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When Ed Helms’ character, Andy, loses his temper and punches a hole in the wall in a memorable episode of “The Office,” he’s required to take a long leave of absence from work while attending an anger management course. For the rest of us with anger issues, there’s thankfully a more feasible option: running.
While exercise, in general, can be a good outlet for releasing your emotions, running can be a particularly effective mechanism for managing anger—and thus one explanation for the familiar saying, “Running is cheaper than therapy.” A 2007 study at Yale University revealed that prolonged running changed the expression of at least three dozen genes in the brain associated with mood. And the growing consensus is that because running and other forms of aerobic exercise boost levels of serotonin, they have a “prophylactic effect” on anger, in the words of expert Dr. Nathaniel Thom, in a 2010 article in The New York Times.
There are some practical ways to maximize the anger management potential of those early morning jogs and sweaty sessions on the treadmill. In short time, you’ll be turning a regular discipline of running into a constructive, therapeutic outlet for managing your temper.
Run before (as opposed to after) you might blow your lid.
That’s Dr. Thom’s recommendation (in the same New York Times article cited above). Specifically, “If you know that you’re going to be entering into a situation that is likely to make you angry, go for a run first.”
That insight stems directly from the findings of a 2010 study that Dr. Thom conducted at the University of Georgia. His team of researchers put a group of men with “high trait anger” (a.k.a. a short fuse) in front of anger-inducing images, and then asked them to rate their anger. On some days the men did this exercise after sitting quietly, while on other days they did it after 30 minutes of exercise. The men were better able to self-regulate anger and their expressions of it when they had exercised beforehand.
What’s the takeaway? Planning ahead for situations in your day or week that are likely to set you off can help you maximize the prophylactic effects of a run. What’s key is to schedule a run before you find yourself in these situations, rather than after. (There is in fact new evidence to suggest that vigorous exercise during an anger episode may in fact be harmful to your health.) If your daily work commute can cause you to blow a fuse before you have even set foot in the office, take a run before you leave in the morning rather than waiting to work out later in the day.
You might even benefit from listing circumstances and situations that cause you to self-combust, so that you can be strategic about planning a running schedule that will best compensate for these anger and rage triggers. In other words, think of running as a pre-emptive tool for anger management, as opposed to a post-tantrum coping mechanism.
Meditate before you run.
Together, these two disciplines of running and meditation can optimize the growth of new neurons in the brain (via running) and the sustenance of these new neurons (via meditation)—especially in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is one of a number of key sites involved with emotions like anger. For patients with severe depression who reportedly combined meditation with a running routine, the results were very encouraging: a 40 percent decrease in symptoms of major depression. Moreover, studies that have explored the effects of meditation and, separately, the effects of running on the brain, have found that both activities enlarge the size of the hippocampus, thus promoting better mental and emotional health.
What are the anger management benefits in particular, then, of combining meditation with running? The hippocampus is where your brain produces new nerve cells every time you blow a fuse and find yourself in fight or flight mode. Strikingly, too, researchers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have now found that with an accumulation of anger incidents over time, (with each of these incidents producing more new nerve cells), the brain’s anger and aggression response only increases, thus perpetuating the anger cycle.
Meditation and running, in contrast, can directly offset these negative effects of anger on the brain, building your resilience to future flare-ups.
Give yourself a pep talk while you run.
This approach is loosely inspired by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based strategy for anger management. If you are someone who benefits from exercising when you’re angry, why not add some self-talk therapy to the mix?
CBT works to change unhealthy behaviors that are attached to unrealistic thoughts, and in many cases, how we manage our anger is directly related to what we are thinking about a particular situation. Sometimes reframing our thoughts in relation to a given situation can lower blood pressure by putting things into perspective. At other times, a word of positive affirmation can be just what is needed to calm down.
If you have a running partner you trust, talking with them about what’s eating you can add therapeutic value to your daily exercise, but self-talk can also be very effective. You can literally tell yourself, in between running breaths, to calm down, that there is a solution to the problem at hand, and that everything is going to be all right. You can also reason with yourself, by asking yourself whether being angry will help or hurt in solving the problem at hand. It’s okay to acknowledge your anger, too, and accept it without judgment—as a normal and potentially constructive tool for guiding future choices.
Incorporate techniques athletes use for keeping their cool.
Athletes who are at the top of their game have to learn how to master a wide range of emotions, anger being one of them. To keep their cool, these world-class athletes employ a number of techniques, from role-playing exercises to visualizations and deep breathing.
But you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to practice many of these same techniques. Take deep breathing, for example. Three long, simple breaths before and after you run—or, alternatively, some intentional, rhythmic breathing during a run—can (literally) help you catch your breath when your anger is through the roof. You’ll notice how your mind and body immediately relax.
RELATED: 10 Mental Health Benefits Of Running
About the Author
Anna Ciulla is the Clinical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders.