Feel that rising tide of anger? Surf's up! Start paddling.
Whenever we feel angry or frustrated, we get a blast of adrenalin coursing through our bloodstream. In the fight or flight response to stress, our bodies rely on our appendages. We need to hit, kick, jump or run away, and our bodies help out by sending extra blood to our limbs.
If we were living in the wild and had to actually fight off a predator or run away to escape, this would make perfect sense. But in a typical day, we just don't need those survival mechanisms like we used to. In fact, we do our best to thwart our body's response to stress by suppressing our physical reactions.
Oh, sure, we still use our extremities to express our anger. We raise our fists, pound on the desk, slam doors or cupboards, kick the garbage can, or stomp our feet. Still, since we're trying to be civilized and all, we use words more than body parts to react to whatever upsets us. This is good in that we don't want to go around hitting people. Slugging your boss may be biological, but it won't get you too far in your corporate climb.
So, instead of the fight or flight response our predecessors relied upon, we've developed more of what I call an "explode or seethe" response. Some of us react right away when we're upset. We clench our fists, do some wild gesticulating, raise our voices, or slam the phone down. Others tend to seethe. We suck in our breath, count to ten, hold it, and keep our frustration covered by a tight smile or maybe a little gasp of exasperation, but that's about it.
There's also the classic combo of the seether/exploder. You know the type: they just keep their heads down, don't say a word, and then out of the blue they go into a tirade that rattles the roof.
It's interesting that we consider a seether as more evolved than an exploder. We value those who are able to keep their emotions in check. In our culture, the seethers are the "nice" people who surprise us by keeling over from a heart attack or stroke. We've been programmed to sit and seethe. It's as though we're stepping on the gas (adrenalin) and slamming on the brakes (inactivity) at the same time. Try doing that in your car, and you'll burn up your engine. That's what we're doing to our bodies.
What do we do after a hard day? We sit and watch television. We play video games. We go to a movie. We collapse on the sofa and listen to music. We go out to eat and drink.
We've eliminated a lot of the activity of daily life. We don't scrub floors, churn butter, wash clothes by hand, hoe the garden, walk everywhere, or otherwise eliminate our stress through regular movement. We sit in our cars, sit at our desks, and sit in front of the television. It's no wonder we're obese and suffering from the effects of stress!
The sit-and-seethe starts early. Consider a two-year- old having a tantrum. Picture a little body flailing about, all arms and legs. That's adrenalin in all its glory! No suppression of instincts, just a pure, unadulterated expression of physiology at work.
We can't have kids growing up and throwing tantrums. It's just not socially acceptable. So, we give the two- year-old a "time out" to cool off. This is like asking a charging bull to sit and sip a bit of tea in that proverbial china shop.
With all our blood rushing to our extremities, our brains are getting the leftovers. This is the worst possible time for us to be logical. When we're angry and that adrenalin is surging, we're far more likely to say things we'll regret and to make decisions that will have us shaking our heads later. If you react verbally or respond intellectually in that adrenalin moment, you're going to have some clean-up in aisle 12 later-- apologies and general repair of relationships and projects.
Most of us have learned that we need to step back when we're really upset in order to avoid making a mess of things. Here's something you may not know: it takes a full 90 minutes for your body to get back to normal after experiencing a blast of adrenalin.
Ninety minutes. That means that a simple "time-out" for your child isn't likely to relax him, and postponing that important meeting for 10 minutes while you cool down isn't going to guarantee that you'll be fully capable of handling your issue in a level headed way.
If you really want to take advantage of your body's natural mechanism for survival, you might as well learn to work with it. The good news is that, with a little flexibility, we can use our physiology to help us thrive and even make us healthier.
You've got to move, and you've got to breathe. Isn't it convenient that those two go together so well?
Here are the four best strategies for surfing your adrenalin wave: *Paddle. Your arms and legs need movement, so look for acceptable ways to get active. Go to the restroom and do some jumping jacks if you can't sneak away for a walk or head to the gym for a workout. Move some boxes. Sort the recycling. Reshelve some books. Beat the rugs. Shake out the comforters. Go for a run. Crank up your stereo and dance with the kids in the living room. Jump on the exercise bike or go cycling around the neighborhood. Walk to another part of the building. Find a corner and do some push-ups. Activate those appendages!
*Laugh. When we're angry, our bellies tighten up. We take shallow breaths at the chest level. This just adds to the brain drain! We need to relax enough that our bellies can move freely as we breathe, and if we don't get that by doing some cardio that makes us huff and puff, the next best thing is to laugh. Get a laugh partner, and agree to call and guffaw--no talking allowed. Bust a gut, and breathe deeply.
*Sing. You need some serious exhalations, so jump in the shower and blast out your favorite power ballad. Get in your car and sing along with the radio. Releasing sound is therapeutic in itself. Throw in some dance moves, and you've got it covered!
*Avoid meditation. Ignore what you've heard about thinking through your anger. Mindfulness is immensely valuable, but trying to meditate when you're really angry is not realistic or helpful. Be active first, and then sit. The only way to handle that adrenalin in a healthy way is to engage physically. You've got to be calm to be mindful. Get control of yourself physically before using your mind to address a problem.
Next time you get mad, get moving.
Work with your body instead of against it. Learn to surf that adrenalin wave, and you'll become a better decision maker, a more relaxed parent, and a healthier human.
Maya Talisman Frost is a mind masseuse as well as a former personal fitness trainer. Her work has inspired thinkers in over 80 countries. To subscribe to her free weekly ezine, the Friday Mind Massage, visit http://www.massageyourmind.com.