In the US today, there are shortages of nurses, ICU beds, and basic goods from glass to zippers. There is no shortage of anger.
Like inflammation, anger can be healthy. It can be life-saving. When it flares at the right intensity for the right duration, it ignites us to take steps to protect ourselves or others. Yet like inflammation, when anger is chronic, it impedes healing. It becomes its own illness.
Anger—whether it’s triggered by ongoing oppression, an assault, a news article, or simply by a thought loop in our own minds—kicks the sympathetic nervous system (our fight-or-flight response) into high gear. Our energy surges, adrenaline courses through our veins, heart rate elevates, blood pressure rises, and our muscles tense. Our body’s healing processes—the parasympathetic nervous system, with its ‘rest and digest’ mode—shut down.
Sometimes, we need a short burst or small dose of outrage. But no one benefits from the day-in, day-out IV drip of chronic anger. Anger can be big and volatile, an obvious problem. Or it can be subtle and smoldering, a barely perceptible billow of smoke that pollutes the space within and around us. In either case, learning to heal and release our anger is one of the kindest gifts we can give to ourselves and to the people around us.
Anger isn’t a moral failing. It can be just as physiological as it is psychological. In the early days of my long-haul journey, when I still hadn’t pieced together that I was suffering from POTS, I was prone to seemingly random fits of rage. In retrospect, the pattern was predictable: they occurred early in the morning (before I was well hydrated), while standing on my feet for long periods in the kitchen. The struggle to stay upright and make breakfast for my kids was so great that the slightest trigger—my children whining or bickering, for example—could send me over the edge. I understand now that my sympathetic nervous system was already in high gear, battling to move blood upward to my brain. At the time, though, I was baffled and overwhelmed by my own feelings and behavior.
We cannot heal our anger by layering shame on top of it. To offer grace to my children for their morning ‘whinies’, I also needed to offer grace to myself for my morning ‘ragies.’ It helped tremendously, of course, when I figured out how to minimize my POTS symptoms. Fluids, salt, and compression make me a much more patient mama. It turns out that I’m just a nicer person when my brain isn’t starved for oxygen. (Weird, huh?)
Prolonged standing and dehydration are two potential anger triggers for me, but there are plenty of others: spending too much time reading the news, for example, as well as hunger and lack of sleep.
What is provoking or prolonging anger for you? What adjustments might you make to allow your body to spend more time in a healing, parasympathetic state?
Here are a few possible pathways for healing or reducing anger, in case you need some help getting started. This is by no means an exhaustive list . . .
Make a point of noticing thought patterns that contribute to anger. If these thought loops aren’t helping you, smile to them, and let them go. Then do it again. (Sorry, this is not a one-and-done fix.)
Give your anger a name. If she pops up at times when you don’t need her, acknowledge and greet her. “Hello again, Brunhilda!” This simple and somewhat silly act can help put space between you and the feeling.
Remove or reduce triggers. For example, do you really need to read another article about vaccination rates in the US? Do you need to stalk your ex on Facebook? Do you personally need to debunk that conspiracy theory?
Find ways to express or otherwise release feelings throughout your day, rather than allowing them to build up. You might even schedule specific times for an emotional detox, whether that be meditation, visualization, or screaming in your car.
Practice deep breathing. This could be part of your emotional detox.
Laugh. (If you haven’t already, watch the first season of Ted Lasso. So funny.)
Go outside. Take your anger for a gentle walk or sit with it under a tree. You don’t need to fight it, but don’t feed it either. Put at least some of your energy into absorbing the beauty around you.
Exercise if you can. If you can’t, try deliberately tensing and then softening your muscles.
Talk with a friend about your feelings, or try writing them down. There’s a sweet spot here, though—it can help tremendously to be heard and understood (even just by yourself), but retelling a tale of woe over and over can also fuel rather than calm our anger. Find the balance that works for you.
How do you manage, express, or release anger? How do you help your body shift from a state of sympathetic arousal to the calmer and more healing space of parasympathetic activation?