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  • teresamckee

Temper, Temper

I felt my anger monster rise this weekend. I’ve been working a lot lately and know that I’m about to hit my wall, so after working Saturday night until 2am Sunday morning trying to catch up on bookkeeping, I was looking forward to spending a little quiet time outside on Sunday afternoon.

Instead, roofers showed up at 8am at my neighbor’s on one side of my home to finish the job they’ve been working on for the past three days. These neighbors are lovely and always super considerate, so while the noise is distracting, I was able to accept that while irritating, it would pass.

I worked Sunday morning through the hammering and then went outside ready to enjoy the great outdoors for the first time in a week. My neighbors on the other side of my house were not only blasting music, but periodically switching to some sort of talk radio. That’s when my anger began to rise. I just wanted a little peace and quiet.

My self-talk was along the lines of, “do they think that no one else can hear them?” “Do they think we all want to listen to what they’re listening to?” “What is wrong with people that they are so inconsiderate?”

You’ve probably had similar chats with yourself. The problem is, that self-talk doesn’t make us feel better. It makes us angrier. So does talking about it to other people. When we’re angry, the stress response turns on in our brains, which floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline makes our heartbeat faster and our blood pressure rise. Long-term cortisol increases our risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases, in addition to my favorite impact, weight increase. Flooding my body with adrenaline and cortisol has absolutely zero effect on my neighbors. It’s only hurting me.

We can’t be angry and joyful or content at the same time. So as my mood plummets, which again has no effect whatsoever on the neighbors, it kind of prompts the question, what’s the point of anger?

Anger is a natural, life-affirming emotion. It lets us know when a boundary has been crossed, when our needs are not being met or when someone we care about is in danger. But when misdirected, anger can harm our physical health and our relationships. Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose. The key is to recognize and respect that anger is happening and that it is part of our human experience, but to stop fueling the anger. We have to cut off the stories about how we have been wronged or why our anger is justified.

Interestingly, when we know why people are doing something – their intentions – we can manage it much better, as in with my quiet neighbors getting a new roof. When we don’t know someone’s intentions, we tend to get angry. My noisy neighbors have 3 dogs that bark a lot. There is occasional screaming. And of course, there’s the music. I don’t know what their intentions are because I don’t really know them, but I can make up a story.

Like many other companies across the globe, I am short-staffed at my busiest time of year. I have no choice but to be somewhat imbalanced right now between my professional life and my personal life. I definitely have unmet needs right now. That is most likely where my anger is coming from while the noisy neighbors are simply the match that’s lighting the fire.

My job is writing intensive and it’s not always easy to come up with ideas every single day. Noise is a distraction that completely disrupts my process. I also record almost every day and am already challenged by trash trucks, gardeners with lawn mowers and blowers, and constant helicopter and airplane noise because I live two miles from a busy regional airport. So during those gardener-airplane-trash truck-free days, I’m blissfully excited my job might be a little easier, until the neighbors’ noise kicks in. But my job is not my neighbor’s problem and anger is not going to help me get it done.

According to Jessica Morey, executive director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, being mindful of anger means not suppressing, denying or avoiding it and also not acting out in harmful ways. Instead, we can connect with the direct experience of the anger and then decide what action we want to take.

In my case, taking outward action is really not the answer. It’s not exactly reasonable to want all of my neighbors to be quiet so I can concentrate or make recordings. My problem is inward. I need to work on my focus so that noise doesn’t disrupt my writing process, or perhaps do something as simple as wear noise-reducing headphones. I need to accept that my recordings will never be as perfect as I’d like because there’s just too much external noise and I can’t block it all out. Most importantly, I need to recognize that the stories I’m making up in my head about my neighbors being inconsiderate is just that, a story I’ve made up. I could make up a different story, like they’re just living their lives and totally unaware they’re interfering with my moment of Zen or the production of my work.

If you experience similar feelings over your neighbors or inflation or the pandemic or the myriad of other things that happen every day that could make us angry, one way to respond is to shift your attention to the body. What part of your body is feeling angry? Are there any sensations that feel neutral or even pleasant?

We can rest our attention on the sensations we’re feeling for a few minutes, allowing ourselves to find some calm. If your mind wanders back into thinking about the anger-producing situation, return your focus to the neutral sensations you’ve recognized. Next, we can investigate the anger more directly. Where do you feel it? In the chest, hands, jaw? What does the anger feel like? How do the sensations of anger change as you focus on them? Do other emotions come up from underneath this anger? What’s the most helpful response right now?

As I am working through this process while writing about it, a police helicopter just swooped overhead. I turned on the news and found out that an armed and dangerous man is running from the police right through my neighborhood. Now that makes me angry, which is a typical response to fear. Plus now there’s the noise of the police helicopter. But I’ll return to the practice. Where do I feel it in my body? Mostly in my stomach. It’s tight, a little unsettled. Each time the helicopter swoops right over my house, I feel tension in my shoulders and jaw, too.

But as I stay with my body, I recognize that the rest of my body feels fine. This does calm my mind down which is helpful so that I can determine what actions to take, if any. As the helicopter is still swirling overhead, I can let go of being angry over both being fearful of the armed criminal but also the noise the criminal is generating, which is actually the only thing affecting me.

The action to take when angry is skillfully responding to the situation. If you can take mindful action to resolve a situation that’s making you angry, that’s fantastic. But most of what we allow ourselves to get angry over has no useful action to take and that’s why we get angrier over the combination of frustration, irritation, fear and feeling helpless. But we can simply accept that while anger can be a useful emotion, more often than not in the times we’re living in, there may not be a skillful action to take, other than minding our minds.

The helicopter is still circling overhead. The only skillful action I could think to take was to lock all of my doors and turn on all of my outside lights in the front and back yards. But as far as my anger over another disruption? I don’t need the stress or the extra pounds from a release of cortisol. That recognition along with a few deep breaths allows me to focus on finishing this podcast, so I can move on to other projects that have deadlines right at my heels. I can remember that this heavy workload is temporary and soon I can return to some sense of normalcy. I can choose not to worry about things that are beyond my control.

Mindfulness is a skill which comes from consistent practice. As I focus on calming my system down, I can pause and reflect on what’s really going on with me. What I’m really angry about is not wanting to work this hard but the situation is what it is. What would make it much easier to get through would be to focus on being compassionate with myself for being in a difficult situation instead of getting angry at the neighbors, criminals, pilots and truck drivers.

Are there things you’re angry about that you could reconsider? If your anger is only hurting you and not making a difference to the situation, why not choose a more self-serving response?

The helicopter just left. Does that mean the criminal was apprehended? Or did the police lose him and give up? I can choose which story to tell myself, so I’ll go for the former. That’s the great thing about stories we make up. We always have a choice.

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