The Athlete's Way

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4 Simple Ways to Replace Hostility with Equanimity

Equanimity is the key to maintaining healthy social connections.

Equanimity means to "maintain mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation." Are there certain people or situations that trigger anger, rage, and make it difficult for you to keep your cool? Equanimity is the antidote for burning bridges with people.

We all have co-workers, in-laws or friends-of-friends with whom there is going to be friction. As parents, it's especially important to practice equanimity with our children. The most challenging situations for me to practice equanimity are when a backstabber tries to slander my character or intentions. Have you lost a friendship, romantic partner or a connection to a family member due to a lack of equanimity and saying something so hurtful that you could never take it back? 

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Some people allow a need to feel powerful or superior to drive them to cut others down in an attempt to build themselves up. Don't feed into it by trying to undermine them in return. Equanimity is always the best response when someone gossips or says nasty things about you. Let their negativity roll off your back like it is teflon coated and covered with Crisco.

If you let yourself slide into the mud pit and start combating someone's hostile actions or words with more petty hostility you will only add fuel to the fire of negativity. Equanimity is always the best solution for interpersonal confilcts or haters. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Equanimity is one of the Four Noble truths of Buddhism. The idea of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are the golden rules of most religions. But practicing equanimity is secular. It’s also common sense. If you want to succeed in life, equanimity is going to take you a lot farther than hostility. Learning to not be emotionally reactive when you feel undermined or attacked takes a lot of restraint and practice.

Below are 4 very simple tricks you can use to defuse your anger and replace hostility with equanimity in the heat of the moment.

4 Simple Ways to Maintain Equanimity

1. REMEMBER THAT EQUANIMITY IS KEY AND ALWAYS PREVAILS. The first trick to achieving equanimity is simply to keep the concept of equanimity in the front of your mind — especially when someone pushes your buttons and you feel a physiological 'rage response' kicking in. We all know the feeling of anger taking over your body and making your mind spin out of control ... your breathing becomes more shallow, your heart begins to race, you feel pressure build behind your eyes, the veins in your temples start to pulse... Never say or do anything hostile or negative in this biological state.

The rush of adrenaline and other hormones is the fight-or-flight response kicking in from your sympathetic nervous sytem. Equanimity, on the other hand, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and triggers a 'tend-and-befriend' biological state and puts the brakes on the fight-or-flight response.

Whenever you feel the fight-or-flight alarm system begin to sound. Stop. Take a breath and tag it as a cue or red flag that reminds you that now is a time that you need to bring your equanimity A-game. You can consciously flick your equanimity switch into the 'on' and locked position and get through just about any situation with evenness of mind.

I know that keeping your cool when someone really pushes your buttons takes a ton of mental willpower and mindfulness. Learning how-to practice equanimity takes work, but it is always in everyone's best interest.

2. BREATHE, RECITE AN EQUANIMITY MANTRA, AND CALMLY WALK AWAY. Focus on your breathing and neutral things in the environment while reciting an ‘Equanimity mantra’, counting to ten and then coaching yourself in the third person.

When talking to myself in the 3rd person I would say something like: "Keep cool, Christopher ... Equanimity is key ... Breathe ... Relax the back of your eyes ...Take another deep breath ... Breathe ... Equanimity is key ... Don’t say anything mean.” If I am unable to walk away calmly from the situation, I will recite words like this as a mantra until I feel my biological response to feeling angry simmer down.

Using your first name in the 3rd person as part of an inner-dialogue is a highly effective way to maximize the power of self-talk. You should talk to yourself in the 3rd person anytime you need to coach yourself towards a target behavior. I learned this trick doing ultra-endurance sports, but it works in life too.

3. VISUALIZE YOUR VAGUS NERVE, BREATHE, AND LET IT GO. Some people thrive on conflict and drama. Often times people will push your buttons intentionally hoping to provoke a reaction. I can think of a few people who are really good at pushing my buttons and getting under my skin, can you? The beauty of making equanimity your primary coping mechanism for conflict resolution is that it breaks the nasty cycle of hate and violence that can spiral out of control and destroys social connectivity.

Both of my parents had a tough time practicing equanimity in their marriage. Watching them fight endlessly made me determined to break that cycle in my relationships by using equanimity. I have a few friends who have really bad tempers. People say and do stupid things when our bodies are pumping with too much adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol.

Your vagus nerve is there to calm you down. You can engage your vagus nerve simply by taking a few deep breaths while visualizing it squirting acetylcholine (vagusstuff) on your heart to slow down your heart rate and squelch the 'fight-or-flight' response of your sympathetic nervous system.

For more on the vagus nerve and tips for creating equanimity please check out my Psychology Today blog: "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure." 

4. PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND MEDITATION ARE PATHWAYS TO EQUANIMITY. Everyone needs an outlet to stop cortisol from building up and to work through the dynamics of a conflict so that it can be resolved in a way that advances healthy, loving social connections. I find that aerobic exercise, yoga or lifting weights are all very effective ways to release the build up of anger that can fester when you bite your tongue or hold back from fully expressing yourself. Physical activity is a pathway to equanimity, as is any type of meditation.

During a workout you can deconstruct the elements of what happened, let out aggression, and figure out why something upset you. During a jog, bike ride, swim, kick-boxing session, elliptical ride... you can come up with a game plan to resolve conflicts in a magnanimous way.  

Many studies have shown that mindfulness meditation that includes LKM (loving-kindness meditation) can rewire your brain. Practicing LKM is easy. All you have to do is take a few minutes everyday to sit quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to: 1) Family and friends. 2) Someone with whom you have tension or a conflict. 3) Strangers around the world who are suffering. 4) Self-compassion, forgiveness and self-love to yourself.

Doing this simple 4-step LKM practice literally rewires your brain by engaging neural connections linked to empathy. You can literally feel the tumblers in your brain shift and open up to empathy by spending just a few minutes going through this systematic LKM practice.

Conclusion: Make Equanimity Your Golden Rule

Taking a few long, slow deep breaths and literally counting to 10 is the best way to kickstart equanimity. Yes, it takes mental toughness to be nice sometimes. Especially when someone is attacking or judging you. But, evolution does not reward mean and selfish people — nor does modern day-to-day life. Sometimes you feel disempowered when you ‘turn the other cheek,' but equanimity will always prevail. Hate and hostility will eat you up from the inside and out and sabotage your social connections which are the most important thing in life for your well-being. 

The goal of practicing equanimity is to avoid the backlash of adrenaline or testosterone driven ''rage attacks" that destroy human connection and trust. Once your biological response has returned to a neutral state of homeostasis you can revisit the situation either in writing or in a face-to-face conversation on neutral turf. Never try to resolve a conflict via text messaging or voicemail. 

Equanimity is not about being a doormat or suppressing your emotions. Jackie Robinson was a perfect example of what I call 'ferocious equanimity.' If you'd like to read more on this please check out my Psychology Today blog, "The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back."  

Equanimity is the most important state of mind to maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons. The next time someone really gets under your skin and you want to lash out take a deep breath and try these 4 simple ways to replace that hostility with equanimity. You’ll be glad you did.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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