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  • Writer's pictureDrew Kellough

Anger and What It's Telling Us

Anger is a big emotion. It can be scary, it can be unwanted, but it is always telling us something.

Anger and What It's Telling Us
Anger and What It's Telling Us

Anger is often described as the one emotion that men are taught they're allowed to express. It can symbolize strength, willpower, fearlessness, and even evoke trust in a leader, but can also be described as chaotic, illogical, and even a precursor to violence and loss of self control. There are multiple angles to the emotion, but one thing is always true: it tells us there is something more under the surface.

In a study done by researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D., 7,500 individuals were asked which emotions they could identify while experiencing them. On average, responders could only name happiness, sadness, and anger. If we know our ability to identify and communicate about our feelings is limited to only three words, then we can understand that there is a world of emotions underneath that needs to be addressed in order to successfully deal with anger. Fear, anxiety, frustration, confusion, grief, hurt, sadness, isolation, guilt, shame, jealousy, outrage at injustice, helplessness, overwhelming stress, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, rejection, and loneliness are complex feelings that need to be acknowledged and understood while addressing anger.

When I think about that list, I imagine how hard identifying some of those emotions would be when you are in the midst of experiencing them. How do you say, “I feel like you betrayed my trust” or “I feel humiliated and small” when you’re overwhelmed? It’s just so much easier to express, “I’m angry!”

Anger Creates Motion

Anger comes out in all of us. It can be in defense of ourselves or others, and it can be a strong motivator for action. For example, in the face of injustice we might feel a sense of outrage that compels us to get involved with organizations that combat that wrong. That is a positive outcome of anger. When anger is not addressed, however, it can fester and lead to destructive behaviors. We have all been impacted by the behaviors of folks who held onto and ruminated on their anger and let it build into resentment, hate, and depersonalization. That is when anger becomes dangerous.

Anger’s physiological effect should also not be overlooked. When a person gets angry, their blood pressure rises, their heart rate increases, their body temperature rises, adrenaline is often released, and their Amygdala becomes more active (the Amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, especially fear and anxiety) while their Prefrontal Cortex takes a back seat (the Prefrontal Cortex is the part of the brain responsible for complex problem-solving, planning, functional organization, and logic). So, as you experience anger (and its underlying emotions), you are essentially losing your ability to adequately problem-solve and respond to the situation. It can make healthy decision-making difficult.

One thing a therapist might tell you about managing anger is that waiting until it happens to address it is likely not going to work. Anger is something that takes planning and prevention to control and manage. We cannot eliminate experiencing it, but we can learn and prepare for how to properly respond in order to avoid the destruction that can accompany unmanaged anger.

Tips for Anger

  • If you are experiencing anger and know you are getting to a point where it could be destructive, take a very deep inhale, but then add an additional inhale before you then have a long exhale (“The Double Inhale, Exhale”). This technique has been studied clinically and reviewed by Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., a Neuroscientist at Stanford University.

    • The second inhale will likely be a shorter one because you may feel your lungs are already at capacity. That means you did it right.

    • You are increasing your lungs’ capacity for oxygen on that second inhale, and the exhale is rapidly ridding your body and bloodstream of as much carbon dioxide as possible, which relaxes you very quickly.

  • If you are experiencing anger, you may already notice physiological effects like increased heart rate, a rise in your blood pressure, and an increase in body temperature. This is your body signaling to you that SOMETHING needs to change. In these moments, your body is storing up energy, just like it would thousands of years ago when it gave your body enough energy to fight against a predator.

    • That storage of energy needs a place to go. It needs to be released.

    • Physical activity is the best way to let out the energy stored in your body.

    • A walk, workout, or yoga can help release that energy, which helps the body return to a state of calm. Then, your brain is more capable of making healthy choices regarding the thing that made you angry.

    • On average, it takes the human body between 20-30 minutes to return to a normal state after experiencing a fight-or-flight response. So, if you are that angry, a longer physical activity may be the best option for returning to a normal state.

  • If you are in the presence of someone who is getting angry, you can’t control how they manage their emotions, but you can try and prevent the situation from escalating.

    • First, take a moment to assess your own emotions. Are you getting angry too? Try one of the tips above, if you can.

    • Second, validate the person’s emotions. Their perspective is not inherently wrong. You may not think the reason justifies anger, but their brain and body told them what they were experiencing was significant enough to feel angry (or, insert underlying emotion here). Take a second to let them know you understand how that could make them feel angry. Let them know they are heard.

    • Third, ask them what they need. Sometimes, it is hard to know what you need in a moment of anger, but someone validating your feelings and then asking what you need may help you de-escalate enough to do a self-assessment of what you are actually experiencing.

Anger shows itself to us in a myriad of ways. It can be predictably vocal and explosive. It can simmer under the surface, creating resentment and depersonalization. Whatever the experience of anger may be, its destructive potential can be mitigated. As we learn to deconstruct our anger, identifying which of those underlying emotions are really being experienced, we can begin the process of healing and prevent ourselves from damaging our relationships.


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