Feeling angry seems taboo in our culture. We’re told to let go of it, to control it, manage it. The underlying message is “don’t be angry”. So we’re stuck with having a very uncomfortable feeling that we’re not meant to have, with very little road map apart from “breathe”, “exercise”, etc. Personally I’ve never been able to just “let go” of something by wishing it, or breathing it away.
We may burst out in anger, sometimes hurting others, or we may squash it and feel cut off. We then get depressed, or physically sick. We may have a breakdown, or self-harm. Regardless, anger is still not being expressed and attended to in a healthy way. So the map falls more than a little short and fails to do justice to the existence of an important messenger.
This is a 3-part exploration of anger. Here (Part 1) I will address anger broadly – offering perspectives that include recent neuroscience. I’ll cover some practical approaches to understanding your relationship with anger and how to work productively with it.
Part 2 will focus on anger and parenting. Part 3 will look at anger and post-partum depression.
What is anger?
Anger as a signal
Harriet Lerner writes in the very helpful book Dance of Anger:
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self – our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or, our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.” (p. 1)
But what IS it? A brain and body perspective on anger
Anger at its essence is an instinctive human response when our (or others’) physical or emotional safety is threatened. Is it a call to action. Sometimes anger calls us to run, or push back or freeze to preserve ourselves (“fight, flight, freeze”). Sometimes we might not be able to respond as we wish, or not know how, and the energy that was meant to protect us can get stuck.
There is amazing information now available about emotion in the body, including the flow of neuropeptides between the nervous system, immune system, endocrinal and gastrointestinal system. This flow of chemical supports a sense of emotion moving as energy waves where the waves can be big, small or the water can be quiet.
In this article I’ll explore emotions using the model of the 3-part (or “triune”) brain. The 3 parts are the reptilian part, the mammal part (or limbic system) and the human part (neo-cortex). I draw on the Bodynamic model that distinguishes instinct, feelings and emotions since this has helped me get helpful perspective. I’m particularly drawing on Brantbjerg and Stepath’s article The Body as Container of Instincts, Emotions and Feelings.
Instincts, Emotions and Feelings
Feeling level (see neo-cortex in image): We spend most of our time at this feeling level. It is a state of conscious awareness involving the neo-cortex. Here we have lots of words and concepts to differentiate feelings (e.g. “frustrated”, “disappointed” etc). At the feeling-level we combine anger and other emotions often, or anger and thoughts about anger. The risk here is that the basic energy in the emotion gets lost or is kept out of consciousness.
Emotion level (see limbic system in image): At this level emotions are seen as biological reactions we share with other mammals. This level of brain is also called the mammalian brain – it’s the part that we share with pack animals. Emotions help bond and regulate the pack – we need to regulate our behaviour to function in the group. Human emotions at this level are shared cross-culturally. Feelings have more of a cultural and personal nuance – basically we take on what we are taught by our families and societies with feelings. At the emotional level we are contacting a biological potential, a raw energy inside. The opportunity at this level is that we can contact, contain and express emotion through acknowledging their basic being. The bodynamic model suggests 7 emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, shame, lust and disgust.
Instinctual level (see reptilian brain in image): Here activation is dominant in the brainstem which deals with questions of survival. At the instinct level we get the automatic, fast responses of flight/flight/freeze that prioritize survival. There is no thinking of past or future. These are the lightening fast reactions we get that leave us shaky afterwards when it is safe to “land” again.
We tend to mistrust both instincts and emotions and perceive them as threatening our stability. (See the article for more on this than I can cover here).
So what is healthy expression of anger?
Ideally emotions are allowed to flow like a wave:
“If emotions are allowed to flow, to arise, to reach a climax and to decline again, they seem to move like waves into each other, processing whatever has impacted us through a series of emotions” (Brantbjerg and Stepath). In order to do this we need to engage both the container of the body, and the ability of the mind to sort, label and express what’s appropriate.
The container of the body
The body needs to be able to hold and channel the energy of the emotions. There is a deep body knowledge of how to do this (look at a young child crying). Often it’s our minds that makes us fearful of strong emotions, and actually if we try it with intention, our bodies can cope quite well. Then that give our minds a little more confidence and it gets easier. That’s what I see happen in my counselling office anyway. To develop the skills practice bringing your conscious awareness to your body and particularly your muscles.
One thing that can make our journey a little more trying is if we have a pattern of excessive tightness in groups of muscles, or that certain muscle groups have “given up”. Branbtjerg and Stepath differentiate between hypo-responsive (given up) muscles and hyper-responsive (over tight) muscles. These change the kind of container our body can be for emotions.
If your body has a large number of hypo-responsive muscles, you will tend to be overwhelmed by emotional charge, or the level of emotional response will become lower so there will be little conscious awareness of emotions.
