When we say that someone has a stoic attitude we think of a person who is unfeeling or indifferent to difficult situations.
However, did you know that the term comes from an ancient belief system known as Stoicism, first practiced in ancient Greece? Widely studied even today, Stoicism offers ideas on looking at life in ways that can be helpful and calming to some people. It has remained popular, even influencing what is called cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a modern treatment for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and anger.
A particular area of interest for people interested in this belief system is their approach to anger. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not about supressing or ignoring anger.
That’s because anger is a normal emotion that everyone experiences occasionally. In fact, anger serves an evolutionary need in that it helps us deal with threats and danger. Humans would probably not have evolved if it weren’t for the mental and physical changes (such as increased heart rate and changes in blood flow) that occur in our bodies when we get angry.
The problem with anger is that it can happen even in situations that aren’t directly threatening, thereby affecting your relationships, your job and your general wellbeing and happiness. One reason is the ‘fight or flight response’ that occurs during a situation in which we feel anger can seem less helpful in a modern, civilised society.
For example, aggression is a useful response to the stress resulting from an immediate threat to you or your family. Obviously it doesn’t help you relax or relieve worries, but it does improve your survival prospects.
Compare that to the anger or aggression in response to everyday situations. You experience the same mindset and your body undergoes the same physical changes, but instead of responding to mortal danger, you’re maybe taking it out on a family member after a bad day at work, or you’re yelling at slow motorists who cannot hear you because the windows in your car are rolled up. Not only is this unlikely to serve your survival needs, it probably adds to your stress.
Anger that gets out of hand can cause harm, affecting your relationships, social standing, career and even your physical health.
For example, a verbal insult or another driver cutting you off may invoke feelings of anger, but that’s usually not a life-threatening situation. Yet for some people, their feelings of anger can potentially lead to violent escalation or injury.
In short, there are situations where anger is an understandable response to a stressful situation (such as if you are facing a threat to your life). However, there are far more everyday situations where anger is not a helpful response to a mundane situation.
So how can you reduce the destructive effects of anger in your life? Here are some Stoic-inspired ways of thinking about anger that might help reshape your outlook.
Is your anger about something that is ultimately trivial?
Your Macca’s drive-through took too long. Your internet connection is down for a couple of hours. You once again have to fix an incompetent co-worker’s screw-up. Or a family member forgot an important occasion.
Each day we are faced with frustrating situations. They are unpleasant and can add to the stress of life, which can fuel anger. And yet, out of all the multitude of things that make us angry, how many of them truly matter?
Much of our anger occurs for trivial things that, in the long-term, have little or no effect on life.
It pays to keep this in mind next time you’re faced with a frustrating situation. Would you care or even remember about this situation in 20 or 40 years? If the answer is no, then ask yourself if it’s worth getting annoyed.
Would you get this angry if you’d expected the situation to occur?
Why is that two MMA fighters who trash talk each other at a media conference are capable of remaining focussed and unoffendable — yet if either of them were to be subjected to the same verbal abuse in private from a family member or while phoning up their utility company, they’d almost certainly respond differently?
While this is admittedly an extreme example, it helps illustrates a point: our capacity to remain calm when faced with stress is, to a surprising extent, affected by our expectations.
A common example is a verbal insult. An insult cannot cause physical harm and yet we may find that we lose our self-control if we’re on the receiving end, potentially leading to anger (or in some cases, even violence). Often it is not the insult itself which leads to distress — it is the unexpectedness of the insult that can cause the distress and anger. It stands to reason then that one way to avoid falling into the trap of anger is to consciously prepare yourself for (that is, expect) the possibility of things like this occurring.
For example, traffic jams will probably occur towards the end of the day. Imagine then, two people leaving work at the same time. One expects to beat the traffic but gets caught up and ends up feeling frustrated at the slow progress. The other fully expects to be stuck, and calmly makes their way home, knowing that the heavy traffic is unavoidable. The situation is the same for both people, yet one manages to deal better with their frustration than the other — because they expected the situation.
This absolutely does not mean digging yourself a hole and always seeing the worst. Constantly expecting the worst can be an unhealthy mindset which, like recurring anger, can be harmful to your wellbeing. Rather, it simply means preparing yourself for all eventualities in life — and that means being realistic by expecting that some situations can be difficult and stressful.
This cartoon illustrates a common situation faced by many of us every day. Imagine two people leaving work at the same time. One expects to beat the traffic but gets caught up and ends up feeling frustrated at the slow progress. The other fully expects to be stuck, and calmly makes their way home, knowing that the heavy traffic is unavoidable. The situation is the same for both people, yet one manages to deal better with their frustration than the other — because they expected the situation.
Is the anger about something you cannot control?
It is a fact of life that unfortunate or tragic things will occur over which we have no control. Losing your job through redundancy, the weather, many diseases as well as accidents are generally things over which we have no influence.
The Stoics believe that we should spend less time worrying about things over which we have no control, focussing instead on how we respond to those things that we can control.
The same may be said for anger. If something upsetting happens over which we have no control, the fact still remains: it happened. Getting angry will not undo the distressing situation and may in fact increase your stress.
A healthier approach is to use the emotional energy reserve to think about how to respond better to a distressing situation. Anger will not change what happened — but you may be able to change how you respond to it.
The situation is probably temporary
Anger often comes about through raw impulse. Yet so often, the situation that sparked the anger is temporary. The traffic jam, the bad day at work or the painful family get-together are all distressing, but quite often they will have passed within a few hours or by the time you wake up the next morning.
Acknowledging that the anger-inducing situation is probably temporary helps with keeping your cool. Yes, it sucks right now, but in a few minutes, hours or tomorrow morning that won’t be so.
If that’s the case, then keeping your temper in check (for example, by actively thinking how you respond and asking yourself whether this situation truly matters in the long-term) hopefully means you’ve not fallen into the trap of anger and its destructive consequences. Knowing that many of the situations we don’t like will eventually pass can help with that.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.