How do you keep your head when it starts to fly off the handle?
December 30, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

When an argument is brewing or someone upsets me, all my mindfulness study goes directly out the window. I am immediately engaged with the full complement of negative emotions and responses. When I've calmed down I can see all the things I should've said or done differently - if I'd managed to keep my head. How do you train yourself to practice INSTANT mindfulness?
posted by Josephine Macaulay to Human Relations (22 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
You can try taking 5 deep breaths, if you have the time, space and mindfulness to do that. It may not get you to a calm and mindful state, but it will help break the slide.

Mostly, I say I need a break, and ask if we can discuss it later because I need a little time to calm down.
posted by ldthomps at 1:25 PM on December 30, 2013

Slow... things... down. That takes time to master (I've been working on it for a dozen years, and I still find myself not doing it sometimes), but it's worth it. When you feel yourself getting negative and angry and such, just take a literal step back and say, out loud, "I'm getting upset, and that isn't good for either of us. Give me a minute to compose my thoughts, please."

Most people will understand what you mean and probably be (inwardly) thankful that you took that break to let them calm down as well. The other people, the ones who won't let you do that? They are bullies, and they are forcing you to deal with things rightgoddammitnow because they know that if they don't, you will be able to brush off their bullshit.

Don't let them do that to you, and you'll be able to keep from doing it to yourself. Take a step back. An actual, physical step away from the situation.
posted by Etrigan at 1:26 PM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I was talking about something similar with a friend recently and she said she tries to take a beat and say to herself, "Let's skip this part." Meaning: the part where you get irrationally angry over something you can't control, and later feel irritated or ashamed with yourself for letting it ruin your mood or even your day. That simple sentence has proven remarkably helpful to me over the past several weeks, since I've started trying it myself.
posted by something something at 1:33 PM on December 30, 2013 [17 favorites]

Keep practicing. I've gotten MUCH better about not rising to the occasion with arguments, but the other day I had a situation (physical danger plus emotional stress, awesome) that overrode all my mindfulness/"what's the most helpful thing to do in this situation" processes and I went right into fight or flight anxiety mode. It sucks. The best thing to do though is reset and keep practicing.

I also tell myself that as much as I had a reaction I'd rather not have had, it was probably better/cooled down faster than if I didn't practice meditation or mindfulness at all.
posted by sweetkid at 1:34 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Advice from a teacher of mine, who happens to be the wisest woman I know:

Be aware of the bottoms of your feet.

Don't try to be aware of all your complex emotions in the heat of the moment... Just be aware of your feet. It really, genuinely helps.
posted by Cygnet at 1:36 PM on December 30, 2013 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I still get irrationally angry sometimes (doesn't everyone?), but I've learned to notice the feeling while not reacting (or at least not reacting much) to it. I think, "Wow, I'm angry at something I can't change or fix! Better try to minimize my outward reactions for a few minutes!" and it actually works.

How I got to this point: I practiced identifying my emotions better. I used to be pretty poor at judging whether or not I was in a bad mood; now I always own up to my bad moods, and can usually tell when one is brewing long before it peaks. Knowing and acknowledging exactly how I'm feeling at any given moment helps me respond to my emotions in a more measured way. Rather than letting my irrational anger carry me away when it strikes, I instead notice that I'm angry and decide rationally how I'll react.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also, this hasn't just helped me manage negative emotions; it's also helped me appreciate the positive ones! I now often find myself musing, "I am very happy right now!" or "I am really content right now; I am enjoying this moment." or "I am having fun!"
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:42 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Just ask yourself what's really going on, e.g. is this person actually a thoughtless asshole or are you hungry/tired/stressed/really mad about something else and you're just using this as an excuse to tee off on them? And if they actually are a thoughtless asshole, you will have taken the time to compose a proper reply rather than just blurting something.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:43 PM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: Before you have an action, you have a thought.
Before you have a thought, you have an emotion.
Before you have an emotion, you have a physical feeling.

Going forward: Upsetting trigger > cheeks flush > anger > I hate that person > argument

When you learn to recognize the physical feeling that will lead to an emotion that will lead to an unwanted action, that's when you can stop the chain. This takes practice, but you will learn that when your cheeks burn or your heart races, you need to stop right then and there and take a breath. That breathing then becomes your automatic response to the heart racing, and that gives you time to formulate a considered action rather than an unskilled reaction.

