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Calming the rage

Updated: May 3, 2022

Stress is a day-to-day occurrence for many of us, and can often lead to the red mist descending more often than we’d like to admit. For this reason, stress deserves a lot of attention. We shouldn’t normalise stress or just accept it as a part of our daily lives, but instead try to actively reduce sources of stress and develop strategies to pre-empt it. But sometimes we just need some easy strategies to use in the moment and this is what this article is focused on: reducing stress as it happens, so that you don’t end up losing your rag over something that you can later acknowledge wasn’t that big a deal. You’ll need to practice the strategies so that they become both effective and automatic, and some may work for you while others don’t. The key is in recognising when you are starting to get angry, and implementing something at that point before your feelings explode. You may notice that I don’t recommend pummelling a cushion or screaming into a pillow. That’s because it doesn’t really work – it doesn’t channel or diffuse your anger, and it can actually leave you feeling more wound up as you are essentially reinforcing the feeling that you are angry. Have a go at some of these instead.

When you’re in a hurry or have no time:

1. Breathe

When we’re stressed and angry, our breathing tends to become shallower and higher up in our chests. Try some deep breathing, drawing the breath down in the belly, to slow down your heart rate. You could try breathing in for a slow count of 4, and out for a slow count of 5. Or try breathing in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4. Try a few variations on this to see what works for you.

You could combine this with another strategy, distraction (see point 3). I sometimes try taking 3 deep breaths then count backwards from 10, then sing a happy song in my head!

2. Take a helicopter ride

This is a great strategy from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Zoom out of the situation – try to imagine you’re in a helicopter, looking down on the situation. Using this has helped me to see that I’m doing my best and that there are probably a thousand other people around the world going through the same thing as me. It helps put things in perspective so it seems like less of an issue.

3. Distract yourself

Look around and see what can take your mind off the current moment. Are there some nice clouds in the sky? Can you see aeroplanes or birds flying over – where might they be going? Or do something mentally challenging that means you have to stop thinking about it. Count backwards from 100 in 7s. Do some times tables. Anything that will change your focus.

4. Happy music

I’m a big advocate for the power of music to change your mood. I recommend having two ‘happy playlists’ – one that is upbeat, for when you need a lift or boost, and the other being more mellow, for when you need to cheer up without getting hyped up. When you’re feeling stressed out you need your mellow playlist (think artists like Laura Mvula, Solomon Grey, Emeli Sandé, Fleetwood Mac) to help with your mood. Do not make the mistake I’ve made in the past and switch on your upbeat playlist! You will find that this just makes you stomp louder and rage harder.

5. Make the situation fun

I know, I know. You don’t have time and you’re not in the mood. But if shouting at the kids to finish their breakfast isn’t working, can you make it a game instead? Can you turn it into a race, or set a funny alarm that they have to beat? Breaking the tension is good for everyone.

When you’re not in a rush but are still feeling the rage:

6. Thought diary

Thought diaries, another staple of CBT, are so useful. Taking a minute to write a quick thought diary can be revelatory and completely turn your feelings around. In a nutshell you need to write down what happened and how it made you feel. Then think of another way of interpreting the situation and consider how this makes you feel instead. If you can scribble something down on paper in the moment it can be very helpful and take the heat out of the situation, but doing it after the fact can also help you to calm down and put things back in perspective. You can download a thought diary here.

7. High intensity activity

Perhaps a work email has come through that really annoyed you and now you can’t stop thinking about it. Do a quick burst of high intensity activity – burpees, star jumps, fast feet on the spot. Burn off the frustration in a healthy way.

8. Gratitude list

When you feel exasperated it’s easy to ignore all the great things that you have in your life. Write a quick top 3 things you are grateful for today, to remind yourself that although this situation is happening right now, it doesn’t have to dictate how you feel for the rest of the day.

9. Progressive muscle relaxation

As I mentioned above, screaming into a pillow or punching or throwing something will only exacerbate your anger. Instead, try progressive muscle relaxation, where you sequentially tense and release all the muscles in your body to relieve tension.

10. Meditate

Meditation can be very helpful (although don’t worry if it doesn’t work for you – a recent review article suggests that it’s not effective for everyone). Use a guided meditation to help slow your breathing and heart rate and calm your mind. Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer and Sanvello are just some example apps that have a library of guided meditations to use in various situations.

Want to know more about how to deal with stress? Check out the Stress SOS course.

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