How to Overcome Anger With Loving-Kindness—aka 'Metta'
August 7, 2018
You’re crossing the street while listening to Beyonce's "Hold Up," and all of a sudden a car runs a red light and gets a little too close for comfort. Your immediate response is to slam your fist on the hood of the car to remind them of their carelessness—and it leaves you even more worked up. In just a few seconds, that peaceful Beyoncé-inspired state of mind is completely shattered.
When anger comes sweeping in to steal your joy, it can feel like an intense, offensive experience. Anger can be such an isolating and jarring deviation from our interior resting state—the inner voice that speaks to us during most of the day.
This harassment of my peace is one that happens all the time, especially living in New York—whether someone almost hits me with their car, isn’t aware of the space that they take up in public spaces (one word: manspreading), or threatens my wellbeing.
In these moments, I’ve learned yelling curse words at a person isn't the best. Engaging in any other kind of physical response doesn’t really make me feel better—and it can elicit a potentially worse reaction that might further jeopardize my safety. But not reacting is easier said than done. It’s exhausting and dangerous to give in to anger, but sometimes, the weight of not giving in to anger can be even heavier.
In an effort to enhance my mental wellbeing and actually grow from my negative experiences, I’ve jumped on the meditation train. In an age that begs for constant stimulation and movement, the act of sitting and practicing different kinds of breathing and mental exercises is powerful—particularly when it comes to curbing anger.
Through meditation, I’ve come to think of my brain as another muscle in my body that needs exercise just like any other muscle would. The exercises have helped me bounce back quicker when my peace gets rocked.
Here, a few ways you can start overcoming your moments of anger:
1. Practice Loving-Kindness
On a recent episode of The Science of Happiness podcast from Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, host Dacher Keltner interviewed ABC News’ Dan Harris about how he navigates anger, anxiety, and depression through meditation. Harris talks about how meditation and the practice of Loving-Kindness —also called metta—helped him navigate not only anger, but anxiety and depression as well.
Experts say a Loving-Kindness exercise—which is all about sending and receiving kindness and warmth from others—can help us increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions, as well as make us more resilient to stress.
You can practice receiving and giving Loving-Kindness by doing the following:
●︎ Find a comfortable seat, somewhere quiet, where your feet are planted on the ground and your spine is upright but not rigid.
●︎ Turn your attention inward and breathe naturally, but with awareness for each breath and where it moves through/comes from.
●︎ With your eyes closed, bring to mind a person who loves you very much, that brings you a lot of happiness—a person (or pet) who your relationship with is uncomplicated, either present in your life or from the past.
●︎ Imagine that the person is standing on your right side, sending you feelings of love, safety, well-wishes, and happiness. Allow yourself to sit with that feeling and receive the warmth that this person is sending your way.
●︎ Repeat this exercise, but now imagine someone who cherishes you deeply standing to your left, sending you feelings of love, safety, well-wishes, and happiness.
●︎ Return your awareness to the person on your right, and send them your feelings of love and warmth. You may wish to repeat a phrase, something like: “May you be free from pain, may you live in peace, may you be happy.”
●︎ Do the same for the person on your left.
You can also practice this exercise with neutral people in your life (people you don’t feel any particular way about), people who make you angry, and all living beings.
As Harris mentions, it’s not always easy to start this kind of meditation, especially when you’re angry—the last person you’d want to send love to is the person responsible for your anger. This kind of meditation can be practiced during angry moments, but I like to practice Loving-Kindness in stable moments as well, so that my mind is more fit to face challenges as they come.
2. Name Your Anger
Another helpful tactic, according to clinical psychologist and Executive Director of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy Mitch Abblett, is the act of naming your anger. There are many ways this can be done. Some people, like Harris, remember other members of their family who were often angry and assign their own anger the same name. But your anger’s persona doesn’t even have to be so concretely tied to your real life; I like to think of my anger as a dark, mean aspect of my existence, that is nothing but what it is: anger. Internally calling out that emotion when I’m feeling it helps me a lot.
Abblett explains in an article for Mindful that when you experience anger, you may notice a “domino effect” of reactive thoughts that show up, and those thoughts can be treated in different ways depending on how quickly the situation escalates from within. The American Psychological Association calls this “cognitive restructuring” which is basically just changing the way you think, over time.
When I experience anger, I usually feel a physical reaction in my chest or head, like a bit of an adrenaline head rush. What follows is typically a succession of disbelief, denial, and fixation on the fact that I am angry, paired with more physical discomfort. I notice a difference when I name my anger, because I slow everything down. I notice my thoughts and try to take deep breaths, actively name my emotion as anger, continue to breathe, and name any other emotions that may come up as well.
By practicing this sort of detachment, I’m able to remember that emotions pass, that nothing lasts forever, and that anger is like a character in a game that my mind likes to play during certain moments of life.
3. Channel Your Rage
When I'm angry, I find it helpful to clench and unclench my fists, move my shoulders and roll my head around like I’m in yoga. Those movements, which my body has come to associate with calm activity, can actually trigger a positive response, especially while paired with mindful breathing.
I also personally release aggression through dancing. I have go-to playlists that work for me, with songs that lift my mood. Then, I just pour all of my energy into movement. Try it out next time you’re mad. Pro-tip: It's even better if you happen to have a mirror to dance in front of ;)
Do you ever catch yourself moving through the day without breathing? Not like you’re actively holding your breath, but maybe your shoulders tense up and you take really long exhales with sips of air?
Sometimes this happens to me when I am anxious and on edge, and of course, when I'm angry this tendency gets exaggerated. Breathing is something that calm people tell angry people to do all the time, without actually understanding in that moment how hard it can be to slow down.
If you feel tense or frustrated, try some square breathing:
●︎ Breathe in for 4 seconds
●︎ Hold for 4 seconds
●︎ Exhale for 4 seconds
●︎ Hold for 4 seconds
●︎ Repeat 4 times
Or, start your day with a morning meditation—you can even listen while you're commuting (just don't close those eyes). I know deep breaths have helped me through many cramped subway rides. Not feeling like a human sardine, even just for a few seconds, can help me reclaim my peace. Try it and see for yourself.