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How to Control Anger with Deep Breathing

Learn how to control anger with deep breathing from anger management expert Dr. J. Ryan Fuller in this Howcast video.


I'm Dr. Ryan Fuller, and I'm going to talk to you a little bit about how to control anger with deep breathing. Anger is an emotion that has high levels of arousal associated with it. In fact, anger is one of two emotions that really go along with the fight or flight stress response. In the case of a crisis or a danger, our sympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomic nervous system, goes into motion, increasing respiration, increasing heart rate, driving up blood pressure, releasing glucose into the limbs, so there's energy. All these things are about speeding things up so the organism, or the human in this case, is prepared for fighting or fleeing. With that said, when we're really angry and we're aroused in those ways, one good way to modulate or change the anger experience is to change our physiology. There are different ways to go about that. In using relaxation techniques, one form is progressive muscle relaxation. That doesn't have to do with breathing techniques. We're going to talk today about breathing as a form of relaxation, which makes sense in the case of anger management because, as I just said, anger has high levels of arousal in terms of physiological activation. The research in anger management techniques has shown that relaxation skills alone are highly effective at helping people to manage their anger.

One of the skills that I like using with breath work, is very simple and easy to remember. There's scientific research to show that it really does a good job of helping to tamp down the sympathetic nervous system activity. It's really slowing respiration and looking at a 4:7:8 ratio. What that means is we're going to have clients inhale for four counts, hold for seven, and then exhale for a count of eight. What's important to know is anytime you're trying a technique like this you do want to make sure you've spoken to your physician to make sure there are no contraindications based on any health risk factors you have around asthma or a heart condition. Typically what I find is that after my clients have spoken with a physician most physicians are highly encouraging of this kind of relaxation activity. The other important thing to keep in mind is it's the ratio that matters the most. We don't want people to think they have to count for four seconds, seven seconds, and eight seconds, or get a very long count and they end up passing out or straining themselves. You really want to just find the amount of time that works for you, but to try to keep the ratio close to 4:7:8. The main thing is that the exhale becomes much longer than the inhale.

I'll give a quick demonstration. It's not perfectly necessary that you have to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, but that's generally the way I teach it. The client is going to inhale to a count of about four. Hold for a count of about seven, and then exhale through the mouth to a count of about eight. It would look like this. Inhale. Hold. Then exhale. Sometimes I have them exhale from pursed lips. Even though it's a very simple, easy to use breathing exercise, if you do that a number of times, say you do five to ten rounds, you'll likely experience a relaxation response. Often, especially if I have clients who are somewhat skeptical, I ask them to take their pulse beforehand, especially if they're kind of worked up, to practice the response, and then take their pulse again. Again, you want to speak to your health care provider, your physician or otherwise, and you don't want to do it if you're driving or something like that. If you practice it first with a professional and then on your own, it's something that might really help you to reduce an intense physiological, especially if it's an anger response.

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