I was facilitating a virtual meditation session yesterday and received a private message asking how meditation could help with anger. I was touched by the honesty of the inquiry and the motivation to work on it through meditation.
A recent study looked at how a single session of meditation has the potential to reduce the anger response. The encouraging part is that the study found this to be true both for experienced and new meditators. (Fennell, A. B., Benau, E. M., & Atchley, R. A. (2016). A single session of meditation reduces of physiological indices of anger in both experienced and novice meditators. Consciousness and cognition, 40, 54-66.)
Anger is defined as a state of mind resulting from perceived threat’s to an individual’s authority or reputation, from disrespect or a sense of injustice or violation of norms or rules of simply through frustration (Spielberger & Reheiser, 2010). We all experience it from time to time but for some individuals anger is a frequent emotion and creates harm in personal and workplace relationships. Whereas there is some therapeutic benefit to having a good cry, an angry outburst isn’t good for emotional or physical health.
Why does meditation help? Likely it is due to the fact that meditation is associated with a switch away from our mind wandering default mode network of the brain and the improved emotional regulation that results. But these changes happen over time with consistent practice. It is less clear why even someone meditating for the first time may find their anger response reduced. The shift away from our fight or flight sympathetic nervous system to a more calm parasympathetic nervous system that happens when we meditate is the likely mechanism for this immediate improvement.
In the study by Fennell et al (2016), the subjects completed a 20 minute open monitoring meditation in sitting in a dimly lit room. They were guided to “focus on the area a couple of fingers below their navel and to slightly open their eyes while staring at the ground in front of them”. They were instructed to “count each inhale and exhale up to ten and then back down to one”. With any mind wandering they were encouraged to return to focusing and restart the counting of their breath. In the study “anger induction” was completed at various points of time and for both the experienced and novice meditators a single meditation session resulted in reductions of both subjective reports of anger and improvements in physiological measures (heart rate variability, heart rate, respiratory rate).
The challenge is to have the self-discipline to sit and meditate rather than punching something… but it’s fair to assume that consistent meditation practice should reduce the frequency and intensity of anger outbursts to make this easier.
Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169.
Spielberger, C. D., & Reheiser, E. C. (2010). The nature and measurement of anger. New York, NY: Springer.