Anger Management Secret #9: Practice emotional regulation -- take more time to respond when facing a challenge to your equanimity.
Learn Skills to Deal with Difficult Emotions
Emotional regulation doesn't mean controlling your emotions, which would be like an effort to control the weather. Rather, it means that you can learn skills to express and deal with painful or troubling emotions when they are small and not yet overwhelming. This is the key skill that makes Secret #8 possible.
If you're in the Red Zone of rage, your thinking brain has already shut down. It does no good to remind yourself that "it's not about you." By then it's too late. The crucial skill is learning how to effectively deal with hurt feelings, irritations, frustrations, sadness, being upset, and all the other painful emotions before they become overwhelming.
Several principles can help you craft your own individualized approach.
Principle 1: Don't take actions or make decisions when you are agitated or upset.
Take a time out to cool down. Take a walk around the block -- or walk five miles, if need be. Say, "I'll talk to you about this later," and remove yourself from the upsetting situation before you blow.
Principle 2: Learn to use your breath to calm yourself down.
This is the fundamental basis of all meditative practices. We've talked about the Stress Response in Secret #1 above. There's another physiological state your body can attain, which is called the Relaxation Response. This is where the cooler, parasympathetic nervous system is in the ascendancy: adrenal secretions are halted, heart rate slows, increased blood flow is routed to the stomach and brain and genitals as well as to the arms and legs. The body and mind are relaxed and calm.
The primary way to move your body from the Stress Response to the Relaxation Response is by focusing on your breath! Take deep, slow breaths. Pay attention to the sensations of the air moving into and out of your body. As your heart rate slows and your blood pressure decreases to its resting state, the Relaxation Response allows your anger to subside.
If it helps you to be moving when you are agitated you can combine focusing on your breath with walking. Breathe in for 3 or 4 steps, then breathe out for 3 or 4 steps. You can adjust the number of steps for the in breath and the out breath to suit your level of fitness. What is important is that your attention is focused on your breath -- not on how upset you are or what to do to fix the problem. Just breathe, and allow yourself to calm.
Practice focusing on your breath when you are not agitated. That way you learn how to do it, and what it feels like without dealing with the stress of being upset.
Principle #3: Learn how not to identify with strong emotion.
"I am not my anger. It is a strong emotion that is present now, but I recognize that it is passing through me, like storm clouds passing through." In this way you strengthen your own ability to witness the feelings you are experiencing. It is this steady, calm Self within you that can build your ability to respond in calmer ways to upsetting situations.
Principle #4: Deal with upsetting feelings only when you are calm.
If, after calming down, you begin to think about what just happened and you find yourself getting agitated again -- go back to focusing on your breath. Sometimes it takes several rounds of relaxation to be able to think clearly about your situation without spiraling downward towards being upset again.