HOW DO YOU EXPRESS YOUR ANGER?
Anger is most probably one of the most misunderstood of emotions. It is seen as the ‘negative’ or bad emotion, and is usually frowned upon. In both cultures I have lived in, the common feeling associated with anger is that it is wrong to express it. I have even heard people say in right in front of me, quite bluntly - ‘Don’t talk!’. Usually, it’s when someone starts to get angry, start to express it, but then another person comes swooping in, as if at the first sign of danger, to say ‘Okay okay – that’s enough. Stop’. And the thing is, the anger they were expressing, was not in any way aggressive or unhealthy or destructive. But nonetheless, the moment anger starts to be expressed in any shape or form, people are often quick to shut it down.
Another example is when children, who are clenching their fists and teeth because they didn’t get what they wanted, are told ‘No no, you mustn’t get angry’. Now, I am sure a lot of us have done this - me included! But is this the right approach to dealing with their anger? Telling them that they must not get angry? In the heat of the moment, it comes so naturally to tell someone to stop, which in itself is a product of what we have learnt throughout our lives.
But what might be the consequences of doing that?
CONSEQUENCES OF DENYING OUR ANGRY FEELINGS
‘Anger is like a child- you don’t want to let it drive the car, and you certainly don’t want to stuff it in the trunk also’ – Juna Mustad (adapted for the movie ‘Thanks For Sharing’).
When we are constantly told by our families, friends and society to not get angry, or more specifically, not to even express it, there are one of two things that might happen.
We either learn to disregard our anger as we have always been told to ‘put it away’. Down the line, this usually leads to not even recognising when we are angry, let alone not knowing what to do with it. Anger is called by other names.
‘No, no. I’m not angry, I’m just upset’.
We put our anger in the trunk of the car.
Or the second option is to become angry at every little thing that annoys us. To be someone with a short temper, or with a short fuse.
In other words, putting our anger in the driving seat.
In essence, none of these options are a healthy way of dealing with anger. And in all fairness, neither of these paths show up overnight.
UNDERSTANDING OUR ANGER
‘Feelings are meant to teach you, not torture you’ - Vicky Noland Fitch.
An important step is trying to understand and explore what anger actually is.
Anger can be a response to a threat, or a violation of boundaries or expectations. Anger is also referred to sometimes as the bodyguard, where it is perhaps protecting you from a more ‘vulnerable’ emotion, such as feeling sad or frightened. At the same time, it can act as a secondary emotion, which would occur immediately after feeling a different primary emotion.
For example, you may get angry that your partner hasn’t washed the dishes…..again. You immediately get red hot angry about this, and fly into a rage. But if we were to look more closely, it could be that your expectation of living in a clean house has been violated. Or it could also be that because you asked your partner to do the dishes, and they didn’t, you may feel disrespected or disappointed.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN WHEN WE GET ANGRY?
Understanding how the brain works when we get angry can also be helpful in dealing with it.
So, we have a small pair of almond shaped parts in our brain called the amygdalae (amygdala in the single form). One of its functions is to regulate emotions. It is also sometimes called our personal alarm system, as it continuously scans the environment for any signs of danger.
So, when it does detect a perceived threat, and the keyword here is perceived, it will alert the brain that it needs to react in some way to keep us safe (and alive!). This is more commonly known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction. So, in a matter of milli-seconds, the brain signals the body as to what action it needs to take. Either it needs to fight the threat, try to escape from it (flight), or play dead (freeze).
However, if the amygdala has been, in the past, in a continuously threatening environment, it will become over-sensitised to any perceived threat or danger. This means, in a threatening environment, it would have been constantly recognising real threats, and thus leap into action to keep you safe. Due to this happening repetitively, the amygdala becomes highly sensitive, and therefore will get the body into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, even when the threat is not a big one, or even a real one.
WHEN THE RESPONSE IS TO FIGHT
So, as mentioned before, frequent anger outbursts can be a result of feeling like something is a threat to us, thus we automatically go into fight mode, because that is what the brain is telling us to do in order to keep ourselves safe. That is what has always kept us safe.
