Feel that rising tide of anger? Surf’s up! Start
Whenever we feel angry or frustrated, we get a blast
of adrenalin coursing through our bloodstream. In the
fight or flight response to stress, our bodies rely on our
appendages. We need to hit, kick, jump or run away,
and our bodies help out by sending extra blood to our
If we were living in the wild and had to actually fight
off a predator or run away to escape, this would make
perfect sense. But in a typical day, we just don’t need
those survival mechanisms like we used to. In fact, we
do our best to thwart our body’s response to stress by
suppressing our physical reactions.
Oh, sure, we still use our extremities to express our
anger. We raise our fists, pound on the desk, slam
doors or cupboards, kick the garbage can, or stomp our
feet. Still, since we’re trying to be civilized and all, we
use words more than body parts to react to whatever
upsets us. This is good in that we don’t want to go
around hitting people. Slugging your boss may be
biological, but it won’t get you too far in your corporate
So, instead of the fight or flight response our
predecessors relied upon, we’ve developed more of
what I call an “explode or seethe” response. Some of
us react right away when we’re upset. We clench our
fists, do some wild gesticulating, raise our voices, or
slam the phone down. Others tend to seethe. We
suck in our breath, count to ten, hold it, and keep our
frustration covered by a tight smile or maybe a little
gasp of exasperation, but that’s about it.
There’s also the classic combo of the
seether/exploder. You know the type: they just keep
their heads down, don’t say a word, and then out of
the blue they go into a tirade that rattles the roof.
It’s interesting that we consider a seether as more
evolved than an exploder. We value those who are
able to keep their emotions in check. In our culture,
the seethers are the “nice” people who surprise us by
keeling over from a heart attack or stroke.
We’ve been programmed to sit and seethe. It’s as
though we’re stepping on the gas (adrenalin) and
slamming on the brakes (inactivity) at the same time.
Try doing that in your car, and you’ll burn up your
engine. That’s what we’re doing to our bodies.
What do we do after a hard day? We sit and watch
television. We play video games. We go to a movie.
We collapse on the sofa and listen to music. We go
out to eat and drink.
We’ve eliminated a lot of the activity of daily life. We
don’t scrub floors, churn butter, wash clothes by hand,
hoe the garden, walk everywhere, or otherwise
eliminate our stress through regular movement. We sit
in our cars, sit at our desks, and sit in front of the
television. It’s no wonder we’re obese and suffering
from the effects of stress!
The sit-and-seethe starts early. Consider a two-year-
old having a tantrum. Picture a little body flailing
about, all arms and legs. That’s adrenalin in all its
glory! No suppression of instincts, just a pure,
unadulterated expression of physiology at work.
We can’t have kids growing up and throwing tantrums.
It’s just not socially acceptable. So, we give the two-
year-old a “time out” to cool off. This is like asking a
charging bull to sit and sip a bit of tea in that proverbial
With all our blood rushing to our extremities, our brains
are getting the leftovers. This is the worst possible
time for us to be logical. When we’re angry and that
adrenalin is surging, we’re far more likely to say things
we’ll regret and to make decisions that will have us
shaking our heads later. If you react verbally or
respond intellectually in that adrenalin moment, you’re
going to have some clean-up in aisle 12 later–
apologies and general repair of relationships and
Most of us have learned that we need to step back
when we’re really upset in order to avoid making a mess
of things. Here’s something you may not know: it
takes a full 90 minutes for your body to get back to
normal after experiencing a blast of adrenalin.
Ninety minutes. That means that a simple “time-out”
for your child isn’t likely to relax him, and postponing
that important meeting for 10 minutes while you cool
down isn’t going to guarantee that you’ll be fully
capable of handling your issue in a level headed way.
If you really want to take advantage of your body’s
natural mechanism for survival, you might as well learn
to work with it. The good news is that, with a little
flexibility, we can use our physiology to help us thrive
and even make us healthier.
You’ve got to move, and you’ve got to breathe. Isn’t it
convenient that those two go together so well?
Here are the four best strategies for surfing your
*Paddle. Your arms and legs need movement, so look
for acceptable ways to get active. Go to the restroom
and do some jumping jacks if you can’t sneak away for
a walk or head to the gym for a workout. Move some
boxes. Sort the recycling. Reshelve some books. Beat
the rugs. Shake out the comforters. Go for a run.
Crank up your stereo and dance with the kids in the
living room. Jump on the exercise bike or go cycling
around the neighborhood. Walk to another part of the
building. Find a corner and do some push-ups.
Activate those appendages!
*Laugh. When we’re angry, our bellies tighten up. We
take shallow breaths at the chest level. This just adds
to the brain drain! We need to relax enough that our
bellies can move freely as we breathe, and if we don’t
get that by doing some cardio that makes us huff and
puff, the next best thing is to laugh. Get a laugh
partner, and agree to call and guffaw–no talking
allowed. Bust a gut, and breathe deeply.
*Sing. You need some serious exhalations, so jump in
the shower and blast out your favorite power ballad.
Get in your car and sing along with the radio. Releasing
sound is therapeutic in itself. Throw in some
dance moves, and you’ve got it covered!
*Avoid meditation. Ignore what you’ve heard about
thinking through your anger. Mindfulness is immensely
valuable, but trying to meditate when you’re really
angry is not realistic or helpful. Be active first, and
then sit. The only way to handle that adrenalin in a
healthy way is to engage physically. You’ve got to be
calm to be mindful. Get control of yourself physically
before using your mind to address a problem.
Next time you get mad, get moving.
Work with your body instead of against it. Learn to
surf that adrenalin wave, and you’ll become a better
decision maker, a more relaxed parent, and a healthier