When was the last time you got angry? Like really angry? What did it feel like in your body? How did you react?
We all have a different relationship with our anger. Some of us shy away from it and some of us love expressing it. Some people resort to violence while others turn it inward. Whatever your anger style is, have you ever thought about where it’s coming from?
Emotions are complex. We often feel and react to things outside our full awareness. When we react to anger we often think, “I’m pissed off.” But that doesn’t really say much about what we are really feeling. While there may be a multitude of triggers for anger, what’s often underlying it are two other emotions: fear and/or sadness.
Let’s go through some examples. If someone cuts you off in traffic, your first response is often anger. A lovely expletive shoots out of your mouth, maybe a colorful hand gesture. But what’s underneath that response? Probably fear. Fear that you will be in an accident and get hurt, fear that the loved ones in your car might be hurt, or fear that even a minor accident will send your insurance skyrocketing, and you don’t have the money to cover it. All of these thoughts and feelings can happen in seconds.
How about anger as it relates to a loved one or friend? Your best friend cancels plans for the second time in a row, and it ticks you off. Your partner makes a snide remark during dinner. Of course, you’re angry! But are you really just feeling hurt, sad, and vulnerable? Probably. Are you fearful that this means your partner doesn’t love you the way you want or need or maybe your partner doesn’t want you in his or her life? Maybe you’re afraid of losing them. Makes sense, right?
Why is anger so quick to pop up and cover up fear and sadness? Well, fear can be debilitating. If you stay in fear, you might get emotionally or physically stuck, and you might not be able to take necessary action. Cowering in fear behind the wheel is a dangerous position to be in. You might need anger to take action. The same goes for sadness. You don’t always have the ability to fully experience your sadness in the moment because it’s inappropriate.
Anger gives you a surge of energy. It can feel good to yell or vent. Expressing anger can give you an emotional release as it allows you to express negative feelings. However, excessive anger may lead to negative consequence in your personal and professional life. Chronic anger also impacts your physiological functioning. Anger triggers a similar response that happens during a real or perceived threat of danger and sets off an inflammatory response in the body. Over time anger may elevate your blood pressure, decrease your immune system, decrease the effectiveness of your digestive system, decrease your bone density, increase your risk of illness, and can result in chronic headaches.
Have you ever heard the famous Buddha quote, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”? Anger is very clever because it’s an emotion that often pulls someone else into experiencing it. If I raise my voice, yell, or express my anger to a loved one, he is likely to start feeling the same emotion I’m expressing. I yell, and then he yells. Now great! We’re both in the anger together, and I don’t have to experience that difficult emotion all by myself. Mission accomplished. However, this isn’t a good strategy to manage your emotions.
We can work on changing our relationship with anger.
Let the initial rise of anger be a signal that something is happening on a deeper level. There probably is some fear or sadness there. And if you have the space and time, give those feelings a chance to breathe. Acknowledge them. During this reflection you can also practice some relaxation strategies as well. Deep breaths, imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation are all quick strategies to manage surges of anger.
However, acknowledging what is under your anger takes some self-reflection and a willingness to be a little vulnerable. If you don’t feel comfortable or safe sharing your anger with the person you are upset with, try talking with a therapist or a trusted friend. Journaling is another good way to reflect on your feelings and have an outlet for them. Yet, be careful that your journaling doesn’t turn into an anger spiral. Stop if you can’t come to a reasonable conclusion.
Even just identifying the fear and/or sadness and giving yourself a little kindness and compassion can go a long when anger pops up. Be vulnerable with yourself and allow yourself that space to acknowledge your true feelings. This takes practice, but it’s well worth the effort.