After the first two seconds…

In my teens and into my twenties, I was a very angry young man. I’d suffered various kinds of abuse as a middle-schooler, and earlier, as a small child. I felt justified in my rage. I believed the world owed me something, so I carried around grudges as if they were pocket change.

The roads and highways were particularly hazardous to, and also because of, me. Every vehicle that cut in front of me I took to be my personal enemy. If someone tailgated me, I took it as a personal affront. I would scream at other drivers, pound the steering wheel, and even high-beam those who cut me off at night. It didn’t help matters any that I liked to drive fast and could not abide anyone traveling below the speed limit. My lead foot lost me my driver’s license twice in the same year.

As I entered my thirties, however, I began to be afraid. My own anger frightened me more as I grew older, and I imagined nightmare scenarios where I ran down a toddler in the street, or struck out at my own mother in a rage. I also came to realize that the people at whom I seethed rarely knew they were the targets of my anger. Often, then, the only person I was hurting was myself.

Anger is a self-defeating and self-harming emotion. The physiological consequences of anger include: a surge of hormones from the adrenal glands; a rush of blood away from the stomach and into the muscles; an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration; and an increase in body temperature. This is called the fight-or-flight response, and it is an evolutionary trait geared towards surviving a life and death situation. In an actual emergency, these changes can be beneficial as they prepare the body to seek a path to survival, but in our modern, relatively safe society, such extreme and sudden changes are unnecessary. If our lives or our freedom  are not at stake, such intense emotional reactions unnecessarily stress the body. Anger triggers these responses, and over time, repeated rage can cause everything from anxiety and depression to heart attacks and strokes.

At some point, I came to the conclusion that much of my needless anger was actually under my control. I could choose, at such moments, to walk away (whether literally or figuratively), take several deep and cleansing breaths, and force myself to look at the situation more objectively. Maybe that driver didn’t mean to cut me off. Maybe he or she has difficulty seeing at night, or perhaps this person is an anxious driver and therefore prone to mistakes while behind the wheel. When looked at in this light, the emotion of anger gradually gives way to understanding and empathy. 

Eventually, I found that I could step back and reason with myself, if I only made that choice. Life became much easier and more pleasant once I took that route. Now, as a man in my forties, I’ve become skilled at talking myself down from that precipitous fury, but it requires a sort of emotional vigilance, at least in the midst of unpleasant events. You just need to realize that, after the first two seconds, anger becomes a choice.