, it’s just a dashboard light, telling you something critically important. If you cover it with electrical tape… your engine will eventually explode.