Anger, anxiety, rage, fear, empathy and kindness
Sep 27, 2021
In 2018, I started experiencing frequent bursts of anger. I would get angry about the most trivial things. I’d get angry when someone didn’t reply to an email. I’d get angry at a company if I got rejected for a job that I applied for. I’d get angry at the waiter if the restaurant didn’t have a dish that was on its menu. In such times, my anger would shoot up very quickly and I would immediately have a meltdown without any apparent provocation. It was affecting my friendships; it was harming my relationship with my family; and it was making me unlikable, even to myself. This kept on for about a year until I decided to do something about it.
I decided that one of my personal goals for 2019 was to be more mindful in my interactions with people. I started reading about rage and in parallel, I also started reading about meditation. I started observing myself when I would have these rage episodes: what happened prior to them, what was happening during them, and what happened after them.
Prior to the episode: I would get jittery and clumsy, often starting a couple of days before the episode would happen. I would write it off thinking that I was just having mood swings but this frustration would start piling on somewhere inside me. I would start feeling incredibly anxious starting a couple of hours before the meltdown.
During the episode: The episode would always have a trigger. These triggers would be anything from a glass falling in the kitchen, the internet not working, or a shopkeeper refusing to accept Rs. 2000 bill — like I wrote, mostly trivial things that would never warrant anger, let alone a full-fledged meltdown in front of friends or family or, sometimes, a wide range of public audience. While this meltdown happened, I would be out of my wits. I would shout, yell, blabber utter gibberish — sometimes offensively so, ram doors, hit myself, break whatever I could get my hands on, such as, phone, remotes and utensils.
I never became violent towards anyone else, but there were a few times when I tried to hurt myself.
It’s worth noting that while I was doing this during the meltdown, I didn’t feel like I was in control of my actions. They were just free flowing. These meltdowns were very short and would last anywhere between a few seconds to a couple of minutes at most.
After the episode: There would be immense calm immediately after the meltdown. I’d feel like a burst of energy had left my body. Sometimes I’d feel drowsy and would go and sleep for a couple of hours.
After I’d wake up (or if I didn’t sleep, then after about 15-20 minutes after the meltdown) I’d start feeling incredibly guilty about the episode and would spend the next many hours, sometimes days, thinking about it and feeling miserable.
Being able to observe these episodes was a small victory in itself. I made a mood and energy tracking journal and I started tracking my mood 3-4 times a day. The journaling helped me recognise patterns and I began to realise when I was feeling triggered. And while this would not happen all the time, whenever I’d realise that I’m feeling triggered, I’d start start doing something to mitigate a full blown meltdown. I would go for a walk and listen to some music or podcasts. Sometimes I’d just speak to myself and vent out any frustrations that I would have. Other times, I would go and meditate.
I started meditating in 2020 with a purpose of becoming calmer. Meditation for me had a high entry barrier. There’s a lot that I can write about meditation but for this subject, I’ll just say that learning to meditate gave me a coping mechanism to deal with my anger, rage, fear and anxiety. Meditation didn’t change my reaction to any of these situations. Instead, it gave me the wisdom to accept that I cannot change some things and helped me cope with these situations in a more peaceful way.
Meditating didn’t make me less angry. In fact, I would feel angrier during the first few months. I remember getting very agitated in the first couple of weeks if there would be any kind of disruption during my meditation. Eventually, I came to accept that disruptions will keep happening, in real life as well, and the purpose of meditation — for me — was to learn to accept them peacefully. Meditation made me aware of my anger and consequently, gave me a direction to be able to manage my anger with grace and kindness.
When I was calm, I would think about what caused my rage episodes. Like I wrote before, there would be hours or days of jitters before something would trigger an episode. I tried to think about what was giving me these jitters. One reason was subdued anxiety. This subdued anxiety would be something that would not give me a full blown panic attack, but it was always there in the back of my mind. For example, I would get anxious when my wife or my mother had the mildest flu or a little fever, or I would get anxious if the power in my house went out, or when the internet was gone.