The problem with this is, we are not really being threatened, or not in any real danger, but the response we go through brings us through the motions of if they really were real. In time, instead of protecting us, the opposite usually happens, and we start to experience problems due to constantly being angry.
WHEN THE RESPONSE IS FLIGHT
Have you ever had someone, perhaps even a loved one, become angry towards you? You don’t say or do anything, so you just ‘shut down’. This is a classic example of when the brain is choosing to flee the situation mentally and emotionally. This has also served its purpose for you in the sense that when you stayed quiet in the past, it was likely the threat disappeared. The situation, nonetheless, may have caused you to be angry at the person who shouted at you.
Or maybe you did come home to a messy house and instead of getting angry, just swallowed the frustration that came up in you. You cleaned the house, but did the anger go away? Probably not. Unfortunately, feelings don’t just disappear, and usually end up manifesting themselves in another way.
5 TIPS TO MANAGE OUR ANGER
Like all emotions, the aim is not to get rid of anger. It is here to stay and it serves a very important purpose. However, we can learn to manage it, both in the short and long term.
While long term changes can take place with understanding the root of the anger and what our triggers, boundaries and expectations are, we can also implement coping strategies to manage it in the short term.
So, below is a list of 5 things we can do to manage our anger as it happens:
We have heard this so many times, but taking deep, conscious breaths will allow the body to go back to a more relaxed mode. After being in the flight, fight or freeze mode, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is triggered, and this helps the body prepare to respond to stress.
Breathing allows the body to do the opposite, that is, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This means slowing down the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and slowing down our breathing. When this happens, the body steps into a more rational and calm state of mind, and no longer in a state of fight, flight or freeze.
Remove Yourself From The Situation
Walk away from the situation. This is not flying from the situation. Rather, it is recognising that your anger may result in an undesirable behaviour, and by removing yourself form the situation, you are intervening in the natural ‘anger cycle’, thus starting to break it. Go outside and get some fresh air. Go for a walk. Go and make a cup of tea. Pop onto YouTube to watch some funny videos or listen to music. Do an activity that you enjoy.
Preparing something in advance may also be extremely helpful here. For example, creating a playlist of your favourite songs or videos to watch when you become angry.
Remember, when you are enjoying yourself doing an activity you love, you are not angry.
This is a significant step to take, especially for those in denial about their angry.
Accept it and name it.
‘I am feeling angry’.
We cannot manage nor understand something we refuse to believe in. Learn to accept this anger instead of either fighting it or denying it. Not accepting it is equivalent to not accepting a part of yourself. In time, try to recover this part of you.
‘Give yourself the right to have them (these angry feelings) without giving yourself the right to act on the’ – Gabor Mate.
What Triggered You?
When you are in a safer and better place, allow yourself to think back to the episode, and try to reflect on what it was that got you angry. In other words, here, you will be trying to recognise your triggers. It may or may not always be evident here, and this is where the support of therapy can be useful in helping you to explore those triggers.
The advantage of doing this is that once identified, you can then take steps to avoid these triggers in the future. Identifying triggers may also lead to a better understating of why they trigger you in the first place. And therefore, by exploring and understating more about them, you may be on the path to reducing them in the future.
This last point is a skill that may take time to bring into practice. But once you have identified your triggers, that is, what made you angry, the next step is to be able to communicate them to others.
Have you even been annoyed, or indeed angry, but not really known why, and therefore you can’t explain it to others? Usually that just makes things worse! Being able to communicate how you are feeling will start the pathway of healthy and effective communication, which won’t cause the other person to have to guess why you are angry, which again, usually makes things worse!
Exploring and trying this in a safe environment will hopefully allow you to practice this without fear of repercussion, and hopefully give you the confidence in doing so.
Anger is not a bad thing and is not your enemy. But is it certainly trying to tell you something, and that changes may need to be made.
Anger can either be destructive or constructive. So if you want to take the steps to better manage and understand your anger, contact me today on:
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Thanks for reading!