Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Allowing our emotions to dictate our behavior typically leads to poor outcomes, from mindless decisions to angry outbursts to violent events. The good news is, we can change our reactions to thoughtful responses by practicing mindfulness.
I was perusing food websites recently, looking for the spice mixture to use in gyros. I found one where I actually had all of the spices listed in the recipe and as I scrolled down to the instructions, saw the comments section. Someone rated the recipe 1 star, blasting the author for including cinnamon which this person had never had in a gyro from New York to the Midwest.
His reaction was so over the top over an ingredient in a recipe that I couldn’t help but ponder why people are so reactive to just about everything these days. Call me crazy but if a recipe doesn’t sound good, I just don’t use it. Or I eliminate any ingredient I don’t like from the recipe. I don’t feel compelled to spend my time tapping away on the keyboard to ensure that a person knows that I believe they are completely incompetent. I would say, who does that, but unfortunately, lots of people do.
According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, online comments "are extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything. At the end of it you can't possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn't resolve itself in any healthy way can't be a good thing."
He explains that “a perfect storm of factors come together to engender the rudeness and aggression seen in the comments' sections of Web pages.” First, commenters are frequently anonymous, so unaccountable for their rudeness. Second, they are at a physical distance from the target of their anger and people tend to provoke distant targets more easily than humans in person. Third, it's easier to be nasty in writing than in speech.
Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, noted another cause of the vitriol, which is bad examples set by the media, and I would unfortunately add, politicians. It’s somewhat understandable how people might conclude that rage is acceptable political language.
We could say that outrage has disturbingly become the defining emotion of this century, thanks to our technological advances in online communication. But are we at risk of this knee-jerk anger jumping from our screens into real-life encounters or is what we see online simply a reflection of how we are in real life? Are we becoming an angrier species?
While no one knows an exact number, we can say that anger is rising based on the annual Gallup Global Emotions Report and psychotherapist and author, Dr. Aaron Balick says that in the internet age, “the capacity for emotional contagion of anger has increased,” and you can see anger crossing populations much more easily. Balick stated “that the trouble with non-stop access to social media and news outlets is that our boundaries, identities and values can be assaulted whenever we look at our phones, turning all of us into tinder boxes. You could say that people are chronically wound up.”
He compared our narrowing of margins of tolerance to driving. If you’re in a state of stress and someone cuts you off, you’re likely to scream at the driver or throw them a gesture, but if you’re in a calm state and you get cut off, you have the capacity to not let it get to you.
According to Balick, “People who are exposed to angry social media tend to have less margin to contain their anger, too.”
Our reactivity isn’t just expressed online. Social media is a reflection of what exists in the real world. We’re living in a time where poverty, racism, inflation, voting rights, refugee crises, homelessness, reproductive rights, climate change, social injustice, political mistrust and many other significant issues are making people angry and reactive. Social media may be an accelerator for increasing anger, but not the cause.
The unpleasant cardiovascular response we have when angry can raise even more negative feelings and we then of course have a strong urge to get rid of them. An angry outburst may bring a sense of relief, but the more we do it, the more we associate that relief with the outbursts. This can lead to mindless raging instead of processing anger productively.
Ruminating over anger and the triggers that led to it also cause us to carry the negative emotion with us which can intensify over time.
When we feel angry, hurt or stressed, we tend to react impulsively. In these emotional states, we are in fact in a state of fight or flight and that can cause us to overreact to otherwise benign situations as well as major events. This overreaction is called emotional reactivity. Our perceptions of a situation are altered when we’re in this state and the emotional charge prevents us from seeing the situation for what it is. We just react, allowing our emotions and defenses to drive our behaviors.
Mindfulness strengthens our abilities to avoid this state of being. Slowing down and active listening are quite effective at helping us to understand a message without letting our own biases, emotions or thoughts interfere. The more we learn to observe our thoughts and emotions, the better prepared we are to recognize and understand our triggers, leading to much less emotional disturbance and the ability to respond instead of react, even when emotions are running high.
Anger can be a productive emotion, but it comes with a high cost. It can negatively impact relationships, work performance, mental health and overall well-being. It is a basic survival instinct in reaction to a threat, turning on the fight or flight response, which boosts heart rate, and increases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Its purpose is to get us to take action to protect ourselves. But allowing it to become persistent or chronic increases the risk of moving us into abusive or unhealthy behaviors. For the recipe commentor, it’s truly self-sabotaging to get angry over cinnamon, even if he doesn’t like it.
