How to Keep Your Cool

calming down

“Anger doesn’t have the same way of goading minds as the other vices do; it drags them away, deprives them of self-control, drives them into longing for a harm that will afflict all, provokes rage against not only its target but whatever comes in its way.” –Seneca, On Anger calming down

Seneca’s quote, though 2000 years old, is timeless because it describes something everyone has felt at some point in their life: a total loss of control under the spell of anger. The reason we’ve all experienced anger this way is that anger is hardwired into our brains as a survival mechanism. Anger triggers fight or flight reactions by activating a region of the brain called the amygdala and releasing a surge of hormones. Of course, in the working world and our day-to-day lives, fight or flight survival instincts are much more likely to get in our way than to help us. Left unchecked, anger will cause us to do things like yell in a meeting, pound our fist on a conference table, or walk out of the room in frustration. calming down

Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Lerner found in her recent research on anger and decision-making that anger makes us temporarily more confident, more likely to blame specific individuals, and more prone to dangerous risk-taking. To try to stop our angry impulses, we need to learn to rely on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decisions. It’s through the prefrontal cortex that we can slow down and contextualize our anger before we act. To help you practice staying calm under the influence of anger, we can look to this ancient philosopher’s work On Anger for six still incredibly relevant strategies. calming down

1. Take your time. “Sometimes false things give the appearance of truth. One must take one’s time; a day reveals the truth.” Time gives us the mental space we need to avoid acting impulsively on our anger. Sleeping on it, leaving an email in draft form for a few hours or for a trusted friend to read first, or even just counting to ten all present opportunities to use anger more intentionally. You can never take back something you’ve already said, but you can always say it later. calming down

2. “Being deceived is better than being mistrustful.” It’s too easy to assume the worst about someone and then slowly fill in a story proving your mistrust.The problem is that this takes energy. It consumes your thoughts and soon you will find yourself angry over random actions as you mistakenly assume each one is pitted against you. Save your energy, and trust until trust is broken, rather than sapping your energy and patience by making everyone earn your trust. calming down

3. Let the petty things go. “Nothing nurtures anger so much as luxury that lacks restraint and can’t stand setbacks.” The road to an unbearable life is paved with “all the small things.” Instead of wasting time and energy sweating the little stuff, learn to expect that life is imperfect, changing, and downright weird sometimes. calming down

4. “None of us is without guilt.” When you find yourself getting angry or frustrated with someone, remember your own wrongdoings. Then, forgive people the way you would want to be forgiven.

5. Befriend your enemies. “How often has someone thrown theirself at the feet of the person they earlier spurned? What is more glorious than to change one’s wrath into friendship?” A more contemporary take on this is Abraham Lincoln’s “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” What better way to move past anger than to try to fully reverse it and befriend the person you’re angry with.

6. Know your vulnerabilities. “This one wants consideration for high rank; that one, for good looks. One longs to be thought highly refined; another, deeply learned. One can’t abide arrogance; another, stubbornness…One thinks it an injury to be asked for something; another, an insult not to be asked.” We all have different vulnerabilities that trigger our anger. Becoming aware of these triggers can help us pause or slow down to avoid reacting badly in the heat of the moment.

From Insights to Action. “What joy is there in proclaiming our grievances and wasting our brief lifespan, as though we were born to live forever? Why not rather hoard this brief space of life and make it peaceful for yourself and for others?” In other words, turn to the big picture things, good and bad—like family, health, friendships, mortality, and nature—to reframe your perspective. The further you zoom out from your problems, the more trivial they seem. Or as Seneca put it: “Draw further back, and laugh.” 

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