The power of a pause against anger and impulsiveness
Anger and stress hormones
Staying calm is key to making wise decisions and essential to maintaining healthy relationships. Yet there are times when it’s impossible to stay calm. A teenager has lied to you, your spouse insults you, a co-worker yells at you. Anger or shock can trigger your fight or flight response, which activates powerful stress hormones.
Those hormones trigger many physiological, biochemical, and psychological changes. They increase alertness, and generate fear, aggressiveness, and anger. Such biologically-driven changes may be helpful when you are physically threatened. Yet they can be harmful to your relationships and social and work-related interactions. When too much of the primary stress hormone cortisol is rushing through your body, you are much more likely to say or do something that you will later regret.
Delay your response — time for a pause
You need to find a way to delay responding until your stress level has subsided to normal levels.
Exercise: The quickest way to decrease the levels of cortisol and related stress chemicals in your body is to do five minutes of strenuous exercise allowing you to sweat lightly. For instance, you can go for a run or do push-ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks.
Meditation: Another way to forestall harmful reactivity in emotionally-heated situations is to meditate for at least fifteen to twenty minutes. Focus on breathing deeply while relaxing and letting go of any thoughts or emotions that pass through your mind.
Distraction: At a minimum, pursue other activities and wait until you feel calm before dealing with a particularly heated emotional situation.
Once calm, you will be able to ask questions and find out the how and why of the situation. You want to avoid simply jumping to conclusions and striking out against the people involved.
A pause is also a powerful defense against making impulsive decisions. The desires for pleasure, food, sex, and approval from others have their bases in biology and can thus easily become excessive. Uncontrolled pleasure-seeking and impulsive decision-making can end up being more harmful than beneficial.
Thus, pausing before taking action is a key in preventing bad impulsive decision-making. Here are some examples of impulses that may be wise to forestall:
• Eating too much: You’ve just eaten a big plate of delicious pasta and you want to have seconds although you know you shouldn’t.
• Drinking too much: You crave that third or forth glass of wine regardless of the consequences.
• Buying too much: You want to buy an expensive jacket although you can’t afford it and you don’t need it.
• Pleasing others too much: You feel pressured into saying “yes” to a request to volunteer, although you are already over-burdened with other obligations.
• Wasting too much time: You feel like going on social media rather than doing something productive or spending time with family or friends.
• Slipping into inappropriate relationships: You can’t resist responding to a married person’s inappropriately-flirtatious text with a suggestive text of your own.
By simply delaying taking action or making a decision, the impulse to act immediately tends to diminish. Forestalling taking action is easier than resisting an impulse, because you’re not saying “no” to yourself or to others. You are simply saying, “I’m going to wait for five minutes/15 minutes/a day before making the decision.” With a little time and distance, other priorities and desires will tend to decrease your overwhelming urge to act impulsively.
Impulsive behavior becomes stronger when a person is bored. So taking the time to engage in another activity and gain distance from the temptation will also help the impulse fade away.
If you know what kind of situations present temptation or tend to make you angry, try to imagine the situation likely to occur and imagine how you are going to respond.
Example: If my teenager does something terrible, I will say, “Let’s talk tonight/tomorrow.” Then I will go for a run. I may try to get the situation in perspective by talking to a friend. I will put myself in his/her shoes and imagine how I can be most effective in a conversation. I will have a calm tone of voice and allow him or her to explain before interrupting or making any assumptions.
Example: If there is a buffet tonight, I will pace myself during the meal, and take a fifteen-minute break before deciding if and how much seconds I’ll have.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD Psychology