The Upside & Inside of Anger

We are living in a world marked by reactivity and emotionality – not to mention a hectic, harried, and noisy pace where we barely slow down and take time to SEE each other. We just react. Impulsively, and with fire and fury sometimes. It seems as though we are more stressed, angry, anxious, depressed, and lonely than ever before.

A recent Gallup poll confirms this. They did a Global Emotions Survey — polling 160,000 people in 116 countries over the last 2 years. Their hope? To discover the “mood of the world.” They found that four in ten adults experienced worry during a lot of the day, one in four experienced sadness, and another one in four experienced anger. They concluded that in 2020, the world was, in fact, a sadder, angrier, more worried, and more stressed-out place than it has been at any time in the past 15 years. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “Well 2020 was when COVID entered the scene, so….”  and yes, that is so true. But as a practicing psychologist and researcher, I am very aware that pre-pandemic there were more suicides, more divorces, less marriages, more single parent homes, and more depression and anxiety than years past. And that over 100 million individuals were on antidepressants each year and one in four Americans over the age of 18 had a diagnosable mental health disorder. Pandemic or not, our mental health is suffering. And, in light of the recent school shooting,  saying that there is much to be angry about feels like an understatement.

So what do we do? How do we survive – let alone flourish – amidst the chaos, the noise, the hurried and harried pace of life?

I’d like to offer three brief thoughts, and although the emotion I am going to focus on is anger, know these steps are applicable to all emotions. 

1. Accept where you are at. 

Whatever you are feeling right now, acknowledge and accept it; this means take stock of the situation — your feelings and emotions surrounding it — and see it clearly for what it is, opening to it, feeling it deeply. When you can acknowledge and accept your feelings, you can then begin to work towards productive action and change, choosing how you want to move forward and get where you want to go. (Acceptance does not mean you have to like it. Not at all. But it does mean you can’t run or avoid!)

As we say in my field – name it to tame it, feel it to heal it. 

When you name the emotion for what it is – whether it’s anxiety, despair, or ANGER – it puts you back in control and allows you to explore more productive ways to relate to it. The simple act of labeling your anger moves neural activity from the amygdala — the center of emotion and fear and reactivity  — to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking.  In other words, acceptance and acknowledgment moves you from operating from a fearful, reactive place to a position where you can be thoughtful and deliberate.  

2. Recognize the purpose of your anger. 

Although you might have been taught that anger is a “bad” emotion, let me remind you that there are no bad emotions!!  As I say often to my girls, All feelings are okay, but all behaviors are not. In other words, you can be angry, but you can not go and hit someone. 

Anger is part of our biological history and research indicates that anger has not only helped us survive in the past, but has some positive aspects in the present, too. Let me name a few upsides of anger:

Anger motivates you. It can propel you to do something when you feel like things are out of place and awry. It can empower you to take action.

Anger makes you aware of injustice (and can be an incredibly appropriate response to injustice). There is no doubt that anger played a useful part in social movements for equality for black folks, the elderly, and women.

Anger can propel you toward optimism. It can encourage you to focus on what you hope to achieve, rather than merely focusing on the pain, insult, or victimization. The anger system is geared toward what is attainable, not the impossible. 

Anger is a window into your values. It reveals what you really care about and reminds you of deep-seated beliefs. 

And you should know that in your loving, intimate relationships anger is a window into your needs. [This is another topic for another day – but oh so important, my friends, and something I often talk about in couples and family therapy!!] 

3. Do the work!

We have to look inward to turn outward. It is so easy for us to become strangers to ourselves with our hectic pace today, where busyness is equated with success.

And yet there is much revelation to be found in our reaction, especially in our quick reaction of anger. So ask yourself, “What does my reaction tell me about myself?” Pay attention to your feelings, your reactions, how your family of origin – AKA your first love classroom – has shaped and formed you, how trauma has impacted you.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said:

Between stimulus and response there is a space

In that space is our power to choose our response

In our response lies our growth and freedom

So slow down, my friend. Press pause. Find space and commit to inner examination and reflection.  When you do, you will be able to respond from a place of empowerment rather than reactivity, curiosity rather than judgment, and freedom rather than fear.  In gist, you will be able to respond from a place of love. 

P.S. Research indicates that some of us are more prone to anger and “hotheadedness” than others. Your inborn temperament may predispose you to experience “negative” emotions more easily and more often. Here is a helpful self-reflection tool to get you thinking about your own anger barometer.

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