Gina Simmons Schneider, PhD, a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, certified coach, and the author of Frazzlebrain: Break Free from Anxiety, Anger, and Stress Using Advanced Discoveries in Neuropsychology.
If you’re like many people, you may be feeling angrier than usual. It’s no surprise, as we live in uncertain times, and anxiety and stress underlie most angry outbursts. This creates a vicious cycle: Anger can disrupt our relationships at home and work. Those relationship conflicts can make us feel more stressed. Add complex life events, like financial setbacks, and everything can soon feel out of control, making anger more likely.
The good news is that you can learn to control your response to stressful events and circumstances. You can transform from feeling frazzled to calm by aiming your thoughts and behaviors differently.
Advances in neuropsychology—how the brain interacts with feelings, behaviors, and experiences—demonstrate how your thoughts and behaviors directly impact the structure and chemistry of your brain. When you learn to steer your thoughts, behaviors, and experiences optimally, you’ll feel calmer and happier.
It helps first to understand the role that a cynical attitude plays in fueling unnecessary anger. Cynicism is the belief that people are fundamentally selfish. It primes you to feel angry and threatened by most people because you assume the worst of them. You might distrust the motives of someone even when they do something nice for you. When you distrust others most of the time, you can develop chronic anger, which can become cemented into your personality.
Without knowing quite how it happens, sometimes you might find yourself feeling angry much of the time. Psychologists call this personality trait cynical hostility. Cynical hostility is a personality style that causes you to distrust and become antagonistic toward others. You might feel more guarded, suspicious, and nervous around people you don’t know. Chronic anger and cynicism keep your nervous system on alert for constant threats. It’s hard to relax if you remain on vigilant alert to protect and defend yourself. Cynical hostility maintains a steady drip of stress chemicals pumping through your body. Those chemicals can make it difficult for you to trust and feel safe. That lack of trust and safety keeps you frazzled for no reason.
Emotions exist as signals to help us survive and cope in a complex world. If we try to stuff or ignore our feelings, they often remain longer and leak out in undesirable ways. Instead, ask yourself what the emotion is trying to tell you.
For example, if you’re angry at your spouse for not helping around the house, but you ignore that feeling, you might find yourself yelling at your pet for chewing up a cushion. A cynical interpretation of your emotion might lead to you think, “My spouse just wants to make me mad by never helping.”
But your anger may really be telling you that you feel overworked. Once you understand that source of the feeling, you can shift your thinking to, “I need help with chores” and begin to look for solutions that address the root of the problem. Harnessed, anger can give you energy and motivation to fix a problem.
It’s important to look at what you can do to solve the problem. If the only way to feel less angry requires someone else, such as your spouse, to do what you expect, then you give away the keys to your happiness. You can’t make the world work according to your specifications, but you can control how you respond to the world around you.
Anxiety, anger, and stress can feel like a three-headed monster robbing you of happiness. To fight back, question your cynical beliefs, ask what your emotions have to teach you, and summon some hopefulness.
Hope is the belief that things can be better. You can experience terrible suffering, but hopefulness helps you endure. Physically, hope helps you recover faster from the stress chemical cortisol and allows you to aim your mind in a more optimistic direction.
When you work to generate hope, you will notice that you recover faster from disappointments and hardships. As a bonus, your problem-solving skills will likely improve as well. That will help you feel much better.
To turn your mind toward more hopeful, healthier thinking, try these hope generators:
General: “I’m broke.”
Specific: “I need to make $300 more per month to pay my bills and save some money.”
When you make a general, nonspecific statement, like “I’m broke,” it can leave you feeling overwhelmed. When you define a problem in specific, measurable ways, you can develop a plan so that you will then feel less frazzled, helpless, and anxious.
For example, if you usually try to cope with public speaking nervousness by taking deep breaths, relaxing, and vigorous preparation, but you still feel overwhelmed, do something new and different. For example, try exercising in the morning before you speak in public. It could help you release tension and feel more confident and relaxed.
Fighting cynicism, questioning emotions, and generating hope can help you lessen stress, anxiety, and anger, too.