Sunday, August 20, 2006

Anger & Internal Combustion

A reader sent this email:

I wanted to share the below quote with you. I had not heard it put this way before. Another take on the anger issue, I have heard something to the effect of "being angry at someone is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die."
Included in the email was this quote:

You will not be punished for your anger,
you will be punished by your anger
Hindu Prince Gautama Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.

So tonight, before the start of the week, I'll write about anger.

The first notion that needs to be addressed around anger is philosophical: is anger bad? This idea needs to be examined because there are a good chunk of people, especially women, who believe that anger is a bad emotion and should be avoided at all costs.

Anger, like the other basic emotions of happiness, sadness, disgust, and fear are neither good or bad. They just "are". Emotions exist to help protect and ensure human survival. I'll give a few examples: sex (reproduction) tends to make people happy, happy feelings (pleasure) usually like to be reinforced, thus happiness is a protective emotion. Likewise, spoiled food, or revolting action will cause someone to feel disgusted. A person will tend to avoid people, things and situations they find disgusting (how do you feel after eating a bite of past-due fish?). This too, protects the organism.

Anger can be healthy. When a wrong has been inflicted that is unjust, when a desire is thwarted, anger rises to the surface. The emotion is a catalyst for constructive self-protective action. Perhaps a "friend" shows him or herself untrustworthy for example by stealing a prized object. Anger helps maintain the proper social order by giving the slighted person the energy to deal with the problem forcefully and directly.

So anger can be helpful. And, anger can be destructive.

Many anger issues aren't that the emotion isn't justified. On the contrary, the problem with the anger is how it manifests. Unfortunately many angry people express themselves so ineffectively that their legitimate message gets lost in the delivery. Ranting, raving, foot-stomping, hitting, kicking, biting, violent, rage-filled outbursts tend to obscure the underlying issue. So people must learn to communicate effectively even when angry.

Another complicating factor with anger: too often a person's radar is set so sensitive that even the smallest slight is registered as deserving righteous rage. This perception problem also delegitimizes the person's take on issues. If everything makes one mad, it is hard to take him seriously. The indifference the alleged perpetrators begin to display in the face of the sensitized "wronged" make him angrier, of course. Conversely, some people seem to have no sense about when they've been slighted. They have a vague sense that something bad happened, they might even suffer subconsciously and manifest it as genteel seething (which everyone else sees but, to queries they respond, "I'm FINE!"). Some aren't angry at all. They are resigned to their life of a doormat. Sigh....come on in and take what you like.

Anger, like fear, is meant to help you survive. Unlike happiness which can be healthy in a moderate amount almost all the time, anger is meant to bubble up, bring your attention to the violation radar and recede until needed. The problem then, is when anger never resolves.

Here is a Medical definition of anger:
Anger: An emotional state that may range in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger has physical effects including raising the heart rate and blood pressure and the levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline.
By the way, the red text raises your adrenaline and cortisol levels. You are now "seeing red" and in a provoked, though not angry, state. That is, it would be easier for you to manifest anger than if you were reading blue text say.

What are the health consequences of unrelenting, chronic anger?
  • Headaches--often something you don't want to think about, "lost my head", "steaming mad" (picture the cartoons with steam coming out of the ears)
  • Gastrointestinal--stomach in knots, "galled", anal-retentive, controlling, "upset", that "burns me up"
  • Cardiovascular--"hard-hearted", high blood pressure, got my "blood boiling"
  • Respiratory--asthma, shortness of breath, "breath-taking"
  • Nervous system--"pain in my neck", "pain in my ass", "thorn in my flesh" (nerve pain), "burr under my saddle"
  • Psychological--suicide, murder, psychosis, manic-depression, depression, sadism
  • You see how our language incorporates what we intuitively know: our bodies store and express uncommunicated emotion. Just because you aren't talking about it, doesn't mean your body isn't feeling it.

