To say that these last few years have been difficult would be an understatement. In addition to living through the worst public health crisis this planet has seen for centuries, we’ve witnessed a global social justice movement aimed at combating various forms of systemic and institutionalized oppression that were further exposed by the pandemic, devastating humanitarian crises in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (just to name a few), experienced increasingly more extreme weather events and natural disasters as a result of climate change, and been shaken by the fragility of our democracy, including a movement toward authoritarianism that seeks to eliminate the rights of marginalized peoples all over the world. If that weren’t enough, it seems like every other day there is news about another state working to overturn Roe V. Wade and criminalize trans existence. Mass shootings have become an everyday occurrence. And witnessing the body footage of yet another unarmed Black person being executed by the police has become horrifyingly routine. At times it can seem like too much to bear.
Whether we’ve been impacted directly or indirectly by one or more of the tramas above, we must acknowledge that they are in addition to the day-to-day demands we all face in our everyday life. The strain the average person feels as a result of work, relationships, health, identity, or other challenges were often amplified by external crises.
With all that we’ve been made to contend with, it’s understandable that many of us are experiencing feelings of sadness, helplessness, and anger much more frequently than we would have in the past. While some have developed outlets for their frustrations, many of us don’t know how to process these emotions. We therefore carry the hurt and upset with us until it begins to impact our day-to-day lives. This can’t be sustainable and has been shown to have negative effects on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. So how do we deal with all of the anger we’ve come to carry? In an attempt to answer this, we think about the psychology behind anger, understand how unchecked anger can take control of our lives, and learn ways to better respond to these emotions when they arise.
A note to our readers: While we are going to discuss anger and examine different methods to manage these emotions as they arise, it is important to note that they will not apply to all forms of anger expression. If you are struggling with anger that manifests in a way which could make you a danger to yourself or others, the following may not be relevant to your experience. Please reach out and we would be glad to direct you towards some resources that we hope could be more helpful.
What Is Anger and What Causes It?
Anger is one of the most basic human emotions. It can range in intensity from mild irritation to extreme rage. It is often experienced in response to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, disappointment, frustration, and hurt. It’s an emotion that we all have to deal with from time to time. Unfortunately, few of us learned healthy, effective ways of processing this emotion, and, in some instances, we don’t even realize how much our anger and frustration is impacting our lives.
Anger is connected to the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. When we’re experiencing anger our bodies are often going through the physiological changes that would prepare us to fight. This includes elevated heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, a rush of adrenaline and cortisol, and heightened senses. We also generally experience some increase in temperature and tensing of muscles. All of this likely developed as a means to prepare our ancestors physically for an altercation; however, in today’s environment, a physical altercation is rarely an appropriate response. Therefore, in these instances, we are not only confronting the situation at hand, we are also fighting physiological programming. We are now tasked with either managing the feeling or allowing it to move us to action.
When you’ve experienced anger, you have also experienced the eventual passing of these effects on your body. While these side effects are relatively harmless in the short term, in the long term the impact that anger has on our bodies can be detrimental to one’s health. For people who carry anger for prolonged periods of time or who experience anger more frequently, the continued release of stress hormones can weaken the immune system and impair brain functioning and short-term memory. Unchecked levels of anger over the long term has also been linked to higher instances of heart attack and stroke.
Physical effects aside, unmanaged anger can also wreak havoc on our mental health. It has been shown to both cause and further exacerbate anxiety and depression. This is because anger itself is often related to one’s underlying hurt, disappointment, and depression. The ways that many of us have learned to express our anger, either through outbursts or repression, tend to leave us feeling worse rather than better.
Most of us don’t know what to do with our anger because we never learned, and we certainly weren’t prepared to manage anger at this level and for such a prolonged period. We may have outbursts modeled for us. Perhaps we saw our caregivers yell and explode when angry. Or we watched our loved ones silently seethe. Or, as many of us have been practicing, we learned to numb ourselves to or disassociate from our anger. We seek distractions (Netflix binge, anyone?), we eat, or we use other substances.
When we do have outbursts or explosions of anger, like yelling, we experience a rush of emotion and adrenaline that leaves us feeling depleted and isolated. And while anger is a normal human emotion, our society often places blame on those who struggle to control their anger. This frequently leads us to feel a good deal of guilt and shame after an outburst. While this guilt or shame may at times lead us to change, it is occurring in conjunction with the underlying feelings that caused the pain and therefore commonly deepens the already challenging feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration, etc.
