Used in the right way, anger has the ability to liberate and even to heal
Anger is one of the most powerful emotions and, as such, can be one of the most destructive. Anger can cause rifts between family members or friends and be responsible for ending relationships. If you’ve ever witnessed explosive scenes of anger, then you’ll naturally be wary of this intense emotion. It needs careful handling, but is there a positive side to it? Many experts view it as a normal, healthy reaction, claiming anger can even be healing.
The root of anger
Anger is energy. Dr Ronald Potter-Efron, a therapist and author of Healing the Angry Brain, describes it like this: ‘You’re walking down a path and there’s a boulder in your way, and if you get angry, then maybe you have enough strength to push the boulder out of the way. When people feel threatened, or come across an obstacle, anger is a natural response to help them move towards it.’
But how can you ensure this anger is used as fuel, rather than to say or do things that are later regretted? Dr Potter-Efron explains that when you get angry your body goes into a fight-or-flight response. The limbic system is activated and your heart rate, respiration and blood flow increases. When there’s no real danger, the frontal cortex and hippocampus shut down this response, which prevents a person acting out their anger. But sometimes it can be hard to override, particularly if a person feels extremely threatened.
So how do you walk the line between destructive expressions of anger and its use for positive healing?
Try these tips…
Strike a balance
- Take time out. Dr Potter-Efron recommends taking time out to process the immediate feeling of anger before responding. Don’t try to solve problems when you’re angry. Take slow, deep breaths and try repeating to yourself: ‘I’m calm, I’m at peace.’ Breathing slowly sends a message to the brain to produce less cortisol, which is a way of telling the system that there’s no danger and the brain can stop preparing for a fight-or-flight response.
- Look for the fear beneath the anger. ‘Asking yourself, “What might I be scared of?” can give you a different set of choices about how to respond,’ claims Dr Woollard, a consultant and child and adolescent psychiatrist. ‘You might be angry that something has not gone your way. But you may also be scared that you might be blamed or hurt as a result. Recognising this might allow you to think and act differently.’
- Get moving. Just as a deer shakes off physical tension in the wild, it can be helpful to get moving to shift out of your anger response. Go for a walk in the great outdoors and surround yourself with nature, or put on your favourite music and dance.
- Practise mindful breathing. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, recommends viewing anger as a ‘crying baby’ that needs to be taken care of. He describes mindful breathing as ‘the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby’. The Zen master adds: ‘Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.’ Mindful breathing allows you to pause and take care of yourself, rather than acting out of anger. When the body is no longer in fight-or-flight response, you can think more clearly about what to do later.
- Be a compassionate listener. When loved ones are angry, practise what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘compassionate listening’. This is when you ‘focus on the practice of listening with all your attention, your whole being: your eyes, ears, body and your mind’. This allows the person ‘to speak out, to suffer less’. He says it’s important to genuinely listen rather than just pretending, and that you practise mindful breathing as you do so. Recognise that people say things in the moment that are not accurate. Allowing them the chance to speak can clear their minds so they can think more clearly.
- Keep a journal. Thich Nhat Hanh also recommends writing a letter to your angry self, ‘two or three pages, to show that you recognise his or her presence and will do everything you can to heal his or her wounds’. Processing your anger on paper allows your unconscious to express whatever it needs to express without judgement or censorship. It can also help you to step back and evaluate your behaviour and emotions, and to explore solutions. Ask yourself what needs to change in your life. How do I create change?
- Seek professional help. If you find you are frequently getting angry, professional help may assist you in getting to the root of the issue. Visit your GP or seek counselling services in your area.