Managing a Powerful Emotion
All of us get angry – although some people might not like to believe this. Anger is an emotion that can occur when there is a threat to our self-esteem, our bodies, our property, our ways of seeing the world, or our desires. People differ in what makes them angry. Some people will perceive an event as threatening, while others see no threat at all in the same event. Our responses to anger differ greatly as well. Some people are able to experience angry feelings and use them as a way of solving problems rationally and effectively. Others turn their anger inward and engage in self-destructive behavior. Other people strike out when they feel angry. And some refuse to acknowledge their anger – or they confuse anger with other emotions such as vulnerability or fear.
When anger occurs, the body goes instantly into a series of mind-body reactions involving hormones, the nervous system and the muscles. This involves a release of adrenaline which results in shortness of breath, skin flushing, muscle rigidity, and tightening in the jaw, stomach, shoulders and hands. Our thoughts can become fragmented and our eyes may dart from object to object. We become agitated and may even tremble. Our first impulse may be to take action which could turn out to be destructive.
Think of anger as a tool for survival. When we perceive a threat, we experience a fight or flight response. That is, we will either struggle to avert the threat or we will flee the situation. Either response can be adaptive, depending on the circumstances. Anger is a tool that, when used effectively, can motivate us to solve problems and confront threats in a sensible manner.
Some children are brought up to feel comfortable with their anger. When they feel angry, they have a parent or other adult who helps them to experience this emotion, to become familiar with it, and to contain their responses to it. With the guiding hand of a stable adult, they learn to trust in their anger, to feel secure when anger occurs, and to direct it nondestructively and productively. They accept anger as a basic emotion which can be used in a positive way. They experience anger fully – but they are able to moderate their responses, a skill they will be able to use throughout their lives.
Unfortunately, many of us, as we grew up, lacked helpful guidance in learning to deal with our anger – which is widely seen as a negative emotion which should be suppressed. A common myth suggests that healthy, happy people do not get angry. Nothing could be further from the truth. How often have we been told never to show our anger, never to experience it? How many people have been made to feel shame for having anger, only then to turn their anger inward and chastise themselves for feeling this very normal emotion? If we don’t recognize or experience anger, how can we familiarize ourselves with ways to deal with it adaptively? If we turn it inward on ourselves, how can we use it to deal proficiently with problems in the real world? Luckily, even if we learned maladaptive ways of handling anger in childhood, we can acquire more effectual methods of dealing with this emotion in adulthood.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.