Think mindfulness is happy-clappy nonsense or a pseudoscience fad? Think again. Used by some of the world’s top athletes – LeBron James and Christiano Ronaldo swear by it – mindfulness is simply the ability to be fully aware of your thoughts and feelings and accept the world around you without judgement.
In anger-inducing situations like on the football pitch, for example, it can be the difference between seeing red, losing your composure and arguing with the ref, or keeping your cool and slotting home a winner with laser focus.
All you have to do is follow the six-step mindfulness method for beginners. But, first...
Why do we get angry?
Anger gets a lot of bad press. It helps to think of it as a ‘secondary’ feeling caused by fear, hurt or some sense of unfairness. You need it to signal problems. Think of it as your own linesman raising a flag as soon as an internal boundary has been crossed.
But because it’s protective and motivates you to resolve issues, if you are mindful of anger and its causes, you can actually use it to your advantage.
The problems with anger come both from always reacting when you’re ‘in’ the feeling and from feeling it too often. In your own mind, anger makes you the victim and someone else the perpetrator. It dehumanises the other person, makes short-term, snap decisions, lacks empathy and prevents you from taking personal responsibility.
Why’s it hard to keep cool?
Anger feels automatic. You obviously don’t intend to ruin your run by going over what you should have shouted at that idiot who nearly ran you over on the pedestrian crossing, but you’re programmed to survive rather than to be happy. Since angry feelings arise from your survival mechanism, unless you’re consciously mindful of them, you’ll automatically embrace anger at the expense of your happiness.
Anger is physical. Your cortisol and adrenaline levels surge as your body gets ready to fight, putting a strain on your heart and immune system. You’re only really meant to be angry to quickly deal with actual threats to survival, not to scream at that clumsy player who keeps fouling you.
It’s also worth bearing in mind too that it’s not just lots of anger directed outwards that’s a potential problem. If you’ve learned to internalise it, this can lead to ongoing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
The six-step mindfulness method
Get to know when you’re feeling angry. This might sound obvious, but by focusing on the wrongdoings of others anger can often feel like righteous indignation and not the negative feeling it actually is. If you actively try to notice when you’re somewhere on the ‘anger scale’, which includes everything from frustration and irritation to defensiveness and annoyance, you may be surprised how often you’re angry without being aware of it.
Identify how you express your anger. It’s not just about arguing. Cynicism, sarcasm, silence, criticism, passive aggression, banter and humour, even doing the opposite of what you know another person might want, can all be less obvious ways of showing anger.
So, the next time you get clumsily tackled or your tennis doubles partner hits the net at a crucial moment (again), use this simple six-step mindfulness technique for beginners:
Stop. Your first reaction will be impulsive and almost certainly negative, so resist the urge to indulge it. Even just doing this will make you feel more in control.
Observe. Turn your attention inwards and ask how anger will help resolve the situation (spoiler alert: it won’t).
Breathe. Focusing on your breathing is the most effective way to keep cool. No need to sit cross-legged and close your eyes. Simply slow your breaths – four seconds in, four seconds out – the calming effect is almost instantaneous.
Expand. Now you feel calmer, you can test whether your anger’s story is actually true. Who knows, you might even be able to empathise with the other person’s perspective.
Respond. If the situation can’t immediately be resolved with a quick handshake or apology, it can be important to address it later to avoid ongoing resentment. Just make sure you choose your moment, plan what you’ll say and focus on your secondary feelings so you can speak ‘for’ your anger rather than ‘from’ it.
It really works. See for yourself by remembering the SOBER acronym and trying this effective technique next time you feel yourself starting to lose your cool.
John-Paul Davies is an accredited psychotherapist, counsellor, coach and author.