Coaching for Life: Anger relationships and health
Even though our anger is the first emotion we experience as infants, it is the last we learn to manage effectively as adults. Internalized and misdirected anger is at the root of many health, behavioral and relationship problems. Yet most of us spend a lifetime denying, suppressing, avoiding, displacing, projecting or anesthetizing our anger with alcohol or drugs.
So it makes sense to pause and reflect on our style of expressing or internalizing our anger, and its effect on our lives and health.
The place to begin is to recognize the biological nature of angry emotion because it is one of the few emotions that has direct physiological consequences in our bloodstream.
Anger is associated with the primitive flight-or-fight instinct. When we feel angry, we experience a rush of powerful hormones that are released into the bloodstream. These biochemicals push our system’s gas pedal to the floor to prepare us for action. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, and digestion shuts down, putting us in a heightened state of alertness. Anger is our system’s primary response to being threatened.
This anger response was historically appropriate to tackle threats to our physical safety. But today, with the ongoing frustrations of everyday life, our bodies are mobilizing powerful biochemicals to fight traffic instead of tigers.
How many times a day are these adrenal hormones triggered, when we experience so much as threatening or out of control? The usual frustrations – being kept on hold on the telephone, facing complications with some insurance-related problem, believing our spouse doesn't understand us and so forth – result in a near-continuous state of hyper-alertness and harmful autonomic nervous system arousal.
Two devastating consequences to our health result. First, these biochemicals are corrosive to our coronary arteries and nerve tissue. Second, we become accustomed to this state of arousal and start experiencing it as “normal.”
Furthermore, we begin to make it work for us by thinking that we are more efficient when self-stimulated in this way. Simply put, stress becomes addictive.
Complicating this is our fixation on the “cult of speed” that contaminates our day-to-day life. We experience ourselves as living by deadlines, multitasking, overprogramming our children, never having enough time. We become infected with the "hurry sickness” and get angry at anything or anyone who keeps us from being “on time.” We go through our days at home or work chained to the oars by that cult of speed, ingesting a steady fix of artery-clogging anger hormones.
How do we free ourselves from the devastating consequences of internalized anger? One approach is to integrate into your life healthful practices that have a de-stressing effect.
Because anger is a physical emotion, it takes physical practices to dissipate the fight-or-flight hormones from our systems. This is a major reason why simple exercise is so crucial for health.
Learning breath control or yoga breathing is a very valuable tool to manage the effects of anger. Deep breathing actually has a beneficial effect on the bloodstream that sets our emotional clocks back to zero. Since we breathe shallowly with the upper lobes of our lungs when we're angry, we can fool our body into thinking we are calm by practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing.
These are immediate tools for balancing anger. Examining the anger cycle itself and learning to intervene is a therapeutic long-term approach.
The anger cycle is triggered when we perceive some experience as threatening. Usually, this involves some perceived threat of loss. The trigger could be anything from an illness or divorce to more vague losses, such as getting older or a change at work.
When the anger cycle is triggered, a series of internal steps takes place, with the goal of closing the anger cycle and dealing with the threat.
First, we begin to evaluate the threat as to how dangerous it is to us. If we conclude that the threat is minimal, a calm and unflustered response occurs and the cycle is closed. If we determine that the threat is severe, we begin to assess how powerful we are to deal with it. If we have successfully managed this threat before or if we experience ourselves as confident and equipped to manage it, again a calm response results and the cycle is stopped.
However, if we see this threat as severe and experience ourselves as powerless or inadequate, anger begins to emerge in order to biologically mobilize us to tackle the threat.
Although the intended outcome of the anger is to eliminate the threat and close the cycle, more likely the cycle gets short-circuited. This occurs because given the nature of the threats we face in our world, it can be difficult or impossible to take action that will relieve the threat. Also, threats can be repetitive (such as marital conflict, a child’s behavioral problems or a bully at work).
The result is that the anger gets internalized in the form of high blood pressure, self-punishment, substance abuse, lashing out at others, depressive symptoms and so on. This internalized anger becomes maladaptive and eats away at our physical and emotional health.
So the bottom line question is, how do we successfully close the anger cycle and diminish the severity of a threat? There are several ways to intervene in the cycle.
First, learn to diagnose the threats we face. Sometimes we can talk over with a trusted person that which we perceive as threatening and find that it isn’t so ominous as we first thought.
Second, in reference to the power assessment, remind yourself that you have resources. Think back over your life objectively and you will begin to realize that you have successfully managed lots of similar threats.
We also can strengthen our sense of personal power to manage threats by getting support from others or deepening our spiritual base. Even optimistic philosophical beliefs such as, “when one door closes another opens,” can be comforting.
Last, we can avoid short-circuiting the anger cycle by building our personal life resources. Learning assertiveness, communication skills or financial management or continuing our education are all tools to empower ourselves. In doing so, we send ourselves a message that we are competent and capable and have developed wisdom to manage what life brings.
The do’s and don’ts of anger communication
Validate another’s anger. Say, for example, “Its important to me that I understand what you are feeling so strongly about.” Or, “tell me what’s bothering you.” The angry person might escalate momentarily but will calm down at seeing your seriousness and caring.
Grow your anger vocabulary. It can be beneficial to learn to grade anger by using words like ticked off, annoyed, resented, miffed, enraged, furious, outraged, etc. Try using lines like “I can see you are quite enraged about this.” Or, “You seem miffed.”
Link feeling with behavior. Try and link an angry feeling with a behavior such as “When you didn’t call, I felt annoyed at being kept waiting.” Or, “I felt enraged when my boss turned down my vacation request.”
Diagnose the threat. Once the anger has subsided, try and clarify what underlying events or feelings triggered the anger. Convey to the angry person that you are concerned and care. This is the beginning of conflict resolution.
Do an autopsy on the argument. After the smoke has cleared, go back and clarify what each of you were “really” feeling before and during the conflict.
Don’t deny anger. Never tell an angry person, “Don’t be angry.” Or, “It’s in your imagination.” Denying someone’s anger is an invitation for it to escalate.
Don’t walk away. With the exception of abuse, try and lovingly engage the angry person rather than abandon him or her.
Don’t endure abuse. Learn to set limits with someone who behaves abusively. Have an escape plan if you are threatened. Name calling, intimidation, criticism, put down talk are examples of hostility.
Don’t avoid getting help. If you suspect hostility or abuse, contact a counselor or health-care professional. If you are threatened, contact the police.