Handling Anger in a Healthy Way Part 2: Emotional Triggers

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Call it irritation, frustration, despair, agitation, anxiousness, impatience…the list goes on. Anger masquerades as so many different emotions that it is sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what we are experiencing. What we do know is it doesn’t actually feel good to be angry. It may manifest in subtleties like a clenched jaw, tightness in your chest, headache, a knot in your stomach, or rising blood pressure or heart rate.  More times than not, we miss these warning signs until the external manifestation of irrational decision making, yelling, or unkind words slip from our lips. We have all been there.

When we can pinpoint the stressors in our life, we can better equip ourselves to handle them in a calm manner. I encourage you to open a notebook or journal and answer these questions to better understand your emotional triggers.

  1. What is my behavioral reaction?
    What is the response you are wanting to change? Is it yelling at your children or speaking sharply towards a spouse or friend? If you haven’t considered this question before, brainstorm the various responses you have. Notice which ones are most harmful and if any are habitual.
  2. What physical sensations are involved?
    If you are staying in stressed state, discerning normal function may be more challenging. Think about past incidents and try to recall your body’s physiological response to anger i.e. rapid heart rate, pain, muscle tension, etc. If you are having trouble processing this information, consider keeping a journal for a week and tracking your responses to stressors.
  3. When do I most often feel angry?
    Is there a certain time of day that I am more likely to have an unwanted emotional response?
  4. Where does it take place? Is there a pattern here? (I’ll share my own below.)
  5. With whom? Do you see a reoccurring pattern of specific people that are involved?
  6. Why? Go back through questions number 3-5 and pose this question regarding your responses. This is a chance to dig a little deeper to understand what is going on underneath the surface of these situations, places, and relationships.

These questions should start to form a clear picture of what your specific emotional triggers are. When I first answered these questions, my kids were still attending public school.  I realized that I was most often irritable in the afternoons when my daughters came home from school. Almost always it took place in the kitchen when I was trying to prepare dinner, help with homework, and answer all the questions from kids. They were out of sorts from being in a classroom all day, frustrated with homework, desiring my attention, and hungry. I was desiring perfect behavior, space, and quiet. Clearly, our expectations were not aligning and no one was getting what they wanted or needed. After I processed my answers to these questions, I created a plan to equip me better with my emotional triggers.  Consider this the final question for you to answer:

How? 

How are you going to improve this situation and combat the triggers you face routinely?

In my personal example, I began by prepping dinner while the girls were at school. I had a snack and activity prepared for after school. This gave us some much needed quality time and a chance for them to unwind from their day. Sometimes this was as ambitious as getting out watercolors to paint together. Other times it meant playing dolls or taking a walk. Did this magically solve all our dysfunction? Of course not but it did marginally improve my habitual response by providing me with tools to help me be successful and better awareness of my stress triggers.

I truly hope this helps you to better self-regulate and identify your emotional triggers.

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James 1:19-20

Yoga and Stress

Eighty percent of doctor visits are for stress-related problems. Seriously, I think we can all agree that statistic is staggering and scary! So many of us live in a constant state of stress. This week Dr. Catherine Spann lectured on self-regulation.  Spann explained that self-regulation includes skills like focusing and maintaining attention on a particular object, regulating emotions, reflecting on experiences, and engaging in positive social interactions. It also involves regulating our stress. The bad news is that self-regulation is one of the first things to go when we are stressed. Stress hijacks the brain and puts us in a state of imbalance. Without self-regulation, we have little control over our actions and responses to stressors (which basically turns into a vicious cycle).

But what does all this have to do with yoga? 

Yoga and meditation heighten our awareness of body sensations and feelings. Once we realize something is out of balance (shortened breath cycles, tension throughout body, increased heart rate, etc.), we can use breathing techniques to calm the nervous system. Calming the nervous system is our first line of defense to helps us switch from the sympathetic (“fight or flight” emergency response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed, calm, energy conserving state). Yoga and meditation are mindfulness exercises that help us practice paying attention to what is going on in our body and mind while strengthening our self-regulating abilities.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to suggest a gratitude practice which will help with this process of calming the body and managing stress better. Simply take a minute or two to sit in a quiet place and recall the blessings in your life. I find this especially helpful when I am feeling stressed or frustrated. Focusing on the positive can really put our problems in perspective. A few quotes I’ve read this week on gratitude:

“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” -Eric Hoffer

“If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he isn’t likely to be thankful for what he’s going to get.” -Frank A. Clark

“If you want to change your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.” – Gerald Good

“God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say ‘thank you’?” -William Arther Ward

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