Mental Mythbusters: Anger Can Be a Good Thing

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be running an article series called Mental Mythbusters. The concept is simple: to debunk some of the commonly held views and dogma on certain topics about the mental aspects of playing competitive Magic. Today, my aim is to debunk the idea that anger can be a good thing if used in the right way. Let’s get to it.

I’ll start by drawing up the scenario. You’re in the middle of a tense game and you make a critical mistake that swings the momentum of the game firmly in your opponent’s favor. As a consequence, you instantly go from 0 to 10 in terms of anger. Or, there’s another scenario. You lose a tight match that was a win-and-in for a Top 8 birth and, as a consequence, also once again go from 0 to 10 in anger. Now, when these kinds of situations occur, a common refrain is that the player in this situation should “channel their anger and use it as a positive” and try to transform their anger into some force for good.

My argument is clear: Anger is a dreadful emotion that you should never be intentionally trying to indulge in or use for some kind of positive benefit. There are several reasons why that’s the case. Let’s dissect them one by one, and in the end, you can formulate your own viewpoint on where you stand on this topic.

Anger Produces Tremendously Negative Mental and Physical Side-Effects

Anger isn’t just a simple emotion that you feel. It has very real mental and physical side-effects that, if indulged consistently, can produce a number of negative and debilitating effects on the mind and body. For example, here are some of the negative side-effects that anger can cause or increase:

Increased Headaches
Increased Anxiety
Digestion problems, such as abdominal pain
High Blood Pressure
Heart Attack
Suppressed Immune System

When indulging in an emotion like anger, you exacerbate or outright create a litany of awful mental and physical side effects that, if consistently perpetuated over the long term, can cause serious damage to both the body and the mind.

Anger Leads to More Intense Anger in the Future, and More Often

You, me, and every single person on this planet has billions to trillions of things called neural pathways in our brains. They’re also referred to as “neural-tags” or “neural-signatures.” These neural pathways are carriers of information. Every time you think a specific thought or indulge in specific emotion, a neural pathway is created. And every time you continue to think that specific thought or indulge in that specific emotion, that neural pathway becomes bigger and thicker. When that neural pathway becomes bigger and thicker, that means your brain is more likely to utilize it in the future.

If every single time you make a mistake in a game of Magic or experience a loss in a tournament you react by becoming angry, you’re strengthening your “anger” neural pathway, making it bigger and thicker, and making it more likely for you to become angry and indulge in anger in the future. Anger literally becomes hard-wired into your brain, and your anger becomes a mental habit. It goes from something you simply indulged in to something that’s become ingrained in your mind and formulated into a naturally recurring automatic response.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey is a really good guy. He wants to stop the evil Sauron from taking over Middle-Earth and he has nothing but the best of intentions in trying to save the world. But he knows that even he can’t attempt to use the Ring of Power to try and do good, because through him, it can “wield an awful power too great and terrible to imagine.” Every time Bilbo put on and used the Ring, he had the best of intentions. He wanted to escape from a troublesome situation or cope with some challenge he was being faced with. But the more he indulged in the Ring, the more the Ring negatively affected him and the more he found himself unable to let it go.

The emotion of anger is just like the Ring of Power. When you use it, you don’t notice any negative side-effects and everything seems fine… in the short term. But the more you use it and the more you indulge in its seductive power, the more it gets ahold of you and the more you become controlled, dictated, and gripped by it. Eventually, you reach a point where it owns you and escaping from its effects becomes an unbearably difficult task. You may have the best of intentions in trying to channel your anger and use it for a good, but the reality is that, in trying to do so, you’re creating and manifesting bad things that far outweigh the supposed good things you may be able to generate from trying to channel your anger.

Instead of indulging in anger, keep in mind the following concepts and utilize the following strategies for either preventing yourself from responding with anger or alleviating it once it arises:

It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed.

