Stop! Look! Listen! An Emergency Plan for Anger Overloads

Photo of Cat Saunders, who uses Stop Look Listen actions to defuse anger

“If you can be patient in one moment of anger you will escape one hundred days of sorrow.”  —Chinese proverb

By Cat Saunders

Sometimes anger strikes with such intensity that all your best intentions fly out the window. In such cases, it’s good to have an emergency plan already in place. Since extreme rage can short-circuit higher-brain functions, I recommend a plan that’s so simple a child can remember it. In fact, my plan comes straight out of childhood.

When I was a kid learning to cross the street, I was taught three words: Stop! Look! Listen! The message was everywhere. Adults drummed it into my head. It was even painted in crosswalks on roads.

When you’re full of rage, it’s the same as if you’re standing at the edge of a busy street. The street is like your mind, with angry thoughts rushing around like cars speeding by in all directions. You may want to get to the other side of the street – or to the other side of your anger. However, if you don’t keep your wits about you, you might get hurt or cause others to be hurt.

Stop! Look! Listen! These three words can bring you back to your senses, and they can help you prevent unnecessary pain. I’ll give you a few pointers for working with them.

First, when you’re possessed by anger that threatens to burn out of control, stop! No matter what you’re doing when anger hits, stop doing it! Then do something else.

Since anger stimulates the fight-or-flight response, it’s particularly helpful to do something physically active, as long as it’s harmless for all concerned. If you need ideas, consult a counselor or a friend. One good option is to take a long, brisk walk by yourself.

After you’ve stopped doing whatever you were doing and replaced it with something more actively supportive, the next step is to look! If you want to cross a busy street, you don’t just look straight ahead. You look in every direction.

The same thing applies when you’re angry. Don’t keep looking at whatever or whomever you believe is triggering your rage. In fact, I recommend against that, because it tends to reinforce your association of anger with that person or thing.

Instead, look in some other direction. If you’re with someone, you might announce that you’re breaking eye contact for emergency reasons, then go ahead and do it. Look up at the ceiling. Look down at the floor. Or look out the window.

Better yet, go outside and look up at the sky. Watch the clouds or the stars for 15 or twenty minutes and then look inside your heart. Move your eyes around in their sockets. Look up, look down, look around, and look within. Look!

Last of all, listen! If you’re still with someone else, and you believe that person was a factor in your rage, then keep quiet now. Listen carefully to whatever he or she wants to say, as long as it’s stated responsibly. If it’s not stated responsibly, go for a walk.

Listen as if your life depends on understanding every nuance of the other person’s position. Listen as if you care, because if you act as if you care, it may help you reconnect to the fact that you do care. After all, if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be angry, right?

Now, whether you’re with someone or by yourself, take your listening to another level. First, tune in to all the sounds around you. Notice how much you were missing while anger stole all of your attention. Turn your listening skills inward now, and see what happens next.

Focus on your breathing. Listen to the sound of your inhale, your exhale, and your inhale once again. Listen to the sound of your blood pulsing through your veins. Now get really quiet, so you can hear the wisdom of your heart. I’ll bet your heart has something to say about the true source of your distress.

There you have it: my simple three-word plan for anger overloads. Stop! Look! Listen! Program your mind to flash these words repeatedly in the event of explosive rage. If you can remember these three words, they can help you safely navigate the dangers of the street of anger.

Extra Tip

I couldn’t quite bring myself to call this chapter, “Stop! Look! Listen! Sniff!” However, that’s what I would call a complete emergency plan for anger overloads. Here’s how it works:

Sometime when you’re not angry, find a specific smell that calms you. For some people, this might be a whiff of vanilla. For others, it could be the scent of a pine bough or a sprig of cedar. Or it might be the aroma of rose oil or fresh lavender. Whatever you like to smell, keep it handy.

If you find yourself in the midst of an anger overload, run for your favorite smell and give it a whiff. If you’re going through a period where you’re experiencing a lot of rage, you might even keep a source of this calming scent in your pocket for easy and immediate access.

Once you’ve got the source of your favorite scent under your nose, begin by sniffing it in short breaths, keeping time with your heartbeat or your breath, both of which are likely to be rapid if you’re enraged.

As you continue to inhale your favorite aroma, let your breathing deepen naturally. Let it slow down, bit by bit. Don’t force anything. Just try to get as much of your favorite smell as possible. Focus on that.

No doubt you can guess some of the hidden bonuses of this extra tip. First, it allows you to change your focus from distress to pleasure. Second, the act of inhaling an aroma forces you to breathe, which can help you integrate your emotions.

Last of all, the sense of smell is the most primitive of the five senses, and it originates deep within the brain. If you flood that part of the brain with pleasure, it may help to quiet the intense neural activity in the fight-or-flight circuits of your brain.

Next time your rage goes over the top, let your nose lead you back to center. It’s very simple. Stop! Look! Listen! Sniff!

This article is a chapter excerpted from Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available at

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).