6 Ways to Keep Your Cool when the World is Making You Angry

Photo: ThinkstockBy Jena Pincott

Some things have a way of crawling under your skin. But before you let them make your blood boil, try these six simple ideas to reduce white-hot rage.

The Left-Handed Reducer
Let's say you have a colleague who has a habit of giving backhanded compliments. "You don't look happy in that dress!" she says sweetly. "Don't worry, it makes you look smaller from behind." Fuming, you keep hearing her words over and over: Worry...Smaller...Behind.

Reducer: Thomas Denson, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, found that we can increase self-control in the same way we strengthen weak muscles--literally. For two weeks, right-handed volunteers had to use their left hand to do just about everything: brush teeth, open doors and stir the milk in their coffee. Later, these self-made lefties were less likely to retaliate when provoked than people who hadn't been forced to switch hands. The surprising lesson here is that tiny tweaks in bodily self-control can have such an impact on anger management. "They rely on the same circuitry," Denson says. Other exercises that require self-discipline may work just as well--like constantly keeping your shoulders back, spine straight, and chin up.


RELATED: The Key to a Well-Lived Life: Lighten Up!


The "Game Your Rage" Reducer
Among other annoying cost-cutting measures, your workplace is making you swipe your ID every time you need to use the printer. The card reader breaks all the time and takes days to fix. Today it goes on the fritz right before your big presentation--and all you can do is rage against the machine.

Reducer: Here is the heart-hammering fury that comes from feeling powerless. How do you bring yourself back? Here's something we hadn't considered before: You can game your anger with Rage Control (Regulate and Gain Emotional Control), a video game developed by psychiatrists at Harvard University. Originally designed for young people, it tracks your heart rate as enemy spaceships attack--and disables your shooter when you get angry or overexcited. Over time, you learn what your body feels like when you're losing control, and how to calm yourself to stay within your resting heart rate. This process strengthens the connection between the brain's executive control (prefrontal cortex) and emotional area (amygdala), much in the way that meditation does. The advantage? Meditation often means you have to leave a stressful situation; here, you learn how to stay in control in the midst of it. (Rage Control will be available on smart phones in the near future, says Peter Ducharme, one the study's authors.)



The Sick Kitty Reducer
Your boss is screaming at you. Again. Her face is savage and fiendish. You feel an adrenaline rush. Your brain's natural response to anger kicks in--and today, the emphasis is more fight than flight.

Reducer: How do you stop this scenario from escalating? The answer is in a study at Stanford University: Look 'em in the eye. See the rage. And then imagine that the aggressor is...having a bad day and her anger has nothing to do with you. Maybe her little Siamese cat is dying. Or she didn't sleep last night because she was worried about her mother. This is called reappraisal--a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that helps you see tough situations in new ways. When volunteers were confronted by angry faces and told to feel the emotion on the face and think about what it meant, they continued to be upset. But when instructed to imagine that the face's bearer was having a bad day, they were like Teflon--the bad feeling didn't stick. In fMRI brain scans, reappraisers' brains look healthier: The prefrontal cortex, does damage control, while the amygdala appears relatively calm.



The "What Would Obama Do?" Reducer

Your landlady is a brute. She'd love to kick you out and raise the rent, but you're not budging until your lease expires. So, she makes your life miserable. She just accused you of tossing empties in the garbage instead of the recycling bin. It wasn't you, you protest, but she's not listening. Her voice is louder and shriller than yours. She cuts you off. She jabs her thumb into you. She wants a war.

Reducer: Barack Obama has a reputation for staying cool under attack. He seems to detach instead of "lose it"--even when flagrantly provoked. This inspired Dominik Mischkowski and Brad Bushman at Ohio State University. In a clever study, the two researchers set people up to be unfairly berated while playing a game. Once the victims were good and angry, they were either asked to replay the upsetting event in their minds from a fly-on-the-wall perspective (as if they were watching it happen to you from far away), or using other techniques like playing the scene over in their minds. Given the opportunity to retaliate, the "self-distancers" were calmer and less vindictive. The lesson: No one can get under your skin when you remove yourself and reflect deliberately.



The "Safe Word" Reducer
You always love her but sometimes you can't stand her--and one of those moments is now. Munchkin is doing every bad thing a toddler can think of, all while making eye contact with you and shaking her head, saying, "Uh oh! Oh no! Uh oh! Oh no!" She stumbles over to your white walls, clutching a thick crayon, and starts scribbling up a storm. All you see is red.

Reducer: Do you remember how, in the movie Anger Management, the psychologist tells his patients to say the word "goosfraba" whenever they feel rage bubbling up? Eskimos (allegedly) use the word to calm their children, but any "safe word" will do. Hobgoblins. Tatertots. The whole point of a safe word or phrase is to use it to interrupt--and re-center--yourself when you're getting mad. In his book Anger, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a mantra: "Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I smile towards my anger." Same idea. All you're trying to achieve is one merciful moment of reflection so your better self can take over before the anger does.



The "It May Take Awhile" Reducer

You admit it: These days, everything infuriates you. Litterers, loudmouths and long lines. Stories of how men are pigs. People looking at you on the subway. Celebs with diet books and empty sound bites. Our culture is falling apart. Everyone else seems so infuriatingly cheerful and complacent. Not you. You're furious all the time.

Reducer: You may not be as angry as you think--that's the upshot of a study led by Emre Demiralp, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. Compared to healthy people, the clinically depressed couldn't distinguish deep despair from anger in everyday life. If you're one of them, you might snap unfairly at your friend, and then feel angrier instead of ashamed when she starts to cry. What else is going on--shame, guilt or some other emotion? If you can't tell, you need a professional to help you sort it out. Okay, as a rage reducer, therapy isn't an instant fix. But learning what else is mixed in with your anger is the first step in surviving in what--we agree--can be an infuriating world.


KEEP READING: Life Lessons, Courtesy of Man's Best Friend



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