When we’re on the verge of being swamped by anger, having a pre-chosen anger reset can save the day. Here are a few anger resets I suggest to clients I’m coaching or in anticipation of mediation, including ones I use myself.
Anger is a messenger. It’s trying to tell us that something important doesn’t yet feel heard or understood, or that something important feels threatened. Like any good messenger, anger is persistent until we pay attention to what it’s trying to tell us. In this way, anger is useful, even welcome.
Sometimes, though, our anger emotionally swamps us, like a wave that sweeps us off our feet before we see it coming. Once we’re swamped by our anger, it’s hard to hear anger’s message right then because we’re flailing, trying to come up for air before it pulls us further from shore. As Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence reminds us,
In those moments, a good option is an anger reset, an action we can take to prevent anger from swamping us further and help get us back to stable state.
Quick anger resets for low-level anger
Quick anger resets are useful to shake off low-level anger without having to take a break from the conversation. Use them when you first notice yourself feeling irritation but before it’s fully swamping you.
Recall a happy memory. Autobiographical memories can evoke the emotions of the original experience. Even in the face of acute stress, research has shown that happy memories can “trick” us back into a better emotional state. Read more about this method for regaining self-control.
Focus on your feet. Dr. Jud Brewer of the Mindfulness Center at Brown University says that our “anxiety zones” tend to be in our chest and throat, and that our feet are as far away from those zones as we can get in our bodies. Focus for a moment on how your feet feel — wiggle your toes, feel the soles of your feet, press your heels to the ground.
Breathe deeply. Deep breathing, even for half a minute, helps us slow and pace our breath and gain a sense of control and calm. Box breathing is a personal favorite because it can be done almost anywhere at any time, even in the middle of a stressful meeting, and it’s easy to remember.
Count to ten. Yes, really, grandma was right. Keep counting if you need to. Anger researcher Brad Bushman frequently includes this as one of his go-to recommendations.
Use a centering question. A centering question is a question you develop for yourself to help you gain psychological distance, engage in cognitive reappraisal, and shake off a rattled feeling. Here are some examples of centering questions.
Label your strong emotion. Research has demonstrated that noticing and then labeling an emotion transforms the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupts the intensity. Find out more about controlling an emotion by labeling it here.
Mentally watch yourself from a distance. In your mind’s eye, become like a fly on the wall and watch what’s happening as if from a distance. This is a form of psychological distancing, which has been shown to help with emotional self-regulation.
Picture the scene or person moving away from you. Researchers Joshua Davis, James Gross, and Kevin Ochsner suggest you can reduce the emotional impact of a situation by imagining the stimulus to be moving away from you, as though it’s on a conveyor belt heading toward the horizon. To get the benefit, you’ve got to explicitly imagine the movement. This is another example of psychological distancing.
Anger resets for big anger
The arousal caused by anger decays over time. So when anger is big, our best option is to create the space for time to pass without continuing to rehearse the anger by replaying it verbally or in our minds.
The following anger resets begin with taking a break from the conversation (more on this in a moment):
Listen to a music playlist. Create a playlist of music that relaxes you and improves your mood. Avoid music and lyrics that may feed anger.
Play with a pet. This one is also from anger researcher Brad Bushman, who says this works because the activity is incompatible with anger and so causes the anger to subside.
Watch or listen to something that makes you really laugh. I keep this short little video bookmarked on my phone because it makes me laugh every single time I watch it. Like playing with your dog, cat or pet rat, this kind of deep laughter is incompatible with anger.
Distract yourself with a short activity. Bushman recommends a crossword puzzle, if you like those. Other options include doing a real puzzle, planting the 6-pack of seedlings you just brought home from the nursery, reading a few pages of the book you’re enjoying, or photographing your dog in a funny napping pose. You get the idea. The goal here is to distract yourself, so pick an activity that will have that effect on you.
Using anger resets effectively
Have a couple of good resets at the ready. Don’t try to figure out an anger reset at the moment you realized you’re emotionally swamped. If you’re swimming in the ocean and get caught in a rip current, it’s enormously helpful to know beforehand that your best option is to swim parallel to shore until you’re free of it. Anger works the same way: You want a useful reset at the ready for when you need it. So, if you want to use the happy memory reset, for instance, have one picked out that you can divert to on a moment’s notice.
Experiment to find the anger resets that work best for you. I chose to share the anger resets above because I’ve had good success with them for myself or with clients. But, ultimately, it’s only a good reset if it works for you, and you are not me. Try out my suggestions to see what works for you. Use the above list to prime the creation of additional ones if you need them.
If you’re helping others, perhaps in the role of mediator or team leader, keep a ready list of resets to try. When I’m working with someone who anticipates feeling pretty angry in a conversation we’re heading into, I ask if they’re interested in a couple of quick anger resets they might try. I find that most people are grateful for an idea or two, and I don’t hesitate to create a break in the conversation if someone needs something more.
And speaking of taking a break from the conversation: When you’re swamped by anger, continuing the conversation at that moment has little merit; if you’re truly swamped, the anger is not likely to subside on its own and may well escalate. It’s better to take a break and use an anger reset to get your balance back. Here are some effective ways to express your wish to take a brief break.