Focus on the physical, not the mental or emotional. The mammalian diving reflex is an incredible way to immediately calm yourself.
posted by desjardins at 1:53 PM on December 30, 2013 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Desjardins (and others) has good advice for the immediate, here and now stuff, but something you can also work on is: Why does this bother me so much? What buttons are people pushing to get me in this state? (What buttons am I ALLOWING people to push?) A lot of my buttons came from the dysfunctional sides of my family, and going back and re-examining them helped a lot. I can then approach them from a much more adult, much more capable perspective.
posted by Jacen at 2:15 PM on December 30, 2013

this is a particular thing, but I teach a required composition course, and boy do I get some excellent hate thrown my way. My trick is to keep my mind focused on a task and to sort of block shit out that isn't related to the task. The words "fuck it" have a sort of magical mental quality for me.
posted by angrycat at 2:30 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't want to assume that your reaction is for the same reason that I used to have this problem, but it could also be a personality in case this is helpful, here's my anecdata. I do want to be clear that I am not suggesting or diagnosing, but rather just sharing my experience.

Because of some repressed trauma from my early life, I got extremely angry - like you describe - a lot. A lot. I had no idea why it escalated so much so quickly and got me to "fight or flight" in seconds. I'd spend HOURS afterwards agonising about why I hadn't come up with something better to say, or why I had felt so flooded. It just didn't make sense - I knew I was smart, and had a pretty quick wit most of the time, but whenever I was angry, all that disappeared.

On top of that early trauma (and because of it), my personality is one that suppresses and is secretive. That was fuel to the fire - I would get more and more resentful and angry but dismiss or ignore it until it really exploded and I completely lost the ability to be reasonable or logical. When those two things It was not good. I'm pretty blessed to have people who saw me through dealing with all of this.

Once I dealt with the trauma and had some people push through the secretiveness, I found that the way I argued completely changed (as did the frequency). And in those situations, I realised that my reaction had less to do with the situation itself, and more to do with the emotional trigger somewhere in that mess, or even at some point before the mess even started.

That isn't a short fix - for me, it was a few months of intense reflection and counselling and hard work with the friends who loved me. But now, I suddenly am PRESENT in a disagreement and am not flooded by ALL OF THE EMOTIONS!!1! and the flight/flight.

Again, may not be relevant to you. YMMV.
posted by guster4lovers at 6:11 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How do you train yourself to practice INSTANT mindfulness?

By practicing regular mindfulness as much as possible.
posted by jaguar at 6:24 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A therapist taught me this very useful device:

When you practice mindfulness, use a physical signal for yourself. The one I use is rubbing my forefinger and thumb together. I do this when I meditate, or when I'm just taking a moment to be mindful.

Then, when I'm in a hot button kind of moment, I rub those fingers together and it helps remind me to be mindful.

It is far from 100% effective, but it has been slowed me down in some charged moments.
posted by latkes at 6:26 PM on December 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

When an argument is brewing or someone upsets me, all my mindfulness study goes directly out the window. I am immediately engaged with the full complement of negative emotions and responses.

My understanding of mindfulness is that it doesn't mean that you don't get negative emotions when someone upsets you, so much as it means that you can have a different attitude/awareness of those emotions.

Trying to fix or control the unpleasant emotions might be sort of the opposite of mindful acceptance. For me when I get mad, it's sometimes helpful to think "Okay, I am angry right now. I might wish I weren't, but I am. That's okay."

Maybe it could be helpful try understanding that what you are experiencing is the feeling of anger. (As opposed to say, ignoring that feeling, and imagining that, instead, you are experiencing a direct truth about the blameworthiness other person...)
posted by ManInSuit at 9:01 PM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I would say this isn't about mindfulness so much as it is about impulse control. When you're angry, just say to yourself "I'm angry, it makes me impulsive, it makes me do things that are hurtful to myself and others. I will make a better decision if I take a break and wait it out before acting." Reminding yourself of your larger goal (instead of immediate satisfaction) will help you get a grip on yourself.

Also a secret about anger is that it has two phases - the initial feeling and full blown anger. Once you hit full blown anger it is difficult to tame as you've experienced. You want to catch the beginnings of anger - a feeling of tightness in your chest, burning in your heart, a sense of indignation or injustice, a belief that others are doing this on purpose. These are the warning signs that anger has started and will turn into full blown anger (seeing red, impulsivity) very shortly. This is the moment to apply mindfulness. Force yourself to leave, go for a walk, think about something else, meditate on love for a loved one, anything to shift that mind of anger a little.

The other thing is to know your triggers. Anger usually arises if we're not getting what we want or we feel like we are being seen by others in ways that are incongruent with how we see ourselves. Your specifics will be different, but it boils down to these kinds of triggers. Therefore to keep mindfulness, the moment you feel the initial signs of anger as you see above, ask yourself which need was thwarted or what bad light are you being put in. This will help you keep perspective and therefore stay mindful.

