How often do you get angry? How would you rate your typical level of anger on a scale from 1 to 10? We all get upset, usually when things don’t go our way.
The world isn’t fair, and we can’t fix it. But just because we can’t control the world, doesn’t mean we can’t control how it affects us. We control how we think about things and how long we think about them.
Holding Onto Anger
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”—Buddha
You’re driving, and someone cuts you off. How do you react? You’ve got three options:
- Cuss them out and fantasize about running them off the road or ripping them out of their car and bashing their face in.
- Actually running them off the road or ripping them out of their car and bashing their face in, which is illegal and something you definitely shouldn’t do in the real world — keep that stuff inside GTA.
- Turn up your radio and sing along to distract yourself until you calm down.
Which of the three do you think would result in you feeling better? The more time you spend focusing on the things that make you angry, the longer you stay angry.
The person who cut you off turned off the road 10 minutes ago, and you’re still angry. Why? Because mentally, you’ve stayed in that moment.
Psychologists call this ruminating; it means to chew. In cows, rumination “consists of the regurgitation of feed, rechewing, resalivation, and reswallowing.” It’s vital to how their digestive system works. That’s why any time you see a cow, even if they’re not near food, they’re chewing on something — it’s called cud.
Sounds tasty, huh?
As humans, we mentally ruminate all the time — that guy who cut us off in traffic, the time we got bullied in elementary school, how rude our boss was the other day, something bad that happened months ago, and all the imaginary arguments we have in the shower. We spend hours regurgitating, rechewing, resalivating, and reswallowing negative thoughts.
Cows have to ruminate to survive. We don’t.
Letting Go of Anger
There’s a famous story from Zen Buddhism about holding on to anger:
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point,
they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing
to cross the river, they saw a young and beautiful woman also attempting
to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the
The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not
to touch a woman.
Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her
across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his
The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After
rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without
a word between them.
Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could not
contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not
permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on
The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on
the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”
Just because you’ve picked up something — resentment, jealousy, mistrust, or other emotional baggage — doesn’t mean you have to keep carrying it or chewing on it.
What are you still carrying that you could put down?
Strategies to Let Go of Anger:
- Distraction. Your brain sucks at multitasking, so it’s difficult to stay angry if you do something else that requires mental effort. Turn up the radio and sing along, read an article, name as many state capitols as you can, or play an app on your phone. Give it five minutes and see how much calmer you are.
- 5–4–3–2–1 Grounding. This is a technique psychologists use in therapy. Look around and pick five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. It’s basically a more refined version of “I Spy” using all your senses to distract yourself.
- Forgive. Religion says to forgive because it’s the moral thing to do. In therapy, we help clients learn to forgive for different reasons. It’s important to forgive people not because they deserve it, but because you deserve peace. Forgiveness means letting go of resentment and revenge fantasies. Remember the hot coal analogy? Stop burning yourself.
- Deep breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the quickest ways to calm down. Breathe in through your nose for five seconds — taking a deep belly breath to engage your diaphragm. Hold for a few seconds. Then exhale fully. Do this at least five times and see how much calmer you are. Here’s a video walking you through it in more detail.
- Consider other possibilities. Someone cuts you off, you assume they’re rude and inconsiderate, then you feel angry. Anger causes us to have tunnel vision. What if they were rushing to the hospital to visit a loved one in critical condition? What if they didn’t see you and would apologize if they could? What if they’re an elderly person trying to keep some semblance of autonomy by driving themselves in their twilight years — something you hope to be able to do at that age? It doesn’t matter if any of these are true; just considering them as possibilities reduces our tunnel vision and negative assumptions that lead to anger.
- Practice gratitude. You can’t be grateful and angry at the same time; it’s not how our brains work. You didn’t get the parking spot you wanted, but are you grateful you have a car? Are you focusing on the promotion you didn’t get or how you get to come home to a happy, healthy family? There’s always something to complain about and something to be grateful for — pick one.
We ruminate because we feel justified in our anger. Maybe it is justified, but how does holding onto it help you grow or live a better life? Are you practicing ways to deal with stress, or continuing the cycle of anger and misery?
With practice, we can learn to drop the hot coals we’ve been carrying, stop regurgitating past events in our mind, and stop chewing on negative thoughts.
So what do you say? Are you ready to stop being a cow?
*This article originally appeared on Medium*