by Sarah Ahmed
We often hear that anger is bad, we shouldn’t get angry, and sometimes even that it’s haram. But is it really? According to Imam Ghazali the purpose of anger is to protect us from harm. We get angry because we care. Think about it. What kinds of things do you get angry about? If some kid at school hits our little brother, we get angry. If someone says something hurtful to us, we get angry. And on a more global scale, when a government or organization harms a group of people, we get angry. Anger enables us to protect ourselves, to care for our loved ones, to uphold justice. Without anger, the word would be completely corrupt and nobody would stand up against oppression. Something that’s pretty cool is that psychologists today actually agree with Islamic scholars, that anger isn’t only negative. They say that we need it to achieve our goals, get things done, motivate ourselves, and address conflicts and injustices.
But if anger is important, then why does everyone say it’s bad? Well, there are different kinds and levels of anger.
Imam Ghazali’s 3 Degrees of Anger:
- Too little:
We don’t care anymore and we aren’t moved anymore. For example, our classmate at school keeps insulting and bullying our best friend. If we didn’t feel the emotion of anger, what would we do? Probably just stand there, watch, and let it happen. Anger would be good in this situation if it got us to stand up for our friend…for justice.
- Too much:
When anger is too much, it dominates and controls our actions. We no longer follow logic, intellect, and lose our freedom of choice. We get in this zone where we most likely will do something that we’ll regret. Something like punching a hole in the wall that we’ll have to fix later, breaking something valuable, or saying hurtful things to our loved ones that we’ll definitely regret.
- Just right:
This is the one that is balanced and in moderation. When anger is balanced and in moderation, we take enough action to make positive changes without letting it control our actions. This is the one that will help us stay on the straight path and will keep us physically happy. Kind of like Goldilocks in The Story of the Three Bears, this is what we are looking for.
That second one is the one that most of us struggle with: too much anger. What’s great is that it is something we can control. “Scholars have likened anger to a hunting dog: without training, it will never retrieve what its owner needs nor will it point a person in the right direction.”
Anger, the Brain, and Adolescence
But where does that untrained hunting dog come from? Here’s a short video that shows you what’s happening in your brain when you’re feeling emotions (anger is an emotion!).
Something interesting is that what happens in the brain kind of works differently in adolescence than it does at other stages our lives. During your adolescent years (from 12 to 24) is that your brain changes, it builds itself. Because of all the wiring and rewiring and growing and changing that occurs during adolescence, the amygdala (emotion part of your brain) is a lot more active than it is during childhood and adulthood. In his book about the teenage brain, Dan Siegel talks about how there are two different routes that information is sent to the amygdala. One is fast and one is slow. Studies have shown that when people are calm, teenagers mostly use the faster route to the amygdala and adults use the slower one. The amygdala is activated faster in teens than in adults. What does that mean? It means that when you’re feeling any kind of emotion, such as anger, you’re likely to feel it a lot faster and more rapidly than an adult would.
Here are some (definitely not all) things we can do when that amygdala starts acting like an untrained dog:
Say a’udhu billahi min ash shaytanir rajim. I seek Allah’s protection/refuge/shelter from Shaytan, the accursed one. Say this with the intention to control your anger, to bring Allah into the picture, and kick Shaytan out!
If you’re standing, sit down. If you’re sitting, lay down. By doing this, you’ll remove yourself from the position in which you are capable of attacking the person you’re mad at.
Make wudu. Washing yourself with water, especially cool water, will cool you down and give you an opportunity to remove yourself from the situation. The act of wudu itself also brings blessings from Allah and protects you from Shaytan.
Make ghusl. Take a shower. This is the same concept as wudu. The water cools you down and removes you from the situation that angered you. Again, it’ll work even better if you shower with cold water.
Take a break from whatever you’re doing. Leave that situation. If you can’t actually leave, you could imagine yourself in your “happy place.” Again, like making wudu and showering, you’re leaving the situation and giving yourself space from the conflict.
Keep silent. Keeping silent will prevent you from saying things you’ll regret once the anger is gone. This not only will help you cool down, but it will also give the other person space to do so as well.
Smile! It’s sunnah and it brings good fortune. Smiling while you’re angry sounds crazy and slightly impossible, but that’s why it works! Sometimes when I’m angry around my mom, she’ll pull out her phone and take a picture of me, and then show me. My face always looks so ridiculous in that angry picture, that I start laughing. And as crazy as it sounds, that laughter and humor actually takes the anger away.
Physical activity. Exercise helps release those all the endorphins in your body and gives your body a physical way to get that anger out of your system. Go on a run, go lift, punch a heavy bag, do some yoga, or whatever it is that you like best. This is the one that works best for me. When I’m angry, I leave the situation and go on a run. It gives me thinking time, while letting out the anger physically. It’s funny, because if I ever go on a run in the middle of a heated argument with my little brother, I’ll come back refreshed and happy while he’s sitting there still steaming in anger.
This list definitely does not cover everything that can possibly be done to cool down your anger. What are some things that have worked for you? Share in the comments below!