Finally - keep at it! Anger is just a habit of mind, so it will take time to acquire a new set of habits. But keep at it. I used to be pretty quick to anger but after practicing like how I described it has reduced significantly to the point where I'm way more effective at work and in my relationships. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:51 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a good anger management website based on Buddhist philosophy.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:55 PM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: There's a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Anger that is essentially about all of this. It's really good.

When an argument is brewing or someone upsets me, all my mindfulness study goes directly out the window. I am immediately engaged with the full complement of negative emotions and responses.

I guess I just noticed in your phrasing of this, it is like you are wanting to not be engaged with the "full complement of negative emotions and responses" or maybe you want to not have the negative emotions and responses. But to mindfully be in the moment, you are doing the opposite of that. The mindful response would be moving into the unpleasant emotion and sitting inside it and exploring, what is this like? What does it feel like to be in this? without acting as a way to defuse it or let off steam. It's hard to own unpleasant emotions. Anyway, being angry doesn't mean you are a bad person. Kicking your neighbor's garbage can over because you are angry might mean you are a bad person (just kidding. It you did that it's also probably not the end of the world), but the state of actually being angry doesn't make you bad and it can be a healthy thing to sit in it and explore it if you are bringing mindful awareness to it (versus spinning your wheels).

Old TNH I think recommended something like sitting on a cushion when you are angry and saying, "Anger, my darling, what do you want from me?" Or something to that tune. He said to relate to it like it's your baby.
posted by mermily at 10:16 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Think of your brain as being like a river. There's a stream, way up high in the mountains that flows downhill to the sea. This is your activating thought ~> emotion ~> action process, that others have talked about.

Right now, although you have the Dam Of Mindfulness, you've not built it on the river. It's off somewhere else, not right where you need it, which is built right into the middle of the river.

What you need to do is build the dam slap bang in the middle of the river, and the only way you can do that is by being mindful during the process of becoming angry. The first step is to be more aware of the stream - what do you know about that which upsets you? Are you paying attention to your triggers?

When you know what your triggers are, you can investigate being mindful of the stream starting to flow. You'll likely find this difficult at first, because any strong emotion tends to take over the brain and push everything else out, as you've seen. Maybe try to find a "safe space" such as venting to a friend, and then be more mindful of how you think, physically feel and are emoting in that instant. Don't try to do it when your brain goes into full-on Anger Mode, at least at first. Start small, when you're mildly annoyed. When you're getting riled up, just sit with what is going on, mindfully, and see where your stress points are. When you know where they are, you can start to gather some mental distance from them and also see what you can do to make yourself more resilient to them. CBT can likely help with this.
posted by Solomon at 4:12 AM on December 31, 2013

Best answer: Just ask yourself what's really going on, e.g. is this person actually a thoughtless asshole or are you hungry/tired/stressed/really mad about something else and you're just using this as an excuse to tee off on them?

Ghostride the Whip makes an excellent point here. I do this, and it has also helped me stop seeing everyone who does something rude or jerky as a thoughtless asshole. After all, if I am sometimes hungry/tired/stressed/mad about something else and therefore sometimes a bit unpleasant to be around, doesn't the same hold true of everyone? This has really helped me cut others some slack for non-egregious offenses. (I often find myself thinking, "Yeah, that clerk is being snotty to me...but she may have had a really long, crappy day. Instead of being snippy back, I should smile and try to make her day a little better (or at least a little less crappy.)" now.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:28 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Use the power of neuroscience! Seriously....

Labelling emotions out loud reduces their impact.

I was babysitting my young four-year old nephew who was very upset when his mom went out for the evening. In between sobs, I asked him what was wrong. Was he sad because his mum wasn't there? He nodded through the tears. I asked him to say it out loud. "I'm sad because I miss my mum," he said. And he suddenly quieted down.
posted by storybored at 11:49 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

To stop negative emotions in the moment, I generally try to picture a situation in which I would be eternally grateful for even a negative, imagine you had just recovered from a life-threatening illness or had finally, after 2 years of appeals, been acquitted and released from prison for something you hadn't done or had just left a famine/war zone and were finally in a safe place where you could eat and sleep and shower in peace. Wouldn't you find getting angry or irritated to be silly in comparison? You'd probably be grateful for every experience and feel blessed to be living freely. I'm not a person who gets upset easily (so milage my vary for your specific situation), but I use this technique when I'm grumbling about doing the dishes or upset about being cut off by a careless driver. Just count your blessings instead of getting mad. <3 :)
posted by semaphore at 12:21 PM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

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