During meditations, I realised that this subdued anxiety was a due to unfavourable past experiences that were somehow unaddressed. My anxiety while anyone close to me was traveling intercity in a car was because my father passed away in a road accident in 2006. My anxiety when my family got sick was because my mother had to be hospitalised for food-poisoning once in 2008. And while these incidents were those of past, something about them didn’t give me closure and I was very scared of facing something of similar nature again.
Another reason for my rage episodes was fear — specifically fear that I would not confront. For example, in 2009, I started seeing some pus discharge in my abdomen. When I noticed it, I started fearing that whatever it was, it would kill me. The fear of dying, in this case, made me scared of even going to a doctor for almost a year until the day when I had to be taken for an emergency surgery. I would remain anxious for months, often over a year for the fear of not addressing something that I feared in the first place.
Emotions like pain, grief and dejection would not make me anxious, but were some times the triggers that would cause my fits.
As I continued meditating and observing myself during moments of crises, I also started taking steps towards building coping mechanisms. The first thing I did when I would start feeling triggered, which would happen an hour or two before the rage episode, was to tell my wife that I was feeling triggered. Being subconsciously aware of an upcoming episode would give me some runway to try to mitigate it by going for a walk or by meditating etc.
Second, I started reading about stress and watched a series of lectures on YouTube about what causes stress and how to manage it. I learned a few breathing exercises and started doing them a couple of times a day, or whenever I could. Eventually I trained myself to start taking deep breaths whenever I found myself in a stressful situation or when I was feeling triggered. Because I was also journaling my mood states, I used to be aware while being stressed and I would do the breathing exercises more often.
Third, I started walking away from trivial arguments. Whenever I found myself in a potentially argumentative situation with a friend, client or family, I would take a second to ask myself (literally) whether I wanted to be in this argument. I started looking at arguments from a cost-benefit outlook — whether it was really worth fighting with someone and taking that additional stress on myself that would eventually come out in the form of rage. Eventually I realised that most arguments were trivial in nature and were just not worth the effort. I didn’t have to show up to every fight that I was invited to.
Sometimes, however, all the awareness and mitigation would not be fruitful and I would still lose my mind. During these times, my standard coping mechanism of meditating or going for a long walk would actually worsen the meltdown by delaying it. I still haven’t gotten around understanding why some episodes could be avoided while a few couldn’t be. Perhaps I’ll understand some time in the future. Perhaps I won’t.
But I did realise that in the times when it is absolutely unavoidable to prevent an episode, I could channel my meltdown on something inanimate or someone unimportant (to myself). You may think that it’s being unsympathetic to others when you vent your frustrations on to them (and I would agree with you). My only argument against that is that you can choose to be unkind to one person so that you can be kind to someone else who matters more to you in the moment. I’d rather vent and burn my bridges with an unknown driver who abruptly cut me off in traffic than with someone who is more important to me.
However, the two times when something like this did happen, I made sure to apologise to the person on the receiving end afterwards. I also explained to one of them, who knew me in real life, that I was having a rage episode in which I was not in control of what I was doing. I told them that I did not mean the words I said. The apologies, and showing the vulnerable side of myself to them, were definitely embarrassing but also very humbling and I hope that this would prevent me from doing something similar in the future.
Ultimately, you may believe in karma and think that what goes around comes back around, or may believe in randomness and think that that’s what was written for that day in your destiny. You may think that someone somewhere is keeping a book of every good and baad deed done by every sentient being and therefore it’s your responsibility to keep doing good karma. Or you may think that the world eats up kind people and the evil gets to the top without any guilt or remorse. Your experiences in life will shape your ideology. But you have the right and the responsibility towards your own happiness, your sanity and your peace of mind.
As of writing this in late 2021, I find myself closer to what I set out to achieve two years ago — although — my journey was very different from what I had expected it to be. I still haven’t got where I wanted to be, and I’m starting to wonder whether that was always wishful thinking. However, my rage has mellowed. My anxiety is diminished and I have a coping mechanism for managing my fears. My anger has subsided, but not because I’ve become woke, but because I just don’t find it worth the effort.