DEAR DOCTOR K: What can I do to calm myself when I’m angry?
DEAR READER: Anger is often called “the fire inside.” It is one of our most powerful and primal human emotions. But in the modern world, anger can get in the way of our work, relationships and social interactions.
In his thoughtful, instructive and award-winning book, “Outsmarting Anger,” my Harvard Medical School colleague, Dr. Joseph Shrand, and Leigh Devine explain how to recognize and manage your anger. (You can learn more about the book on my website, AskDoctorK.com.)
Anger stems from the limbic system, one of the more primitive parts of our brain. By “primitive,” I mean that many animals have a limbic system — even lizards.
Our ability to process and tame anger comes from a more recently evolved section of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. You may have experienced people who don’t seem to have a very highly developed prefrontal cortex — like the current mayor of a large Canadian city. Or the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield (though that was just part of his act).
It’s difficult to control the anger you feel — but you can control whether and how you act on it. “Outsmarting Anger” explains how to recognize, listen to and think about your anger. The key is in this shift from feeling to thinking: turning down the limbic system and turning up the prefrontal cortex. There are no physical dials, but you can learn how to control the imaginary ones.
A simple exercise that can help you begin to control your anger is to construct a personal anger scale. First, write down 10 words that describe escalating intensities of anger. “Irritation,” “frustration” and “rage” are examples of anger words. Assign each word a number from 1 to 10 (10 being the angriest).
Now, write down some things that trigger your anger. Give each item a word and number from your anger scale. For example:
— Slow Internet connection (irritation, 1)
— Rude service at a restaurant (frustration, 3)
— A driver who cuts you off (rage, 8)
This exercise forces you to think about your anger, rather than just feeling it.
Once you’ve classified your level of anger, think your way through it. What needs to change for your anger to downshift from a 5 to a 3? Would it help to talk to someone you trust? To write down your feelings rather than expressing them in the heat of the moment?
Finally, consider regular exercise and meditation. Both can help you feel more relaxed, allowing your prefrontal cortex, or “anger management center,” to operate most effectively.
In the past 20 years, we’ve learned that our anger doesn’t just make us difficult to live with and do stupid and self-defeating things. It also breeds heart disease — particularly sudden death. That’s another good reason to learn how to “outsmart” your anger.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.