For the people who claim that it’s good to indulge in anger, one of their biggest arguments is, “Come on, I’m not a robot. You can’t ask me not to feel emotions.” Let’s be clear about something: There’s a very big difference between the emotion of disappointment and the emotion of anger. If you make a crucial mistake in a game or lose an important win-and-in to Top 8, I would absolutely expect you to feel disappointed. And that’s fine! Disappointment is okay! Disappointment is a reasonable emotion. The pain of disappointment can be one of the most powerful emotions you can harness for good and can act as a catalyst for really positive growth. But if your disappointment devolves into anger, you’ve taken things too far.

Disappointment and anger don’t have to automatically go hand in hand. You can be disappointed that you made a crucial mistake in an important game, and yet at the same time feel happy because of how good your overall play was during the course of the match or tournament. You can be disappointed that you lost an important win-and-in, and yet at the same time, feel happy for your opponent for achieving something great. Ultimately, you have the cognitive power to decide whether you allow your disappointment to devolve into anger or not. When you indulge in anger, you’re making a decision, either consciously or unconsciously, to drown yourself in an emotion that’s harmful for you.

Perspective is extremely important.

I know this is going to sound really cliché, but it’s cliché because it’s true: There are much worse issues out there in the world than making a mistake or losing in a game of Magic. You care about Magic. You care about doing well. You care about playing your best, winning as much as you can, and achieving success within the game. I get that. And that’s all well and good, of course. But despite how much you care about all of those things, the reality is that they will never be more important than the bigger picture of life and the challenges that life presents outside of the game, to both yourself and the people around you.

Two years ago, I went through an experience that changed my life. On Christmas day in 2016, I volunteered at a local children’s hospital. I spent the day helping out and getting to know various children with terminal illnesses, everything ranging from leukemia to Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome. I walked into that hospital moaning and groaning about various issues and problems I was experiencing in my work and in my life at that time. After my first hour at the hospital, everything was instantaneously put into perspective. While I’m moaning about a busy work schedule with no breaks or rest, I’m spending time with a 12-year-old who has lung cancer and may not survive to see her 13th birthday.

When things go wrong at the Magic table, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the moment and lose all reasonable perspective. But the fact is, no matter how awful an experience may seem in Magic, it’s nothing compared to the trials and tribulations of the real world and of real life. It’s easy to lose a game of Magic when you know there’s someone out there who’s got things far worse than you do to deal with. Hell, there are players out there that would kill to be able to lose a win-and-in for a Top 8 at a tournament. They’d love to just be able to even be there and be in that position. Many players never get that opportunity. When you keep things in perspective, anger is really easy to regulate.

Breathe deep.

I’ve talked about the amazing benefits of practicing deep, controlled breathing before,  but there’s no way I could ever talk about it too much. It’s just that important. Short, deep, controlled, intentional breathing activates what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that’s responsible for regulating the “fight or flight” response you experience in tense or stressful situations. It does this by creating a relaxation response that elicits a calming effect on the body and mind. On top of that, deep, controlled, intentional breathing releases powerful brain chemicals called endorphins, and endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in your brain to reduce your perception of fear, stress, or pain.

If you find yourself in an emotionally tense situation where you experience something bad, do two things: First, recognize what’s happened and acknowledge what you’ve just experienced. Second, immediately begin doing some deep, controlled, intentional breathing. Breathe in deeply for 5 seconds through your nose and then exhale slowly for 5 seconds through your mouth, focusing on each breath in and each breath out. Do this two or three times or until you feel relaxed. As a Floridian, I use this every single day trying to drive on the roads down here, so I can tell you that it works tremendously!

In the end, this isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s a matter of better or worse. As I mentioned earlier, you can indulge in your anger, channel it, and use it for some kind of positive effect. You can even experience positive results from time to time by doing this. But the positive benefits you get don’t outweigh the very real negative side-effects you’re creating by indulging in your anger. On top of that, it’s just not necessary to do so. You can get the same outcome you want without indulging in an emotion like anger.

If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I wrote a book about improving at the mental side of Magic and I go much deeper in this kind of stuff there than I obviously can in an article. Check it out and give it a read. I think you’ll get a ton of benefit from it and really enjoy it.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!

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