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“A person is about as big as the things that make him angry”

Winston Churchill

What makes you angry?  Is it wrong (or right) to get angry?  Is it okay to stay angry?  Is anger healthy (or unhealthy)?  What IS anger?

Psychologist Paul Ekman has identified anger to be one of four core emotions recognized in people of multiple cultures. These four core emotions are sadness, anger, joy and fear (sad, mad, glad & scared). 

Ekman is co-author with the Dali Lama of the book Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion.

These authors write that “anger motivates you to change or fix something that is not working. Anger may also be a cover for hurt and sadness; if issues are not addressed, unresolved anger may lead to long-term moods of resentment, hostility, depression and inflammatory health conditions.”

The etymology of the word anger spans many
centuries:

  • Mid-13th century, (noun): hostile attitude, ill-will, surliness
  • Late 14th century, (adjective): hot-tempered, irascible, incensed, openly wrathful
  •  Angst:  sense of rage, wrath
  •  Angh is the Proto-Indo-European root of angst meaning tight, painfully-constricted, painful

Interestingly, Angh is also the root of the word angina: chest pain or discomfort that occurs when your heart doesn’t get as much blood and oxygen as it needs.

As an emotional response in the body, “anger is fundamentally a physiological phenomenon” writes Erin Olivo, Ph.D. in Emotional Literacy.

“It’s an emotional response to a trigger that is either internal in oneself or external in the world. This response activates a complex group of hormonal, electrical, and cognitive changes – things that all happen in your body in response to what’s happening around you.” 

These changes are involved in the body’s fight-flee-freeze response, providing more available energy to resolve the issue. 

Professionals in the mental and physical health fields tell us it is important to be able to experience and express our anger in healthy ways. Otherwise, the contracted energy of anger stays stuck in our bodies and over time can lead to psychological and physical health problems.

This is not to say it is wrong to feel angry.  As mentioned earlier, it is a core human emotion that functions as feedback when our well-being is threatened.

The potential or probable interruption to well-being may be provoked from something or someone outside ourselves, or it may be evoked from within ourselves by ruminating about something that has already or potentially can inflict emotional or physical harm.   

Evolutionary biologists tell us that anger evolved to motivate effective bargaining behavior during conflicts of interest. The greater harm an individual can threaten and potentially cause, the more bargaining power they had. We have fortunately evolved and no longer need to access anger to gain the edge in bartering buttons for butter.

Yet anger remains a viable human emotion, existing as an important feedback system for the well-being of our human experience.  

Psychology professionals tell us that we often learn what to do with angry feelings during childhood when our primary caregivers are role models for the same. This can manifest as uniquely different experiences for children, depending on the essential temperament and nature of the child and the way their primary caregivers experienced anger.

One child may have learned to repress his anger when the primary adults in his childhood home were overtly or unpredictably angry much of the time.  If that child had a sensitive, timid nature he likely felt it was unsafe to be in touch with his own feelings of anger around such potentially volatile adults.

Another child in a similar environment may have learned to model this behavior and followed the lead of the influential adults in his life by projecting or expressing her anger in inappropriate, aggressive, even bullying ways.

Still another kid may remember a childhood where the adults exhibited and maintained a sort of emotional flatline, never allowing themselves to fully feel the highs or lows of the spectrum of human emotion, especially anger.

These are just a few of the numerous ways in which children learn how to experience anger. Dependent children grow into independent adults and do their best to navigate their emotional lives in functional and healthy ways.  Yet frequently the emotional patterns of the present are mirrors for the strategies acquired in the emotional climate from childhood past.

So how to face the anger in the present?

Realize that your anger is a signal from your body and mind motivating you to change or fix something that is not working.  This requires you are willing to assess the situation, identify what needs to change, and take action. Your will and energy can be harnessed and channeled toward constructive transformation rather than internalizing it by endlessly obsessing on the injustice, betrayal, violation, etc.

Anger can also be covering deep feelings of hurt and sadness, sometimes held for a long time.  If the related issues are not addressed and resolved, the anger may lead to prolonged resentment, hostility, depression and inflammatory health conditions.

