Fatherhood is like being forced to take a crash-course in Zen self-mastery. You’re constantly having to battle to keep your cool.
Small children are wild and wilful creatures. Looking after them often amounts to negotiating an endless series of minor skirmishes. “Please darling,” you say while struggling to remain calm. “Don’t hit your sister / chew the dog’s tail / drink the water out the fish-tank / put my iPhone down the toilet again”.
Meanwhile at work you’ve fire-fighting a situation with an urgent deadline and a disgruntled client. The pressure builds and builds…
Then your daughter “decorates” the kitchen wall with an expressionist mural scrawled in her mother’s lipstick.
Finally, you snap and you yell.
In the tearful aftermath, you feel that familiar sense of remorse. Did your flare-up really need to be quite so volcanic? (Probably not – although your wife’s lipstick apparently cost $50!) Could you have managed your pent-up fury in a more constructive way? (Almost certainly, yes.)
How then do you defuse your anger? Research from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that the key could lie in talking it out.
In the study, participants had to attempt a difficult maths calculation while another person tried to provoke them to anger. Afterwards, half the people reported their feelings of frustration while the half kept shtum.
Researchers then analysed the physiological and emotional effects of the two approaches. The people who bottled up their feelings experienced a surge of the stress hormone, cortisol, while those who talked about their annoyance stayed mentally calmer.
The study author’s recommendation: identify your emotion in the heat of the moment and then verbalise it (or at least think it).
You might say: “I’m starting to get irritated” or “I’m feeling frustrated”. Or “I’m on the verge of going bat-shit crazy here because despite my express protestations you’re continuing to spread Vegemite on the newly upholstered sofa”.
This simple step of actually expressing your emotion can help you regulate your response and slow down your escalation of anger.
We find it’s particularly effective when combined with the timeless advice of the great Mark Twain: “When angry count four; when very angry, swear.”