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Anger management and the secret to staying calm

by Petrina Coventry
08 August 2017
We seem more prone to tantrums nowadays, says Petrina Coventry. There are better ways to manage our emotions if we understand what they are.

We seem to react in disproportionate ways when offended lately, resulting in sandpit tantrums, school yard antics, name calling, pie throwing, or worse.
When did we become so sensitive to others’ opinions and views, and when did we forget to stop think and have logical and rational discussions? Maybe the answer is that we didn’t forget, but that it’s getting harder to find a healthy balance between reason and emotion.
Debate around the role of emotion versus reason in moral decision making has been going on for centuries among philosophers. Some still believe that only impartial, rational thinking is the correct way to make decisions.
Rational thinking plays a strong role in how we make moral decisions but our moral compasses are also powerfully influenced by emotion.
The two have always existed in parallel with one another and recently neuroscientists and behavioural economists have outlined in ’dual process theory’. In situations where an ethical decision is required, we have two different thinking processes. First, “manual” thinking which is slow, consciously controlled and rule based. And second, “automatic” processes that are fast, emotional and effortless.
The answer to good decision making seems to be about balance. When we get overly emotional our ability to make rational decisions – the kind we will look back on and agree are good decisions
has a tendency to fail.
Our rational thinking processes can be hijacked by emotional states.
We all know the feelings of the red hot face, the blood pressure rising, the dark thoughts… We’ve all had moment when our judgement has been clouded by our feelings and we’ve made the wrong call. The question is, why do we continue to allow that to happen to us?
Emotions are hard wired into us. Chemical states in our brains which trigger those physical feelings we identify with, like an anxious pit in the stomach and shaking hands, also inhibit our higher cognitive capabilities and limit what we call rational thought. The more emotional you are, the less rational you are – they have an inverse relationship with one another.
Many violent crimes are committed when the perpetrator is in an extremely angry state, obviously. Temporary insanity is a not uncommon plea, suggesting extreme emotion literally makes a person unable to make socially acceptable decisions.
This is why in our stressful world, and an environment of heightened sensitivity, we could all benefit from understanding why mindfulness is such a popular phenomenon.

Increasingly, we are bombarded with moral and decision making challenges, people are increasingly seeking relief and it’s important to understand how we achieve self-awareness and balance.

Good mindfulness training that stems from Buddhist theory helps in this as it allows us to:

  • Identify and acknowledge emotions through physical and mental awareness.
  • Accept our emotions rather than fearing them or being caught up by them.
  • Recognise that emotions as temporary.
Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, argues techniques like mindfulness involve “learning to handle your own mind in the same way that an experienced photographer learns to handle her camera.” He adds, “You need to not only be good with the automatic settings, and to be good with the manual mode, but also to have a good sense of when to use one and when to use the other”.
The lesson is that we shouldn’t ignore our emotions, but know when they should inform our decisions and when they should be ignored. If you find yourself facing difficult ethical situations, start with what’s simple: breathe. It’s important to accept the reality of what’s happening rather than responding with panic, fear or denial. If we can accept, we can be observant of both our situation and our emotions.
Buddhist philosophy encourages us to see our emotions like ocean waves – they come and go. If you fight against them, they can suck you down. If you move with them, you can float above, able to keep your eye on the horizon.
Professor Petrina Coventry is Industry Professor and Director of Development at the University of Adelaide, specialising in the area of organisational and business ethics. She is also a Vincent Fairfax Fellow.

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