How to manage anger mindfully

May 10 08:12 2010 Oudam Emm Print This Article

A better alternative to both expression and suppression of anger is to treat it mindfully- that is, to understand the true nature of our anger, mentally distance ourselves from our own emotion,  and finally take constructive steps to correct the conditions and circumstances responsible for the destructive emotion.

Anger is a conditioned response to a perceived threat to the ego.  It is a complex experience that combines unpleasant physical symptoms with upsetting memories,Guest Posting personal assumptions, deeply held beliefs, prejudices, and other characteristics of the ego.  Often when we are angry, all that we are aware of is our angry mood, which may range from mild irritation to intense rage.  When we look for the causes of our anger, we usually direct our attention to the outside world, to people or events that we perceive to be threatening our ego.  In reality, internal factors play as large a role in our capacity to control the destructive emotion.  Once we understand how to deal with the anger inside of us, we are in a better position to deal the causes and conditions from the outside world.

People differ widely in their ability to tolerate frustration. We all get angry from time to time. Our surroundings, associations, occupations, and other external factors all play a role in how often we get angry.  Anger does not make us evil; it makes us human. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that anger is a destructive emotion that compromises our ability to handle heated situations effectively and to find a long-term solution to combative atmosphere.

One way people deal with anger is to express it.  There is a popular belief that anger must be vented or it will build up like steam in a pressure cooker.  Screaming, shouting, door slamming, and even physical aggression are some ways people express their anger. Venting our anger may help to dissipate it, but we often feel worse when we lose our temper.  Our anger tends to intensify when as we vent it- a mild irritation may snowball into full-fledged rage. The habitual expression of anger also conditions us to similar responses in the future. Even a seemingly benign act such as hitting a pillow conditions us to act out our anger in the future.  Soon we will come to see losing our temper as an acceptable way to deal with frustration.

Another way to deal with anger is to suppress it.  We may suppress our anger because there is something more important at stake, or because we do not want to be seen as hot-tempered in the presence of others. Anger suppression is an act of sheer will.  Suppressing anger may contain it for a while but will not make it disappear altogether. Instead, it gets transformed into hatred, animosity and vengeance.  The buildup of negative emotions contributes a poor mental quality and may limit our capacity to suppress anger in future provocations.  Then suppression is merely a postponement of expression.

A better alternative to both expression and suppression of anger is to treat it mindfully- that is, to understand the true nature of our anger, mentally distance ourselves from our own emotion,  and finally take constructive steps to correct the conditions and circumstances responsible for the destructive emotion. A clear comprehension of our anger is essential to the transformation of the negative emotion into constructive attitude and conduct.,

When anger arises, it's best to view it as a temporary physical discomfort. From a Buddhist perspective, anger is merely a hindrance to enlightenment.  Anger is a transitory emotion, just like euphoria. Seen as simply a matter of physical inconvenience, anger becomes something that can be overcome with mental skill.

When someone makes us angry, we must first realize that the anger is our own problem.  This is not to say that we have not been wronged in any way.  When we become angry, it's natural to feel that have been treated unjustly and to seek some kind of retribution against whatever that is causing our anger.  However, we must realize that the destructive emotion is present within us, not within that person.  Therefore, the best course of action would be to deal with our own anger before dealing with that person.   If someone were to stab us with a knife, it would make sense to attend to our wound before seeking justice against the aggressor.  Anger is a wound to our emotional well being, so we must attend to it before anything else.

People often tell us  "Don't take it personally"  as they proceed to insult us anyway.  They are correct in the sense that their words wield no power over us unless we take them personally.  Often, we harbor a sense of insecurity about some aspects of ourselves ("I am unattractive", "I am stupid", "I am a failure", etc.).  We look for and feel hurt by critical remarks about our perceived personal shortcomings. We then project our anger on the person who points out these flaws.

Anger is a complex emotion involving unpleasant physical symptoms, such as muscle tensions, head buzzing, and heart pounding,  and psychological components, including hostility, fear, insecurity, and upsetting memories. The first step to dealing with the anger within us is to mindfully isolate the raw physical symptoms from the psychological elements.  Here it may be helpful to think of anger as an onion consisting of a core of physical symptoms surrounded by layers of psychological elements.  If we peel away all the layers of hostility, hatred, fear, bias, anxiety and other mental manifestations of anger, what we have left are the physical discomforts of being angry.  If we really think about it, the unpleasant sensations of tightening muscles, stomach knots, and so forth are not more unpleasant than a bad headache or toothache.