Practicing mindfulness increases our ability to self-regulate by training the mind to see and understand what’s happening in the moment, without reacting. Mindfulness helps us learn to stay with difficult feelings without suppressing or encouraging them. When we allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge our anger, worries, irritations, frustrations and other difficult thoughts and emotions, the negative charge frequently dissipates. We discover that the uncomfortable emotions we’re experiencing will pass, and once they do, we can respond to the situation in a much healthier and productive way.
To minimize our reactivity, we can start by using our breath. If someone says something or you read something online that makes you angry, take a pause and breathe. Taking three deep breaths, in through the nose if you can, and slowly exhaling through the mouth can begin to calm your system down. Then check in to determine whether you need more deep breathing. The goal is to slow down the fight or flight response, which pulls blood away from the brain and out to the extremities, so just keep breathing until you feel calmer. As more blood returns to the brain, you’ll be able to think more clearly and consider your options.
Practicing mindfulness helps cultivate a greater awareness of your thoughts, which is useful in minimizing emotional reactivity. Simply notice your thoughts and question them. Why am I feeling anger over this? Why does this bother me so much? What are the consequences of reacting instead of stepping back a moment? Emotional regulation doesn’t mean getting rid of the emotion but instead, changing the way we respond to negative emotions.
Mindfulness meditation also improves emotional regulation. It helps reinforce that thoughts and emotions pass and allows us to see them more objectively rather than reacting and getting caught up in emotional reactivity. The more we understand our thoughts, the better we become at changing them once they start turning into a reaction.
Practice taking a pause. If you feel the urge to slam someone online, write out what you want to say but don’t post it yet. Walk away for at least a half hour and preferably several hours. Then re-read what you wanted to post. Do you still feel the same way? Keep in mind that we are wired to be reactive, so we have to take conscious action to reverse automatic behaviors that are so common. That little pause is an effective way to start changing the pattern and can ultimately lead to automatic behaviors that are self-regulating instead of dysregulating.
I think this is so important, especially because of the impact social media is having on our mental health and behaviors. We don’t recognize that we’re allowing ourselves to get caught up in and be influenced by online rhetoric and misinformation. I am concerned that Elon Musk, who recently purchased Twitter and plans to further reduce content moderation because he thinks we can all get together online and have a healthy discussion about all of the issues that divide us is not understanding the neurology, biology and psychology of human beings. Twitter is already the best place to go to witness massive emotional reactivity, but it can definitely get worse. Of course, Twitter is just the vehicle, not the cause. But if you’re a Twitter user, just practice taking a pause.
If you do react on social media or in a live situation, another great way to start seeing the emotional reactivity in your thoughts is through journaling. If you reacted to a situation, afterwards, write down a detailed description of what occurred. Review the situation, looking for clues to help you figure out how you could have responded with less emotion in that moment. Consider what the situation could have been if you had better support for your emotion regulation. Would you have reacted as impulsively or would you have been able to make a different choice?
While someone ranting about a recipe ingredient seems pretty innocuous, reactivity can lead to serious harm, as in the recent case of Paul Pelosi being attacked with a hammer in his home. The perpetrator was most likely holding in a lot of anger for quite a long time and finally reacted to relieve the discomfort involved around such extreme feelings. His intention was to harm Nancy Pelosi, which is certainly just as bad, but his lack of emotional awareness meant he reacted based purely on his emotions, not on common sense, much less any level of compassion. Would anyone say, I’m going to beat up an 82-year-old person with a hammer because I’m angry about an election, and cognitively think that makes sense? I would hope not. But emotions are powerful and if we don’t learn how to manage them, we’re at their mercy.
We can stop difficult emotions from dictating our actions. When we find ourselves in the face of uncomfortable emotions, it can be easy to simply react without awareness. However, by taking a moment and examining what we’re going through, we can calm that wave of reactivity. The S.T.O.P. technique that comes from Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is another method of improving our self-regulation, creating a space between what we’re feeling and accessing the deeper resources within us.
The S is for stop what you’re doing and press the pause button on thoughts and actions.
T is take a few deep breaths to center yourself and get present.
O is observe what is going on with your mind, body and emotions.
P is proceed with whatever you were doing, making a conscious choice to incorporate what you just learned.
Finally, observe compassion for whatever you’re feeling. While we might not always be able to stop ourselves from reacting, it’s important that we practice self-compassion when difficult emotions are present.
Actions have consequences and we’re accountable for what we create. Mindlessly reacting based on our emotions doesn’t serve us well, mentally, emotionally, or physically, and can have long-lasting negative effects for others and society as a whole. We can consciously choose to respond to life’s events instead of reacting, which leads to better outcomes for all. The question is, do we want to continue to perpetuate anger and even violence through reaction or do we want to contribute to a more responsive and compassionate world?
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.