Remember, anger is fundamentally a physiological occurrence, i.e., charged energy that arises as a physical sensation somewhere in the body, accompanied by a thought or narrative in the mind that triggers it and often continues to feed it.

Thus, to heal the anger you must be willing to feel the anger. That is not the same as projecting it onto someone or something else, exploding violently, or engage in obsessive circular thinking about what caused it.

To feel something requires the willingness to be present to what sensations we are experiencing in our bodies. Remember, the root of anger means tight, constricted, narrow. Tune in to your body and notice where you feel tightness and tension in your gut, neck or shoulders.  Maybe your temperature is heated and you’re perspiring, or perhaps your heart is racing, or your face and neck are red. Our bodies are barometers for what we are feeling emotionally. 

Considering that anger is one of four core human emotions, it serves all of us to learn how to have a healthy relationship with this powerful message system in our minds and bodies. The cornerstones of processing anger effectively include:

  • Self-awareness. Recognize the signs of anger in your body: constriction, tension, rapid pulse, racing heartbeat, pounding head, heated body temperature, to name a few.
  • Name it to tame it” says Daniel Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child. Siegel is renowned for his work in teaching adults how to foster healthy brain development in children.   He says that when a big, right-brain emotion like anger is raging out of control, it is important to name what you are feeling (“this is anger”) and remember what is causing it. Naming it and the self-explanation for what activated the anger helps the body and mind break the cycle of dysregulation.
  • Feel the sensation.  Direct your attention to the area(s) in your body where the sensation of anger is held. (see Self-awareness above). Resist the temptation to mentally replay the narrative around what caused it.  Instead, breathe fully into whatever part of your body feels charged as you feel the intensity of the feeling. This will facilitate movement of that restricted energy which you experience as a highly-charged sensation.
  • Identify the source. Is your anger provoked by an external situation that you perceive as a physical or emotional threat?  If so, your anger is motivating to identify something that is not working and figure out a way to change or resolve the situation. This often includes setting boundaries.
  • Recognize, on the other hand, if your anger has been triggered internally through your remembering, ruminating, and mentally repeating the various aspects of situations that were upsetting from your past, or are currently unsettling now. This may be a cover for hurt and sadness you’ve held onto. If you leave these issues unaddressed and unresolved, your anger may lead to long-term moods of resentment, hostility, depression and inflammatory health conditions.
  • Move Your Body.  Animals instinctively shake from head to toe after an encounter which activates their alarm system. Humans similarly benefit from moving the energy in their bodies after experiencing the flood of adrenaline resulting from the sensations and state of anger. Run, walk briskly, jump up-and-down, intentionally elevate your heart rate through physical activity to avoid the storage of residual tension in your cell tissue.
  • Write it Down.   Dr. James Pennebaker, Department of Psychology Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime to college students facing first-year transitions. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker says. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.” Pennebaker recommends writing about an emotional upheaval for twenty minutes per day for four days consecutively. He advises this helps the brain effectively process what happened through honest expressive writing but contained within the parameters of beginning to middle to end.
  • Accept and Move On.  Often this necessitates forgiveness. The wounds we carry from our past trials and traumas often drive the anger we feel today. Yet we cannot recreate the past and to defend the anger that has protected the resulting wounds is keeping us from living fully in the present. The physical and emotional health risks of staying angry are well-documented. Perhaps the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer can remind us that it is a choice to live fully in the now instead of a marginalized existence still grounded in the past: “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”.

In summary, I share a beautiful poem written by Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.  He wrote ‘For Warmth’ after the bombing of his village Ben Tre, during the Vietnam War. The poem represents his process for experiencing and ultimately writing the poem to contain the rage and anger he felt after the devastation of losing so many family members and friends in the bombing.  

“For Warmth” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I hold my face between my hands.

No, I am not crying.

I hold my face in my two hands

to keep the loneliness warm—

two hands protecting,

two hands nourishing,

two hands preventing

my soul from leaving me

in anger.

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