During anger there is often an overwhelming propensity for the mind to attach to upsetting thoughts.  However, if we are to attempt to calm our anger rather than let it spiral out of control, we must at least recognize that such attachment is unhelpful.  At the onset of anger, identify the physical symptoms that are present in your body, without attaching any meaning to them.   Is your heart pounding?  Is there a knot forming in your stomach?  Are your fists clenching?  Is your chest tightening? Does your head buzz? Do you feel tensions in your facial muscles?

Then take a deep breath and turn your attention to one of the physical symptoms.  Work with one symptom at a time.  It does not matter which one you start with- I suggest the one you find most discomforting. You might start with the tensions in your face. Turn your attention to your facial muscles.  How does your face feel in the presence of the tensions?  How would it feel without them?  Accept their presence.  Open yourself to it and embrace it as part of yourself (after all, it is).  Without analyzing or interpreting the sensations, mindfully investigate the nature of the sensations.  Watch their moment-to-moment changes in your face.  Of course, you are better off without these sensations and eventually, you wish to be free from them.  But try not to resist them in any way, for resistance only prolongs the discomfort.  Breathe in and out mindfully, and enjoy the soothing sensations of breath. Feel the tensions gradually dissipating with every out-breath.  Don't just imagine; actually feel the tensions melting away you breathe in and out.  Hold your attention on your breathing and your facial tensions. If your mind wanders away, gently bring it back with mindful breathing.  Have patience. Take as long as you need. Use your breath to tether your mind to the physical discomfort in your face.  Done diligently, this exercise will help soothe the tensions and prevent your mind from attaching to unpleasant thoughts and memories.

Once your facial tensions are gone, work on the next symptom, such as the knot forming in your stomach.  Trace the knot to its exact location in the stomach. Meditate on it as you had on your face. Feel the knot loosening gradually with every inhalation and exhalation.  Take as long as you need to loosen the knot.  Work on each symptom until all symptoms are gone.

Naturally, upsetting memories and thoughts will arise. Acknowledge them but do not get involved in them. Simply let these thoughts come and go, holding your focus on just the physical sensations. When your attention strays away from the sensations, breathe mindfully to bring your mind back to them. Remind yourself that just like all things in life, these transitory unpleasant feelings will soon pass. You are not deluding yourself, merely telling yourself an obvious truth. When the mind in this troubled state, it needs to be told even the obvious truth. But do it in a gentle way. When the mind is in the precarious state of anger, it should be nursed back to health with tenderness and compassion.

Some negative thoughts are so overwhelming that you cannot keep your mind away from them for very long.  Instead of giving into the hostility, try to think about the positives.  In every situation, however unpleasant, has a redeeming quality.  Make an effort to counter hostility and ill will with constructive thoughts.  Then bring your attention back to your breath and physical symptoms.

Here we are able to mindfully isolate the raw sensations of being angry from the psychological components of anger. The ordinary, conditioned experience of anger is the constant complex but erratic association of the physical sensations with destructive mental thought patterns.  The mind has a tendency to attach itself to thoughts and memories; this is especially true when we are in a bad mood. This tends to amplify the hostility and promote an overreaction. By mindfully attending to the physical discomfort and mental components of anger as separate phenomena arising within us, we are able to depersonalize the whole experience and view from an impersonal vantage point. This detachment allows us to nurture our anger with compose and reason. When seeking help for a wound, it helps to see a doctor who is not wounded herself.  If anger is the wound, mindfulness is the doctor.

This exercise allows us to calm down and handle the situation more intelligently. By breaking down anger into a series of physiological sensations, we effectively depersonalize  it and methodically treat it as a physiological condition.   Distancing ourselves from our own anger enables us to focus on just the raw sensations, to work on them one by one until all symptoms of anger are removed.

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Oudam Emm
Oudam Emm

Oudam Em is the author of, a site dedicated to mindfulness, personal growth, and spiritual development.

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