(And what to do when it happens)
We will get upset, the duration and intensity though, is not fixed. Even the Dalai Lama gets angry sometimes*. How quickly we can get back to a calm state is the skill that we can work on.
Before we move on to some of the tools that we can use to avoid getting upset, and maintain our calm mental state, it’s important to dig a little deeper into the effects of getting upset. It triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises, and the skin perspires. With all that in mind, we must be cognizant of the impact that letting our bodies “on” adrenaline and cortisol guide our decisions in the moment. Most of us would not seek counsel from someone high on drugs, yet every time we get upset and stay in the moment, that’s what we are doing!
“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” — Marcus Aurelius
Being able to maintain a calm mental state is not that different from being physically fit. It requires time and effort to build. If someone were to start running for example, they might start by trying to run for a minute before they end up out of breath, or possibly even hyperventilating. In time though, it would become two minutes, then five minutes before they’re huffing and puffing, then it becomes ten minutes and so on.
Think of getting upset, whether because of events, people or even ourselves, as like being out of breath. It doesn’t feel natural, and most would prefer if given the choice, to not be in that state. Thankfully in both cases, as we repeat the action, the time spent in the unnatural state diminishes, both in intensity and in duration.
Note: We must be kind to ourselves during this process! We wouldn’t start a new fitness routine and if on day one we couldn’t do what someone was able to do on day 100, think “Well, we’re just not meant to do this routine”. Yet we often hear people talking that way about their temper; “I just run hot” or “I have a short fuse”. These are nothing but excuses, getting upset is not fixed like the colour of our hair or our eyes. Remaining calm is a skill that takes a lot of work! Much like people have different metabolisms, everyone has their own homeostasis for what their resting calm state looks like and how far away from that state a given event will put them. To keep the metaphor going, much like fitness, we start wherever we’re at and then move forward.
We must keep in mind that this is not something that happens over night. We must be compassionate with ourselves! It’s often the meta-emotions (how we’re feeling, about how we’re feeling) around getting upset that keep us in the negative headspace, often even more than the event itself.
Our emotional reactions can be an important teacher as well. Feeling anger rise can signal to us that there is a boundary that needs to be set. It can also shine a spotlight on our attachment to situations working out the way WE think they are supposed to. If you’d like to learn more about the pitfalls of attachment, check out 6 Way to Thrive In Your Professional Life By Using Detachment.
Another question we must ask ourselves when it comes to returning to our calm center in an adverse situation, is the same one we should be asking about our relationships, our health as well as our businesses…Are we improving? Are the events that would have caused us to ruminate for days only bothering us for an afternoon? Is what used to wind up in a ruined day being resolved in minutes? If the duration of time is diminishing and the intensity of our reactions are as well, then we’re on the right track!
With that in mind, here are some tools to help get you closer to the goal of being more calm and less reactive:
- BEFORE: Plan in advance, to analyze and observe the emotional rush as it takes over the next time you get upset. The chemical response our body has once we’re already upset makes it difficult to think rationally in the moment, so we need to think about this beforehand. What are the cues that could trigger us to recognize that we’re getting upset? Teeth clenching? Muscles tensing up? By planning ahead, we can assign these cues to a response that will hopefully allow us to delineate the event and our reactions. This is the foundation to build on as we work to interrupt our old patterns of behavior.
- DURING: In the moment, use the cues already identified beforehand to catch things while they’re still at the upset/frustration level before it can become anger. Step back and be curious as to what is upsetting you. Don’t be afraid to ask for a moment if it’s a person that is getting you upset. Both parties will be better off with interaction to remaining positive. Use Box Breathing, always using only your nose on the inhale, to quickly recenter.
- AFTER: This step is especially important if we weren’t able to calm down before we actually got upset! After the chemicals in your system subside, review what happened. Was this just the straw that broke the camel’s back, or did this come out of the blue? Were we already tired because of a late night or a bad sleep? Were we hungry (yes, “Hangry” is based in science Serotonin levels affect brain’s response to anger | Reuters)? Were we already feeling off because of another issue? Were we actually even acting out of anger? Or were we guarding ourselves against something we fear? Every single time we get upset, it is an opportunity to learn and grow. Just as failure in business is what lays out the path to success, each time we get upset, if reviewed, brings us closer to a calm center.
If these steps aren’t helping reduce the duration, intensity or overall occurrences of how often your losing control of your temper, it might be time to seek counselling. No amount of online research is going to replace what one on one help with a professional can provide. If you’re putting in the work and things aren’t getting better, take action and reach out to a counsellor.
Finally, realize that a calm mind is a healthy mind, and a healthy mind leads to a healthy body. Every time we enter the “fight or flight” response we are going into survival mode, that is no place for overachievers to be making decisions from! If we use these tools and focus mindful energy on finding our calm center, we can control our impact on the world. In the words of Norman Vincent Peale “The cyclone derives its power from a calm center. So does a person.”
*Young girl asks the Dalai Lama is he ever gets angry.