There are many studies about the connection between our sleep and our feelings, and we know that there is a close connection between lack of sleep and emotions such as anger and resentment.
Too little sleep causes the mind and body to become tired, which makes us easily impatient. As a result, it becomes more difficult and frustrating for us to perform our daily duties, and we then sometimes tend to react aggressively. Even a single sleepless night correlates with these changes in function and can lead to significant anger problems.
So a good night’s rest is essential for anger management, and I can’t stress enough that the first thing you should do to improve your mood is to be well-rested.
However, many of us toss and turn at night and have trouble getting the sleep we need. Especially if you have chronic insomnia, getting a good night’s rest seems like an unattainable goal. In this article, I want to take a closer look at how you can better manage feelings of anger when you’re sleep-deprived.
Why anger is normal and even necessary
Before we go into detail, I would first like to clarify that anger in itself is not a “bad” thing. There is no human being on earth who doesn’t experience anger from time to time. It’s a very normal, even necessary part of the entire spectrum of human emotions.
Yet, we often struggle with thoughts that tell us it’s not good to feel anger. This can get to the point where we think there is something wrong with us for being angry. This internal struggle can then often be more exhausting than the feelings of anger themselves!
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However, it is also true that for some of us, anger is consuming. Feelings of anger become especially problematic when the consequences of our anger – the behaviors that anger drives – become so destructive that it damages our lives and the lives of those around us. In that case, it’s crucial to find effective and lasting ways to manage anger.
Why do we get angry?
When you look around and consider all the damage that has been done throughout history because of anger, you may wonder why we evolved to experience this emotion in the first place? From an evolutionary perspective, for anger to have endured as part of the human condition, it must serve some purpose.
And indeed, anger is considered one of the traits that have given us humans an advantage in the struggle for survival. From this perspective, we can see how anger can be useful and is a perfectly appropriate emotional response to situations that pose a real threat or danger.
Imagine, for example, that you were one of your very early ancestors who caught a member of an enemy tribe stealing food from your camp, putting the survival of your clan in jeopardy. Wouldn’t you react very angrily in that situation?
From this perspective, it makes sense that certain risky situations evoke a similar reaction in us today. Although most of us are rarely confronted with truly life-threatening conditions these days, this example shows how anger still works.
Your anger contains important information
The feeling of anger can be very useful as a source of information because it brings to our attention what’s important to us in our lives. Our values guide our actions and give us a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life, which is why they are so valuable to us. Now, when we feel that our values are being denied, bypassed, or attacked, we inevitably experience some reaction – sometimes in the form of anger.
Think about the last time you were really angry. Allow the memory to build in your mind and allow the thoughts and feelings associated with it to emerge. Take a few deep breaths. Just notice what thoughts and feelings are present and resist the urge to judge them.
Ask yourself: Which of my values were threatened in this moment? Which of my values was my anger trying to defend? Was it perhaps a value related to justice or freedom? Or was it maybe a value related to connection, trust, or respect?
By asking yourself these questions, you can see that there is interesting information in your anger that you can use to make conscious decisions and take effective action.
When anger becomes a problem
Sometimes, however, we respond to thoughts and feelings of anger in an incredibly rigid and unhelpful way: We either fight them or go on autopilot, blindly following our urge to let it out.
When this happens, perfectly normal anger can create a problematic rage. One consequence could be that we begin to isolate ourselves from the people and things that matter most to us, causing enormous harm to ourselves and others.
A new approach to dealing with anger
It can be so difficult for us to respond effectively to anger because it seems so powerful, and we can quickly lose control. When we’re angry, it often feels as if we are suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of internal experiences that inevitably lead us to behave in a certain way.
To get ahead of this loss of control, it’s helpful to slow down the whole process a bit and to even approach it with openness and curiosity to learn exactly what is going on in these moments and thus keep control over our reactions.
Each anger episode will involve one or more of the following stages. The more effectively you respond to each step of this process, the more likely you will act consistently with your actual values and goals.
Stage 1 – Trigger
The trigger for your anger could either be an external event – like someone does or says something that you don’t approve of – or it could be something inside you, such as a random thought that suddenly pops into your head.
The triggering event may be something important that you actually need to deal with – perhaps something that poses a real threat to you or someone important to you. So it’s indeed crucial to be curious and find out what the trigger is.
However, it’s challenging to face a situation with clarity if you get too caught up in your thoughts and feelings of anger.
Stage 2 – Anger thoughts
Anger thoughts often have a unique quality because they tend to be judgmental, that is, full of black-and-white evaluations; something is either right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust.
It’s also important to note that anger thoughts often have a ‘victim quality’. We see ourselves primarily as the victim and blame others for our situation. As a result, there can be a lot of blaming and accusing. Sometimes, a disaster scenario is conjured up in our minds, which has nothing to do with reality anymore.
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However, we must always keep in mind that thoughts of anger are absolutely normal. What’s important is how we deal with these thoughts. When we get attached too much to them and take them for the literal truth, we usually experience intense feelings of anger.
