Features and Occasionals

Somanaut: Anger Management

By Dan Schmidt

Buried anger is hard on the body. It’s neither healthy nor fun. Here are some exercises to help channel and release a bad moment or a day.

You know what an angry person looks like. You have an idea because you have a set of memories of angry people, and you can recognize the physical manifestations of anger. You’ve been able to do this all your life. Anger lives in a body. It is not just an abstract thought pattern. It is physical. You know it when you see it—and feel it.

When we are angry, more blood flows to our arms and nearby muscles. The breath quickens, and the heart beats faster and harder. We tense up, meaning we tighten muscles, getting ready to fight. The neck tightens, and this reduces head movement, thereby reducing visual field. We get focused — tightly. It’s all about survival, and pleasure and affection are put on hold.

A flood of hormones instigates all of these changes. Once the hormones hit the bloodstream, they need to be utilized. Just saying “I will not be angry” won’t cut it — your chemistry has other plans for you.

Your body is an emotional entity. All your emotions are created in and processed through your body. But some don’t get all the way through.

Most of us have been taught to be good, to behave, to control ourselves. It gets taught early, and becomes habit. The teaching might be verbal and explicit—“Sit down and be quiet”—or it might be nonverbal and still quite powerful, like seeing someone punished for showing anger and realizing that we might be next. We bury our anger so fast and deep that we don’t even notice the process.

Buried anger, damaged health

Buried anger damages one’s health. The cost of keeping anger inside accumulates, and it shows in one’s actions and general health. Buried or not, the inhibited movements of showing anger keep happening. Eventually they leak out.

Buried anger can show itself in a number of symptoms. We grit our teeth until the jaw malfunctions, resulting in problems such as TMJ syndrome. We tense for a fight until  circulation is over-pressurized — chronic high blood pressure. We tighten the gut, resulting in ulcers and acid reflux. Irritation shows right on our skin in the form of psoriasis and eczema. We struggle to hold back until it hurts, and we suffer back pain and frozen shoulders.

Equally serious, but less obvious, is the damage from the change in perception. Remember that tight focus? It begins to limit our options. What we don’t see, we can’t act on, so life gets smaller and grimmer. Pleasure and affection may be put aside so long, we begin to forget they exist.

The loss of joy that results from repressed anger is significant. We can stuff our anger, but we pay a high price. An angry body is not a playful body, not a sexy body, and not an affectionate, appreciative body.

A body stuffed full of anger is also not a safe body, as sudden explosions occur when the containment system breaks down. Other people will sense this and steer clear. Isolation is a part of the price we pay for carrying old anger.

Channeling anger

Let’s talk about channeling anger. This is a different skill from “stuffing” it. Sometimes we have great reasons to focus on skillfully expressing an­ger. There are points in an anger cycle when the energy can be directed by careful choices, and the internal conflict resolved.

Key places to act are in your breath, your core tone (think gut tension), your vision and your grounding.

  1. Breathe more. Slow it down, deepen it, and let your ribs move again. You might feel fear for a second as you unfreeze. That is okay. Air is good.
  2. Relax your gut. Stephen Levine writes a lot about “soft belly” and the sensation of release that we can access. It’s not passive—it is a clever preparation for acting from a strong place. I think of it as more like centering in martial arts. A supple core is powerful.
  3. Deliberately look around and widen your focus. Soften the squint that anger creates. See your options. Deliberately shift from tight focus to broad.
  4. Feel your feet or your seat. Ground yourself. Support precedes movement. Knowing where you stand (or sit) is the basis for proceeding safely and effectively.

These four techniques help release fear. You will feel immediately more confident, and less stressed. You can then act on your anger in an appropriate manner.

Pro fighter Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until you are hit in the face.” That is when you need skills. Not to stuff it, not to lash out blindly, not to hurt yourself or those close to you, but to have the skills to respond directly and proportionately to what angered you. Your body will lead you toward mature, wise, effective action. 

This article was originally published on February 29, 2012.