It can sometimes seem like the world is getting angrier. Whether it is Trumpian politics, keyboard warriors or the deluge of bad news we’re presented with on a daily basis, so much of our modern discourse seems to be fueled by animosity.
While anger is sometimes a valid and necessary response to injustice, and a driver of change, the majority of the time it fosters division and hampers our empathy. This raises an important question: are there ways we can lessen this often destructive and limiting emotion?
Anger in the Everyday
It’s in the larger themes of life – from politics to religion – that anger and annoyance are at their most obvious. Anger is deliberately fueled to entrench certain worldviews, stop people from discussing issues from a point of understanding, and obfuscate our common humanity. The people who try to stymie the freedoms of others (whether through terrorism, violence, or more subtle rhetoric and government reform) rely on their own anger at the way things are – and stoking the anger of others – to force their ideas through.
It is anger that allows immigrants to be treated badly, inspires people to picket gay rights marches, and reduces intelligent debate to shouting matches. But it isn’t only here that we see the problems resentment and outrage cause.
In our day-to-day lives and personal relationships, anger can be a significant barrier to happiness and good will. When we become irritable with our partners, children or family, we find it harder to appreciate them as a full human being – with flaws and motivations of their own – and instead accredit them with attributes and intentions that can be quite far from the truth.
When we’re irritable, a thoughtless action can suddenly be misconstrued as a deliberately provocative one. The person in question may be cast in our minds as inherently “lazy” or “annoying” or “selfish,” instead of a good person that we love who happens to have done a lazy, annoying or selfish thing. It throws up a wall which stops us from truly relating to others, and is an impediment to us actually solving the problem or communicating our point of view.
Angry emotions can also feel like something we have little conscious control over. Everyone has experienced a time where they’ve become more incensed than they need to be, snapping or shouting at someone and feeling instantly guilty afterwards – especially if we’ve managed to really hurt their feelings. If this happens too often, our loved ones can even become wary of us, walking on eggshells when really, we’re the one who is being unfair, which is a deeply problematic situation to find ourselves in.
We can find ourselves in the grips of wasted anger over things we can’t control. The deep frustration of being stuck in a long queue, filling out pointless finicky forms, the car in front driving very, very slowly when we need to be somewhere. It can all make us want to scream and cast a cloud over the rest of our day. But ultimately, these feelings get us nowhere, because we can’t change the situation even if we wanted to.
Meditation and a Sense of Calm
Anger and stress are closely related emotions that both complement and feed off each other. We are far more likely to become wound up when we feel under pressure, and much more inclined to let little things go when we feel relaxed. Similar to stress, anger is a physiological response to a perceived threat to you, your loved ones, your property, your self-image, your emotional safety or some part of your identity.
When a cat swipes at another feline intruder in their territory, they are experiencing a similar thing we do when we raise our voice at someone who has just overstepped some sort of personal boundary. Of course the major difference is that we can intellectualize and mull over our anger, even becoming angry at imagined scenarios. But the ancient “flight or fight” mechanism we share with so many other forms of life is essentially the same.
It’s this hair-trigger, lizard-brain response that practices like yoga and meditation can help to regulate. We may be influenced by similar instinctive drivers as other animals, but as humans we have the capacity to think and make steps to change our behavior, and even change the way our mind works.
Brain scans have demonstrated that regular meditation can physically reduce the size of our amygdala, which is the part of our brains which governs our flight or fight response. It also has been shown to calm our autonomic nervous system, the bodily structure through which our stress hormones – such as cortisol and adrenaline – are flooded into the body. It’s through these processes that we feel tense and unable to think clearly, but meditation appears to significantly reduce their hold over us.
Meditation also makes us more aware of our feelings and more empathetic to the feelings of others, building up the emotional bandwidth to deal with the rising tension in any given moment and put a lid on any hostility we feel towards the world. We experience the world from a far less pressured and stressed place, being able to feel anger when it arises without falling into the habitual irritations of an angry person.
With less anger and more understanding in our worldview, it becomes easier to respond appropriately to any annoyances we encounter in life, becoming calmer and (perhaps most importantly) kinder people.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Holly Ashby. Holly is a wellness writer who works with Will Williams Meditation, a meditation center in London, and has written extensively on the benefits of meditation, including less stress, increased focus, and greater corporate well-being in workplaces.