Does the age-old advice really work?
I’ve always had an anger problem.
Lost at Mario Kart? That Super Nintendo controller was shattered. Struck out in a little league game? Say goodbye, batting helmet. Bad grade on a test? I broke my bedroom door.
I’d like to think I’ve matured. My vocabulary of expletives is much richer now.
But while I break fewer doors these days, I’m still quick to lay on my horn, fire off a curt email, or chuck my tongs if I’ve overcooked my steak.
More than a few people have said to me, jokingly, “Take a deep breath, Jeremy.”
I never took it seriously. But it turns out there’s some truth to their advice. Deep breathing can help cool your emotions when your anger overheats.
Taking a deep breath takes your focus off whatever’s angering you, which can help you “de-escalate,” says Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who helps big-time athletes work through anger issues.
Abrams, who also runs the mental health program at five New Jersey state prisons, says deep breathing is more than just distraction. It helps reverse what happens to you biologically when you get angry.
When you’re really pissed, “adrenaline starts flowing, your muscles tense up, your heart rate increases, you sweat, and your breathing quickens,” he says.
Those “fight-or-flight” responses make you more liable to yell, throw a punch, or do something rash.
He told me I can’t directly control my heart rate or adrenaline. But deep breathing helps signal to my body that things are cool, which calms all those fight-or-flight responses.
“Visualization also helps,” he says. “Imagine standing by the ocean, and time your breathing with the waves.”
With Abrams advice in hand, I embarked on a week of taking deep breaths every time I felt anger well up inside me. I was in for some surprises.
My Rocky Start
Taking deep breaths sounds like a snap. But at the start of my week-long experiment, I sucked at it. On day one I spilled my morning cup of coffee and stared daggers at the puddle of espresso on the floor.
I gathered myself and muttered “breathe,” took a quick gulp of air, and mopped up the coffee in a huff. When, afterward, I still felt as miffed as I had when the coffee first hit the ground, I concluded this new-agey breathing stuff was bogus.
As the day went on, the pattern repeated itself: Something would upset me, I’d tell myself to breathe, and I’d go on feeling angry.
But by that evening, I realized I wasn’t really giving the deep breathing a chance. It was one thing to know what I needed to do. It was another to take the time to actually do it.
Per Abrams’s advice, I needed to do more than take a cursory breath. I had to breathe from my diaphragm to make sure I drew in enough oxygen to reverse the fight-or-flight response.
I also needed to do a visualization (like timing my breath with imaginary ocean waves) to just slow everything down a bit and put my anger in check.
I soon had another opportunity to try all this.
I opened my wallet to see my credit card wasn’t there. I looked around my apartment in the spots I thought it could be. No luck.
I started to get pissed. So I paused, closed my eyes, put my hands on my stomach, and focused on feeling them rise and fall with my diaphragm. I could actually feel myself relaxing—the anger ebbing.
Little Stuff Can Add Up To Big Meltdowns
We’ve all gotten bent out of shape over insignificant stuff, only to look back and feel stupid.
“Sometimes when you’re angry, it’s not about what just happened,” Abrams says. “It’s the five things earlier in the day you didn’t properly deal with.”
Like the frog who doesn’t realize—until it’s too late—that the water in his pot is cooking him, we don’t recognize how a string of minor annoyances can push us past our boiling points.
That credit card incident shouldn’t have been too upsetting. But it came at the end of a frustrating day. By the time I was looking for my card, I was agitated—dry gun powder waiting for a spark.
Abrams told me that, even if I’m not pissed, it’s good to check myself once in a while and use some deep breathing to turn the temperature down—so I’m not constantly simmering.
Not All Anger Is Bad
Sports fans hear commentators talk a lot about athletes playing with a chip on their shoulders.
Michael Jordan would turn any minor sleight into the motivation that drove his best performances.
“At moderate levels, anger can make you stronger, faster, and decrease your perception of pain,” Abrams says.
I could relate to that. I didn’t want to get rid of anger altogether, because in the past it had given me an edge that led to some of my greatest accomplishments.
Anger motivated me to lose 40 pounds when I realized how out of shape I looked. Anger at my poor performance in the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon got me to the starting line the following year in the best shape of my life.
So what have I learned?
I’m going to keep breathing and keep visualizing. I’m going to try to keep my unbecoming blowups at bay.
But I’m also going to remember that, managed properly, anger can be a positive thing.
“Anger itself doesn’t get you in trouble,” Abrams says. “It’s the stupid things you do when you’re angry that get you in trouble.”
Maybe I can finally play Mario Kart again.