To avoid angry outbursts, many resort to repression. Repression, or pushing down and ignoring your anger, can be just as unhealthy. It often stems from anxiety around feeling unable to express one’s anger. Again, because we place value judgments on anger, many people carry the belief that they are bad or that something is wrong (consciously or unconsciously) with them for feeling anger at all. This is especially true for women, who are often socialized to disregard their anger and who learn that expressing anger is “unladylike.” Women are taught that expressing anger makes them less feminine or “bitchy”, and that anger is not an acceptable emotion. Additionally, BIPOC are often discouraged from expressing anger and if they do, there’s a disproportionate response. Society may tell BIPOC that they need to use a “nicer tone,” or the focus will be on how the anger is expressed, instead of on the content and the emotion. As a result, many people try to repress their feelings of anger or frustration, leading to increased levels of stress and anxiety as they have no outlet for these very real emotions. Repression can also ultimately lead to outbursts once the pressure from bottling up one’s anger gets to be too intense. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that our anger, when left unchecked, can become all-consuming and begin to color our overall perception of ourselves and the world around us.
Is Anger Bad?
But anger does not have to be a negative emotion. It doesn’t need to scare us, and we don’t have to ignore it. In some instances, it can actually act as a powerful motivator. Rather than sitting in and dwelling on our anger, where it may fester and intensify, an alternative approach might be learning how to feel and honor your anger. Before we take any action, we are challenged to acknowledge and engage with our anger.
Feel your anger. You’ve heard it before. It’s even on t-shirts now: feel your feelings. But before you do anything with your anger, you have to acknowledge it. That means feeling it. It means sitting with it. Sitting in your anger and ruminating on it, which will likely intensify your anger, is quite different than sitting with it. When you sit with it, you can do so with understanding and self-compassion. Just like with any feeling, your anger will not consume all of you, it’s not final, and does not need to be judged as bad or good.
Focus on the positives. While there is more than enough to be mad about in the world right now, we also have an abundance of things to be grateful for. Everything from the connections we form with our loved ones, to our overall health and safety, to our access to running water and electricity can be the things that we can center in our thoughts when our feelings of hopelessness and outrage start to loom large. It might even be helpful to write down the things you have gratitude for and place them in a spot that you will see frequently or to take 15 or 30 minutes out of each day to journal about what made you feel thankful that day. By engaging in this practice daily you may come to find that your feelings of anger and hopelessness begin to lessen incrementally until your anger takes up a less prominent place in your life.
Considering the positive in our lives is different from toxic positivity. We are not advocating that you disregard your feelings of anger. Instead, you are working to hold them while also holding feelings of gratitude too. (See our previous blog post on toxic positivity.)
Practice grounding techniques. As previously mentioned, anger is often hard to disentangle from feelings of depression and anxiety, so by practicing grounding techniques to mitigate the effects of those conditions we’ll also be working to better manage our anger. These techniques can range from breathwork to progressive muscle relaxation to reciting a comforting mantra.
Find helpful outlets for anger. Anger can impact us all in different ways. The steps we need to take to alleviate anger’s impact will vary from person to person, but in most cases this will involve finding some sort of positive outlet for these feelings. For some, that may look like engaging in an intensive workout in order to flood the body with serotonin and improve their mood. For others, it might be more effective to get creative by picking up a pen, a brush, instrument, or camera, and allowing your emotions to be channeled artistically. However you choose to process your anger, take care to ensure that it is not only accessible at times of anger, but also something you can easily work into your regular routine so that you are prepared the next time you find yourself struggling with these emotions.
Get involved. Rather than allow your anger to boil over, impacting you physically and draining you emotionally, another alternative approach is to channel your anger into action. If you’re feeling particularly upset about the abortion bans sweeping the nation, for example, see if you can’t find ways to involve yourself in abortion rights activism. Even something as seemingly low impact as taking a few hours out of the week to engage in telephone outreach for an organization like Planned Parenthood can do a lot to relieve some of the feelings of anger, hopelessness, and frustration that you may be carrying around this issue. By getting involved, we gain some perspective on the issues that trouble us, and it helps us realize how much control and power we actually possess.
Connect with Others. If our moral outrage is collective, the healing we seek must be collective too. Connecting with others who are feeling similarly can be validating and can show you that you are not alone. Additionally, we are able to create change when we work together. While all the issues we are faced with, and all the current injustices are overwhelming, coming together to grieve, to process, and to create is where we may find catharsis and hope.
There is of course no easy fix for the barrage of pain and anger we have been carrying. For most of us, however, we don’t want to feel numb, we don’t want to ignore the issues at hand, and we do not need to struggle alone. Instead, we need help learning how to honor our feelings while keeping ourselves intact (and continuing in our daily lives). If you are feeling morally outraged and you need some help, and the tips above are not enough, please reach out. We will be honored to sit with you and with your anger, and to hopefully find a way forward together.
Additionally, while we hope that the tips in this article can help, we also understand that what needs to change are the systems of oppression. Our hope is that collectively, we can create change, and that in honoring our collective outrage and addressing it together, we will take another step forward together.