“I was in my car waiting for the driver to back out of her space. And the moment she did, that guy pulled in. I couldn’t believe he took my spot! I was fuming. I’d been trying to find a spot for a while. So I jumped out of my car, ran to his and banged my fist on his window. He just sat there and gave me the finger! I continued banging on the glass and cursed at him. He wouldn’t open his window or come out. Suddenly, he reached into his glove compartment. I panicked. I ran as quickly as I could. But turning around, I saw him out of the car with his cell phone raised and videotaping me. That very quickly taught me a lesson. Like, what was I doing?” — Brad
Our moments of anger evolve from a perceived threat coupled with some form of inner pain. Within fractions of a second, Brad felt diminished, oppressed, powerless, disrespected, and cheated. Only when the other driver reached into his glove compartment did Brad’s desire to fight shift to seeking flight. And only at that moment, did Brad further recognize the destructive potential of his anger. So, imagine instead, that Brad had been practicing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.
In recent years research has supported the effectiveness of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation for improving emotional as well as physical well-being. For example, mindfulness-based interventions have been used to help individuals deal with depression (Sunquist, Lilja, Palmer, et.al., 2014) anxiety (Hogi, Bui, Marques, et. al., 2013) stress and physical illness such as high blood pressure (Hughs, Fresco, Myercough, et. al., 2013) and pain (Sharon, Maron-Katz, Simon, et. al., 2016).
One study at Massachusetts General Hospital evaluated the impact of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program with individuals diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), (Holzel, Goge, Greve, et. al., 2013). They performed fMRI before and after participation, with one group who participated in an eight-week MBSR program and another who received education regarding the disorder. The fMRI data showed that, for those who received MBSR, there was greater connectivity between the amygdala and other regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation.
For the past few years I’ve integrated mindfulness and mindfulness meditation as part of my practice for helping clients transform destructive anger into healthy anger (Golden, 2016). I have found it to be highly effective, when used in conjunction with other approaches.
Formal mindfulness practice often involves sitting in a quiet place, with eyes closed, focusing on the breath.This might involve your focusing on sensing the breath at the nostrils or the movement of the chest or abdomen, when breathing in and out. Additionally it involves training your attention, so that when you recognize thoughts, feelings or sensations, we gently redirect your attention to your breathing.
Informal practice might involve taking moments throughout the day to observe your internal mind-body states. For example, you may be mindful while eating, focusing on the details of your experience without distraction. You may practice mindfulness in your conversations with a friend, really listening to what he or she is saying. Similarly, you may be mindful to the details of your experience while taking a shower, instead of ruminating about you’re your approaching day.
Mindfulness practice helps us to observe our thoughts, feelings and body sensations without “over-identifying” with them. This means recognizing them as internal events that do not define us. Rather, we learn to view such internal events as information originating from our mind and body, messages that we can observe without reacting to them. Mindfulness emphasizes that we can choose how, when and where to direct our attention.
In Brad’s situation, an ongoing practice of mindfulness meditation may have helped him to immediately recognize his physical agitation — manifested by more rapid breathing as well as tension in his chest and face. Mindfulness practice would provide him with the essential capacity for healthy anger–the ability to pause and accept and reflect on this experience, rather than react to it.
Practicing mindfulness may also have helped Brad to use his physical arousal as a signal to evoke physical calmness achieved by practicing relaxation exercises to become mindful to his body. Once he achieved calm, ongoing mindfulness practice would have helped him to recognize his experience of threat and to reflect on whether or not he was genuinely threatened by losing the parking space.
As part of my approach, I also encourage clients to complete an anger log. I emphasize that this should be completed only after they have achieved calmness, whether it takes hours or even several days to do so. I suggest they engage in mindfulness breathing prior to completing the log. As such, the task of completing it is a form of insight meditation. I invite them to visualize the event, noticing the details around them as well as observing the details of their inner landscape–the interplay of thoughts, feelings and body sensations that preceded and supported anger arousal.
Through this process Brad would have gained increased mindfulness to identify and distinguish those feelings and thoughts that accompanied his reaction. As such, Brad would have been more predisposed to simply observe, recognize and sit with his feeling diminished, oppressed, powerless, disrespected, and cheated. Practicing mindfulness would have also helped him to recognize those knee-jerk thoughts that formed his appraisal surrounding the event–the inner dialogue that informed him of having no power, being treated with injustice, that he was bullied and cheated.
As part of my practice I help clients become more mindful to the specific appraisal they make as a knee-jerk reaction to the event. I have found that “It’s happening again!” is perhaps the most potent appraisal for triggering intense anger. The activation of this inner dialogue reflects an ongoing predisposition to re-experience past moments of a similar interplay of feelings, thoughts and body sensation. This tendency underlies what we often call an individual’s “hot button”.
At such moments the emotional mind once again encounters the perceived sense of threat and suffering similarly associated with these past events. This mind-body response may be founded on specific trauma and/or a series of events. Recognizing this appraisal helps clients to realize that the intensity of their anger is not simply a reaction to the current triggering event–but also one that reflects the input of past wounds, real and perceived.
I view anger as originating from a compassionate attempt to reduce our pain. As such, every moment we engage in anger, is a temporary reprieve from inner suffering. It is destructive when it leads to greater suffering–for others or ourselves. By contrast, anger can be dealt with in a more compassionate way and doing so reflects healthy anger.
Had Brad practiced mindfulness he would have developed a broad variety of skills to better sit with his discomfort and to be self-compassionate with it. He may have decided to move on. Or, if he did decide to address the other driver, he would have been able to do so with greater focus and calmness–predominantly influenced by his capacity to pause and reflect on, rather than react to his anger.
Sundquis, J., Lilja, A., Palmer, K., et. al. (2014). Mindfulness group therapy in primary care patients with depression, anxiety and stress states and adjustment disorder: randomize controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 206(2), 128-135.
Hoge, E., Marques, B., Metcalf, C. et. al. (2013) Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 9(2), 385-396.
Hughes, J., Fresco, D., Myercough, R.,, et. al. Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for prehypertension. Psychomatic Medicine, 75(8), 721-728.
Sharon, H, Maron-Katz, A., Simon, E., et. al. (2016). Mindfulness Meditation Modulates Pain Through Endogenous Opioids. The American Journal of Medicine, 129(7), 755-758.
Holzel, B., Hoge, E., Greve, D., et. al., (2013). Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. Neurolmage: Clinical, (2), 448-458.
Golden, B. (2016) Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.