    Repressed emotions eveantually get expressed even if it's not verbally. I believe many chronic health care problems include an emotional component--cancer, heart disease (the two biggest killers) and nearly every disease is complicated and/or caused by unresolved emotions.

    In Chinese Medicine, anger is associated with the Liver and Gall Bladder. You've read the symptoms by system and saw "galled". Emotions associated with the Liver/Gall Bladder meridian include: Anger and resentment (the main emotions), irrationality, frustration, aggression, galled, stubborn, emotionally repressed, depressed, indecisive, irritable, bitterness. According to the Chinese, a healthy person never has "outbursts". These "fiery" exchanges, expend undo amounts of energy (chi, ki). The liver and gall bladder are wood elements and help fuel, help energize the body. Since the liver stores blood, it stores energy.

    While this might sound like hocus-pocus to you, I can assure you that clinical experience bears this out. Many a gall bladder has been removed and the pain remained which should be impossible. Many over-drinkers and eaters, drug addicts and the sexually promiscuous end up with various forms of hepatitis--inflammation of the liver. Often their addiction is self-medication to mask feelings of rage and helplessness or anger at loss or frustration with life. Once the hepatitis takes hold, it is a formidable health foe.

    Speaking of formidable foes. The Bible actually has something to say on this topic. A great summation is here:
    In a Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the Greek word translated bitterness is said to have originally meant "pointed, sharp, penetrating, painful (to the feelings), and bitter (to the taste)." In the Old Testament there is an association between poison and bitterness. (Kittel:839) It is part of the common human experience to suffer from pointed, sharp, and painful words or actions originating from another human being. Yet being the recipient of this conduct does not require a sinful response. The pain will resolve itself in sin only when we allow it to penetrate and bury itself deep within our hearts. When the root of bitterness hides itself in the soil of our hearts, it will spring forth in sin. The author of Hebrews points out the true nature of bitterness when he says that it will not only trouble us, but it will defile many others. The root of bitterness will not remain hidden. If we nourish our bitterness long enough, we will become the one planting the seed of bitterness in the lives of others. Whole families, work places, and churches have been defiled by one root of bitterness. Even those who choose not to allow the bitterness to take root in their lives are still assaulted by the constant manifestation of bitterness from those who have. [emphasis added.-Ed.]

    Have you been around a chronically angry person? It's fun right? Language dripping with sarcasm, viewing every life experience through the "ain't it awful" lense, the angry person doesn't need to be insulted--life is simply insulting and a conspiracy to make his life hard. Fun, fun, fun.

    Enough for today. This is a thorough description of the anger problem. How can it be solved? That's for tomorrow.

    Here's a good, one-page synopsis from the Lousiana school system.


    Sharon said...

    I think the deal with anger, especially from a woman's perspective, is that all our lives, we're expected to be sweet, demure, encouraged not to express our feelings if they might make someone else uncomfortable, and then when those feelings boil over because they've not been validated and the root problem never addressed, we're not allowed an emotional outburst to get the attention of those who ought to be teaching us how to deal with our emotions. Perhaps I'm generalizing, but I think it's a rarity that a little girl (or boy, for that matter) is taught HOW to deal with anger (and various other emotions that we, as parents, don't always know what to do with, because, well, we were once little girls and little boys who were not taught how to deal with various emotions).

    Maybe if more of us in this parenting generation can begin working with our children about owning their feelings and emotions...that it's OKAY to feel these things, but then explore how our children can productively deal with those situations and emotions. Someone has to stop sweeping the emotions under the rug...might as well be us.

    Anonymous said...

    Sharon, you are so right! Also, peeling the onion further back will give us a better understanding of why anger is there to begin with. Lots and lots of times there are fears, hurts, lack of acceptance, and so on that play such a role in this emotion called "anger". When our children get really angry, can we push our emotions aside for a moment and look at that child closer to find out where the anger is coming from?
    With some understanding and love it is surprising how anger will settle itself down.