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Beyond Anger Management

 

About 15 years ago, I was driving my son to school. We were late, and I was feeling a bit frustrated with life and parenting. I pulled up at a stop sign. Suddenly a black sports car passed us on the right. I was instantly enraged. “What an incredibly stupid thing to do… pass someone on the right at a stop sign and then cut them off!”

 

I stomped the accelerator, and set off in hot pursuit. Now I was a significant danger not just to the driver of the black sports car, but to my son and everyone else on the road.

 

Fortunately, I got it back together without ramming the other car. My son recovered, only slightly stunned by my show of rage. The other driver hopefully realized that passing at a stop sign was a bad plan for long-term survival.

 

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 since before you were five. Anger lives in a body. It is not just an abstract thought pattern. It is physical. You know it when you see it.

 

When we are angry, more blood flows to our arms and nearby muscles. We tense up, meaning we tighten some particular muscles, getting ready to fight. Our breath quickens, and our heart beats faster and harder. Our neck tightens, and this reduces the movement of our head, thereby reducing our 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 non-verbal 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 damages our health. The cost of keeping anger inside accumulates, and it shows in our actions and general health. Buried or not, the inhibited movements of showing anger keep happening. Eventually they leak out.

 

Here’s a partial list of the symptoms of buried anger. We grit our teeth until our jaw malfunctions, so we get TMJ syndrome (jaw problems). We tense for a fight until our circulation is over-pressurized- chronic high blood pressure. We tighten our gut- ulcers and acid reflux (GERD). We can’t help eventually showing our irritation right on our skin- psoriasis and eczema. We are struggling to hold back until it hurts- back pain and frozen shoulder.

 

Equally serious, but less obvious, is the damage from the change in perception (remember that tight focus?) that begins to limit our options. What we don’t see, we can’t act on, so life gets smaller and grimmer. Pleasure and affection have been 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 into our body, 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.

 

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 ok. Air is good.

 

2. Relax your gut. Steven 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.

 

Another story- A farmer wanted to cut a tree that leaned across the ditch and over the road to the house. He feared a storm would drop the tree and leave him blocked in. He took a chain saw and went to work.  Something went wrong, and the tree fell on him, breaking his leg and pinning him in the ditch. The chainsaw was still running. It spun around, and hit him in the side of the neck, cutting him badly.

 

Somehow, he managed to get the tree off his now broken leg, and holding his head on with one hand, limp back to the house to call for help. When the ambulance got there, they asked how he got that tree off him and managed to walk on a broken leg for ¾ of a mile. He said, “When the tree fell on me, I figured I was a goner. But when that chainsaw hit me, that pissed me off”.

 

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 be able to respond directly and proportionately to what angered you. Your body will lead you toward mature, wise, effective action.

 

Does it matter? Consider this adage, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  There is a moral imperative for using your anger.

 

Let me reinforce that. Anger is needed. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King Jr.

 

He understood how to use anger.

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May 2, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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