Conversely if you have a large number of hyper-responsive muscles, emotional expression is likely to be held back. The feeling will be like you’re ready to explode, feeding the idea that it is indeed dangerous to have and express emotions. There are exercises you can do to build a more adaptable container – see the article for details.
Finding the language
The prefrontal cortex is known to be crucial in regulating emotions in socially acceptable ways. Through this brain area we become capable of choosing how to express emotion. The more words we have, the more ways we can express ourselves. (Here’s a feeling words). This cortical or feeling level combines feelings with thoughts and mixes emotions, opening us to the risk of misinterpretation. Also combined in there is our own historical relationship to our feeling and our judgement of it.
Action: over to you
I suggest first making quiet time for inner exploration and reflection. Writing in a journal can help. Counselling can help create a safe container and guidance in this exploration too. Here are some questions that may help start the dialogue.
Your current thoughts and experience:
What are your thoughts on anger? Is anger okay to feel? Is it okay to express? Is it to be avoided at all cost?
Remember back to a recent experience of anger. What other feelings and thoughts came up either before or after anger? Noticing these will help inform you about what’s going on inside.
Current stressors will make it more likely you will “boil over” if pushed. Explore through journalling: what’s stressing you out these days? Are you getting enough sleep? How about emotional support? How are your key relationships? What about with your wider family? Any big changes happening in life? Try the Holmes and Rahe Stress test to determine how much background stress you might have.
What’s your self-care like? Self-care means stuff you do for yourself that restores you. (n.b. TV and Internet-time is typically not restorative).
Where did you learn to do it this way (i.e. rules from #1 above)?
Family of Origin: How did you experience your parents expressing anger when you were young? How did you feel about this? How did you cope? Who were the positive role models/safe places? What did you need? What decisions did you make as a result of how things were? What happened if you expressed anger to your parents? How much is all this a bit too familiar as you experience anger these days? If it’s a lot handle, counselling can help heal past wounds and build on your coping skills. Elisabeth Corey writes helpfully on attending to childhood trauma in Anger and wounds of the past.
School: What did you learn about anger and self-expression at school? (questions from #2 above apply here too).Were there nasty teachers? Bullies? Did you feel safe to be yourself? Was it the kind of academic curriclum that didn’t value feelings but focused solely on results?
What of these rules are now helpful/not helpful?
- Any pieces from your history need healing? Old wounds can be hard to touch on but resolution and a new way forward can result. This healing is so important in terms of what you pass on to the next generation.
Do you have any mentors or examples of how to “do anger well”? What is it that they do or don’t do that’s helpful?
If you woke up tomorrow and your problems had miraculously disappeared, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly got better? Who else would notice? What would they notice?
Notice body sensations: When you’re starting to feeling angry recognise what’s happening in your body/experience. What are the first things you feel before it gets explosive? Name them to yourself e.g. “tight tummy”, “overwhelm”, “on fire”, “red hot”. Bring this mindful awareness as you move through the anger “wave”. Notice other feelings and thoughts as you go through the wave.
Try drawing the sensations out on a map of the body like this one. (i.e. draw the “red hot” feeling in your belly, or the “tight coil” in your chest).
Expand your emotional vocabulary. This will help you connect the sensations you feel in your body that tell you an emotion is present to language. Here’s a list of feeling words.
Build the container of emotions in the body: this is called resource-oriented skills training and some exercises are described in the Brantbjerg and Stepath article cited above. You could also find a therapist skilled in somatic (body-based) trauma work.
Warning: Practical tools aren’t going to add up to much without a thorough investigation and possibly some healing work from Stage 1 and skill development from Stage 2. That said, here are some of my favourites
“Stop” sign: If you’re afraid you’ll act in an unhelpful way when angry, once you know the initial signs or feel a situation arising, picture a “stop” sign (or your version of it), when you feel the early rumblings of anger. As you see the warning signs, see your sign and choose your new plan instead.
Deep breathing, even one deep breath.
Focus on objects in the room – “54321” is an effective grounding and re-orienting exercise. Name 5 objects you see (ie. “I see the table”, “I see the lamp” etc). Then name 5 things you sense with your body (i.e. “I feel my bum on the seat”, “I feel my hands touching my legs” etc). Then 5 things you hear (i.e. “I hear the birds tweeting”, I hear the clock ticking” etc). Repeat with 4 things, then 3, then 2, then 1. Your nervous system will be a lot calmer.
Take 20 mins in a quiet separate space if possible (20 mins helps the nervous system properly calm down according to John Gottman). Focus on imagining a calm favourite place. Don’t dwell on the argument or whatever just happened. Do something relaxing instead. Then return in a more centred state.
To move forward start to put together your own “anger action plan” – both for self-care (see above), and for in the moment responses.
Anger Management from Helpguide.org