“For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.”
Quotes like these begin to create a message or a story for us to believe about anger. For some of us, anger is a 5 letter word that means punishment and for others, anger is a way that we or others express sadness or a break in inner connection.
Harriet Lerner writes in the book Dance of Anger: “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self – our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or, our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.”
In other words, anger can be a helpful emotion when it allows us to express our hurt or our needs in constructive and assertive ways. Anger turns into an unhelpful emotion when it interrupts our lives in the form of rage or physical and emotional abuse. To better understand the impact of anger we need to understand anger, not just as an emotion, but as a trigger to physiological events in our bodies that impact our lives beyond what is happening externally to us. When we are angry, our heart rate, blood pressure, hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline levels increase significantly. When we stuff our anger, these physiological increases may lead to hypertension, high blood pressure, and/or depression. So how do we successfully manage our anger to keep it from negatively impacting our lives and our heart?
Understanding Your Anger
The goal of managing our anger and maintaining the healthiness of our heart isn’t to remove the emotion. Rather, managing our anger begins by understanding the physiological and psychological origins of the emotion. People who are easily angered typically have a lower tolerance for discomfort and are more likely to become frustrated, annoyed, and feel inconvenienced in situations. There is evidence that some children are born with a higher likelihood to become irritable, sensitive, and easily angered and that these emotions are demonstrated from an early age. According to Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in anger management, “some people really are more ‘hotheaded’ than others are; they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does.” Another understanding of anger may be social norms. Anger is often regarded as an unhelpful and negative emotion and we are often taught that it’s not appropriate to express anger. As a result, we don’t learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.
When we become angry the rational thinking part of our brain quiets down and the part of the brain that is responsible for our primal responses of flight, fight, or freeze gets a loudspeaker! When this happens our thinking can become exaggerated and overly dramatic as we begin to see life in the forms of “always and never” to justify how we feel. Anger as an irrational emotion tends to demand fairness, appreciation, agreement, and a willingness to do things our way. We all generally want these things, and we are all hurt and disappointed when we don’t get them, but when we are angry and have “always and never” thinking we move toward demanding them, and when our demands aren’t met, our anger can become even more amplified.
The Brain-Body Connection
As our brains are moving toward anger, our body is “reading” the information as energy. That energy pulses throughout our body keeping us on high alert. And while we are on high alert the chemistry in our body is shifting, storing, and impacting our heart and other organs which creates difficulty in regulating ourselves. The key to managing our anger and the impact it can have on our body/organs is to begin to learn the signs in our body that frustration, annoyance, and feelings of inconvenience create. When we take the time to learn the signals our body is giving we can take the following steps to change our thinking patterns and learn to address our anger more helpfully:
1. Until we release the primal response of flight, fight, or freeze the ability to create tolerance with our anger is unavailable to the brain. We know that in order to calm the brain we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the highway to our rest and digest responses that decreases respiration and heart rate and increases digestion. To activate the parasympathetic nervous system we can begin taking slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breaths; 7-seconds of breathing in with a 11-seconds of breath out. Doing this for 2-minutes can significantly reduce your fight, flight, or freeze response.
2. Practicing meditation consistently can also lead to a greater awareness of anger’s physiological impact on our body. Based on a Harvard University The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences review “transcendental meditation is thought to be one of the most widely practiced meditation techniques in the world.” Ideally, transcendental meditation is to be practiced for 20 minutes, two times per day. The technique focuses on a specific thought that is brought to the mind’s attention to take away from the racing thoughts about the day’s stressful events. “The technique is designed to provide ‘restful alertness’ and to bring the individual’s thoughts to a peaceful level of consciousness, a quieter mental state.”
3. Changing our environment to reduce or eliminate opportunities for anger and frustration by looking for alternatives is also key. At times our surroundings create opportunities for frustration and feelings of being “trapped” by our emotions. We want to focus on what we can control and what we can change in place of expecting or demanding change from others. We may need to create boundaries for ourselves and our safety, we may need to find ways to create “time outs” for ourselves in place of doing everything for everyone else, and we may need to consider other ways to drive to our destinations if the way we take regularly irritates us every time. We want to pay attention to how we can alter and manage ourselves and not just do things because that “is what is expected of us.”
When we step into our discomfort and our anger and learn how to have compassion for ourselves, we begin to not only manage ourselves we start to protect the health of our heart. We change the composition of the body by managing the release of the chemicals that create chaos in our emotions and eventually cause alarm in our hearts. Anger is an emotion that helps us heal from hurt and can teach us how to move through life with awareness and mindfulness. But we need to be willing to recognize how it feels and learn how we can permit it to be processed and released, eventually allowing space for a sense of calm, compassion, and health in our hearts.
If you need help learning more about understanding, navigating, and processing your anger, a counselor can help you explore your emotions and help you move forward. Click here to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with one of our licensed therapists.