You walk in the door after work. Before you can kick off your shoes, you see it hanging there on the wall: A 60-inch TV your partner bought without talking to you first. You explode. A huge argument ensues. You part angry.
Your response to anger is a habit that's embedded in your brain. But you can train your brain to respond to anger constructively. "All of our habits are reflected in neuronal connections in our brain. If we develop new habits, we make the brain connections for that habit stronger, making it a more automatic response," says Bernard Golden, PhD, a psychologist and author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work.
What is anger? Anger is a response to an unmet expectation, Golden says. Maybe you expected your partner to consult you before buying something expensive. "Behind all anger," he says, "is a threat to some key desire," like wanting to trust your partner.
Emotions cause impulsive reactions. The amygdala, a bundle of neurons deep inside the brain, is the hub for emotional behavior. It sends impulses to the hypothalamus, which triggers the fight-or-flight stress response. The rational prefrontal cortex evaluates threats and decides whether they warrant an explosive response. But sometimes the emotional center takes off running before the rational brain can get started.
Are you a hothead?
Worried about your angry impulses? Psychologist Bernard Golden, PhD, highlights some red flags:
- Your anger escalates quickly, from "zero to 60" in a matter of seconds.
- You have trouble letting go of anger.
- You tend to feel mild to intense anger several times a day.
- You often feel anger in your personal relationships, at work, and in daily activities.
- People describe you as a "hothead."
What can you do about it? To train yourself to engage your rational mind, Golden offers four steps you can easily remember by the acronym BEAR:
Breathe deeply. It brings the focus inward, away from the object of your anger.
Evoke physical calmness. Scan your body for tension. Relax your jaw, unclench your fists. To learn to do this in a moment of anger, practice when everything's fine.
Arouse compassion. Acknowledge that, for example, you're feeling anxiety about money. Next, try having compassion for the person who made you angry. "So my partner bought a TV," you might say to yourself. "Let me ask him about it before I jump to conclusions."
Reflect. Were your expectations realistic? Were you too quick to conclude that your partner was in the wrong? "We quickly personalize things when that may not be the other person's intention," Golden explains.
Trying to avoid getting angry is not the point. "It's being able to recognize that anger is a signal to turn my attention inward to see what's going on with me," he says.