Have you ever “lost it” and raged at someone in the car because you were cut off or honked at? Or worse, have you ever yelled at your significant other after being criticized?
Perhaps you’ve yelled at someone at work who has pointed out a mistake or harshly attacked yourself for some seemingly minor infraction like spilling milk or dropping your phone. You may have noticed the generally negative feelings you are left with after a rage attack.
Based on a majority of the people who have come to see me in therapy to stop lashing out, I’ve seen how these reactions can end up feeling painful because they damage relationships and often cause people to feel weak and shameful.
Here are 10 steps to help you respond more calmly when faced with upsetting events:
What to Do Before You React
- Recognize your triggers. If you react in intense anger or rage when something upsetting happens to you, take an inventory of what situations caused you to “lose it.” Do you lose control when you are criticized? Verbally attacked? Judged? Controlled? Recognizing your triggers helps you prepare yourself to not react.
- Be aware of your reactive patterns. Once you have discovered what kinds of events may trigger anger, you can start to pay attention to the particular ways you lash out. Do you rage at others or attack yourself when faced with criticism, threat, or feelings of helplessness?
- Recall memories from your early life. In a quiet place, try to trace your memories of you or your family members exhibiting such outbursts. How did your family handle them? Write down anything you can recall.
- mind to behave differently. Meditation can be a great way to develop a foundation and capacity to stop the reactions in their tracks because it is a practice of developing the capacity to sit, observe, and not react to whatever your mind throws at you. Plenty of research supports the assertion that a mindfulness practice can help people change their reactive behavior. For example, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain,” Congleton, Holzel, and Lazar demonstrate how meditation strengthens the frontal cortex—the part of the brain associated with self-regulation and the capacity to “direct attention and behavior, suppress inappropriate knee-jerk responses, and switch strategies flexibly.”
What to Do During an Emotionally Reactive Event
- Recognize what is happening to you. Taking all the information you acquired in steps 1-3, now you can begin to heighten your awareness in real time. Recognizing that you are reacting emotionally in an extreme way when something upsets you is a big step toward being able to change your behavior.
- Track your breath. Having an awareness of your breath can be a powerful vehicle for slowing down your emotional response and may enable your brain to function more effectively. Breathing into the belly, in particular, with deep inhalations and exhalations can immediately reduce the intensity of rage and allow you to think clearly again.
- Rage is an issue of a mind that has taken the reins, and therapy can help you to take control of those reins, allowing you to feel more peace and tranquility—both internally and in relationships.Work with yourself. Learn to talk yourself down from the emotional “ledge.” Find the specific words you need to tell yourself to stop getting angry, reassess the situation, and respond more appropriately. Practice those words. Tell yourself this is just a moment, and it will pass. Remind yourself of the negative effects of reacting with anger. Go with whatever helps calm your emotions.
- Communicate what you are feeling. After you work with yourself, shift your communication from an attack to an open admission to others of what is happening to you. Include what you need, if possible. (For example, “I’m having a very angry reaction right now, so I need to step away to collect my thoughts,” or “I’m really angry because I feel criticized.”)
What to Do After an Emotionally Reactive Event
- Assess your behavior. Assess how well you did at controlling your rage. What worked? What didn’t work? Make note of it, and then decide if you need more practice or if you need to revise your approach.
- Continue your mindfulness practice. Continue practicing mindfulness for at least a few minutes every day. Building awareness and the capacity to observe requires a daily effort.
These 10 steps to working with extreme anger can be effective, but they require diligence, honesty, and faith. Change is not always easy to do on your own. Psychotherapy is extremely helpful in solidifying these steps because a therapist can point out the places where you might get stuck in this process, help you to understand why you feel resistant, and encourage you to attend to what you might need in order to put these steps into practice.
Try to find a therapist who is trained to understand the workings of the mind and to help you change your negative behaviors. Rage is an issue of a mind that has taken the reins, and therapy can help you to take control of those reins, allowing you to feel more peace and tranquility—both internally and in relationships.
Congleton, C., Holzel, B., & Lazar, S. (2015). Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.