Stage 3 – Anger feelings
Although the way we feel our anger – how intense it is and how quickly it spreads – is very individual, there are commonalities in the physical symptoms: a rapid heartbeat, rapid and shallow chest breathing, muscle tension, feeling hot and flushed, and perhaps even trembling.
Again, these physical symptoms are absolutely normal because they are our body’s automatic ‘fight or flight’ response that prepares us to deal with a threat.
However, when we get caught up in these feelings, they can be overwhelming and lead to anger urges.
Stage 4 – Anger urges
When we are riding the crest of a wave of anger, it can feel like it will never end unless we do something about it immediately. The feeling is so intense and unpleasant that the desire to give in becomes extraordinarily strong.
Once we engage in some of the thoughts that often accompany and fuel this process – thoughts like “I can’t stand this,” “I feel like I’m going to explode” – we can find ourselves almost unconsciously searching our memories to find ways we’ve successfully gotten rid of this uncomfortable feeling in the past. We do this to fall back on ‘already proven’ anger behavior – even if its consequences had been destructive.
Stage 5 – Anger behaviors
There comes a moment when we give in to the urge to act and allow the anger that has built up inside us to erupt. Sometimes this takes the form of a full-blown explosion of rage, with shouting, slamming doors, perhaps even outbursts of violence.
But it can also express itself more subtly, such as hurtful words, name-calling, contemptuous silence, or emotional withdrawal.
Sometimes, the anger behavior may be more like an implosion, taking place entirely internally: We grit our teeth and try to ‘swallow’ the anger. Perhaps the feelings subside, and the unpleasant thoughts diminish. In truth, however, the hot anger has only been temporarily put on hold, ready to explode again at a later time.
This entire process usually happens so quickly that we think the shift from the initial trigger stage to how we react (stage 5) occurs instantly. However, usually, we go through all stages of the process – trigger, thoughts, feelings, urges, and behavior.
And this is precisely also the key to better dealing with anger: slowing down the process to get a sense of what’s going on. This way, we create a little space that allows us to gain control over our response.
Exercise: Breaking down an anger episode
Take a moment and think of a recent occasion when you got really angry. Close your eyes and imagine the scene from beginning to end so that it comes alive in your mind.
You don’t need to reproduce it perfectly in all documentary detail; just let the memory stand out in its own way. Stay for a moment with the memory of what was going on inside you at that time. When you are ready, answer the following questions:
- What was the trigger? What happened – either outside of you or inside of you?
- What thoughts did you get caught up in? Try to remember as best you can what your mind told you and what thoughts dominated.
- What feelings of anger were you experiencing? Try to describe the feelings and how they felt in your body.
- What urge did you feel while experiencing these thoughts and feelings? What did the “anger” want you to do? Write down all the things you wanted to do or say, whether you actually did them or not.
- What did you actually end up doing? What was the actual outcome of the anger episode in terms of your behavior?
It’s important to note that this slowing down process doesn’t mean that we try to control our anger thoughts and feelings; as much as we may want to, we cannot effectively control our thoughts, nor can we control our feelings. It’s more about familiarizing ourselves with what’s going on inside of us and to open up to our internal experiences, even if they are challenging, like being angry.
Opening up to anger
As we have seen, anger is more than just a “feeling” – it is a complex interplay of emotions, thoughts, urges, and – if we fail to manage these effectively – behaviors.
However, it’s the feeling of anger – the rollercoaster of emotions – that many of us find most uncomfortable and therefore struggle against.
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Experimenting with different ways of dealing with anger and the wide range of emotions that usually accompany it can make the subtle difference between reacting in autopilot mode, which generally leads to more problems and angry outbursts, and acting thoughtfully in ways that are consistent with your values.
Exercise: Breathing Into Anger
There will always be times when we find ourselves suddenly and unprepared in the midst of a hot flash of anger. The natural instinct at such moments is to let our feelings carry us away.
To be better prepared to deal effectively with acute anger, it’s tremendously useful to have a plan. The next time you find yourself in such a situation, try to stick to the following five steps:
- Step 1: Direct your focus to your breath.
- Step 2: Notice the feeling of anger in you, where in your body you feel it, and acknowledge to yourself, “Here is a feeling of anger”.
- Step 3: Connect the sensation with your breathing by consciously opening to the feeling to give it space and breathing into and around the feeling. Imagine a space that opens up around the feeling.
- Step 4: From this position of connecting your breath to the feeling of anger, expand your awareness as if you were expanding a spotlight. Open your awareness to take in everything else you can feel inside you, and then everything else you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell at this moment.
- Step 5: Reflect on what is important to you, your values. Think about the kind of person you most want to be. How would you like to behave from this perspective? What do you want to do next?
Don’t try to get rid of your anger feelings
It’s important to make clear that the goal of this exercise is not to get rid of the feeling of anger. If you make that your goal, you will end up struggling even more with the pain associated with it.
Also, no one expects you ever to like feeling angry, but making space for a feeling that happens to be present at that moment is crucial to living a fulfilling life. If you give your feelings space, no matter how difficult, they are free to move and less likely overwhelm you. As a result, you also have more room to make conscious choices based on your values about how you behave.