“Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling —- I don’t think it’s any of that —- it’s helpless … it’s absence of control —- and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that —- I have no use for it whatsoever.” ~Toni Morrison
You know them. The barkers. Sometimes it seems they are everywhere. Just last week I encountered one on my way out of the supermarket. It was that awkward moment when two people arrive at the exit door at exactly the same time. Rather than a polite back and forth of “No, after you…” I got a frowning, grumbling and agitated “All right then, just go ahead!” I know the guy was probably having a bad time in his own head but it stuck with me as I walked through the parking lot and it made me feel a little violated. On my way back from vacation I witnessed an all out screaming match between two people at the airport. From what I could tell it was over seating and baggage placement in the waiting area but it was loud and fiery and a crowd began to form around the people because they looked as though someone might throw a punch. Even people in my life can launch headstrong into the intent of their phone call before taking the smallest moment to give a simple, “Hello,” giving off a brusque vibe that makes them sound aggravated and starts off a conversation in a funky way.
Being human is tricky business and it’s easy to get annoyed in this life and I’ll be the first to admit that I make a daily, concerted effort to stop, take a breath and, as they say, “not sweat the small stuff.” But, beyond the small stuff that we inevitably do sweat is the potential for anger and anger is serious business. Last week I wrote about stress and linked you guys to information that scientists have provided us on the health risks associated with a life full of stress, including some pretty intense havoc it can wreak on our immune systems. Today I’m thinking of anger as the bad sibling of stress.
While anger is a natural and appropriate response to the parts of life that we all experience–and suppressing it causes trouble, too– there are some intense physical things that happen inside our bodies when we submit to this emotion and, if anger becomes our regular response to too much of life, there are negative health changes that will take place. Anger, as well as fear and anxiety, triggers our “fight or flight” response, a response that comes from the more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and sets off a chain reaction of bodily reactions:
The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises and the skin perspires. The mind is sharpened and focused.
In a situation where fight or flight was really necessary, the flood of adrenaline and cortisol would be an effective mechanism to either defend or escape. In our 21st century lives, however, much of what we encounter requires neither fight nor flight and excessive cortisol, in particular, can affect many systems in our bodies with a whole host of negative outcomes, including chronic headaches, GI trouble, elevated blood pressure, insomnia and, in the worst cases, it can actually affect the arteries around our hearts and cause heart attacks and strokes. When the desire for retribution or revenge becomes a factor, anger morphs into hostility and then the risk of health problems rises exponentially.
So, what to do? Dr. Gail Brenner is a psychologist, author, and the host of a wonderful inspirational blog, A Flourishing Life. In a recent article over at The Daily Good, Brenner gets into the topic of anger in a way that goes beyond the fight or flight, beyond the person who gets in front of you at the supermarket or puts their bag on your chair at the airport.
In ten, neat bullet points, Brenner looks at what anger is, why we succumb to it and how we can begin to think about it in new ways that help us to dissipate it. Importantly, she drives home the point that anger exists in the individual, that the perpetuation of anger comes from a voice inside our own head, not from something–or someone– outside our selves. Referring to anger as “stories,” she says, “Angry stories barrel through our minds like an out-of-control train careening down the tracks. To find freedom from anger, you must recognize the story and see that repeating it doesn’t serve you. Yes, what happened happened. But how much longer are you going to let it be your ball and chain?”
One of the most poignant statements she makes is that anger causes separation.
Anger pushes people away, scares them, makes them fight back or shut down. Relationships don’t have room to breathe when they are defined by anger.
Echoing the theme of separation, Mitch Ablom, author of The Five People You Meet In Heaven says, “Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.”
It’s difficult to feel angry and hear others say it’s as easy as choosing not to be. Anger is a strong feeling that comes from a part of our brain that is separate from our rational brain, the cortex–it’s guided by pure, raw emotions that trigger real chemical reactions inside our bodies, making it seem impossible to control when it takes hold. But, during our more lucid moments we can acknowledge how normal this emotion is and imagine how we will receive it the next time it comes our way. We can start to think about what forgiveness might feel like. We can have a conversation with our higher selves and begin to practice new ways to think about the stories we run through our minds. And, the best part is that we can do this in small ways, like at the doorway at the supermarket, or in the waiting area at the airport and on our phone calls to family and friends.
TRY THIS WEEK: Wag more.