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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

Embracing Anger: How to Make Friends with Your Emotions



Anger gets a bad reputation sometimes, but it's not the enemy we often make it out to be.


While many see anger as a destructive force that should be shut down or avoided at all costs, we actually need anger. It's a helpful warning light that alerts us to problems and encourages us to take action. The confusion comes when mistake that warning light for a GPS.


The thing is, anger is a wonderfully sensitive instrument for detecting problems, but it's not very accurate when it comes to solving problems.


In fact, when we look at how the brain works, we can see that anger was never designed for solving problems. Information comes into the brain primarily through a lightning fast, but very inaccurate gatekeeper called the amygdala. The amygdala is essentially like an on/off switch, deciding only if the information coming is threatening or not threatening. The big question it asks is "Do I need to protect myself right now or not?"



If the answer is "No, there is no threat from this information," then the information gets a green light from the gatekeeper and proceeds further into the brain's logical processing centers where we can engage in thinking creatively, understanding another's point of view, and feeling at ease.


If the answer is "Yes! There is a threat present," then the amygdala sends out an alarm, triggering stress hormones that get us ready to fight (anger) the threat or run away (fear) from the threat. (If these first two are not possible, freeze and fawn are the other two options the amygdala has.) The amygdala directs signals toward the movement centers of the brain and temporarily disconnects the pathway to the logical processing centers. We begin to act before the information ever gets to the slower, but more accurate processing centers such as the prefrontal cortex. This is why we move our hand away from a stove that might be hot before we even decide if it's actually hot. The amygdala doesn't stop to take in additional context such as looking for a red light or seeing if there is a warm pan nearby because by then our hand would be burned. The amygdala can only cause us to jump away (move) until the slower processing centers decide if it's safe to move forward again.


Anger is great at detecting problems, but it's not good at solving problems.

Because the amygdala is an on/off switch, there's no in between. There is a threat or there isn't. That also means the amygdala can't distinguish because what kind of threat it is. It causes the body to react the same whether we are stressed about what someone said or on alert to run away from a bear. To the amygdala, they are both the same.


If the amygdala decides we should fight instead of flee, we feel anger and get a jolt of beneficial energy to help us jump into the fight. And if your amygdala thinks we are fighting a bear, the goal is to bludgeon the object of our anger until it's no longer moving - because the amygdala believes we are in a life or death fight.


We are rarely in an actual life or death fight these days, but anger still tells us we have to completely obliterate our opponent. That's not a good decision in most situations we face today, though. This is why anger is great at letting us know when our boundaries were crossed or we feel that we aren't being heard and terrible at helping us win an argument.


Making Friends with Anger


Because we rarely run away from bears these days, we can train ourselves to notice anger as information and then pause in order to get curious about what the problem is. When we pause for a moment, that gives the rest of the brain time to get the information. Once we have access to our full brain and not just the part that wants to hit everything with a club, we can choose the most effective response. Then we can use that extra energy to help us accomplish our mission.


In or out?

Sometimes people become afraid of expressing their needs. That doesn't mean they don't feel the anger, they just turn that anger inward. Problems happen regardless of whether we suppress or express our anger in unhealthy ways. Suppressing anger can lead to internal turmoil, resentment, and even physical health issues such as high blood pressure and intestinal problems. On the other hand, unchecked venting of anger can harm relationships, escalate conflicts, and cause regrettable consequences. The healthy choice is to get to pay attention to what our anger has to say.


What might anger be telling us?

Anger is a natural and valid emotional response to perceived threats, injustices, or frustrations.  It can signal when our boundaries have been crossed and highlight areas in our lives that require attention. It's important to figure out what our anger is telling us is wrong. Sometimes we react without first determining what's wrong, causing us to take our anger out on the wrong target. Ideally, we want to use the information our anger provides in order to correct a problem before it gets out of hand, so it's important to turn our attention to what actually needs fixing.


How big is the problem?

Anger can manifest in various ways, from mild irritation to intense rage. Sometimes it's helpful to think about how strong our anger is in order to determine how big our response should be. All that energy we get from anger might convince us to go with the most extreme option, but we don't need a firehose to put out a candle. Step back and ask if the size of our response matches the size of our problem. If we overdo it, we could cause damage in the process.


Anger should target a problem, not a person.


Respond, don't react.

Once we know what problem we want to fix and have an idea of how urgent it is, it's time to think of solutions. Here we get to choose what to do, instead of just letting anger be a GPS that drives us right off a cliff.


First, make sure we aren't giving away our power over ourselves. No one can MAKE us angry; it is that we FEEL angry. Anger - like all other emotions - is simply information about what is happening around us. So the target, the cause of our anger, is not a person but a problem.



Second, recognize we don't have to engage right away. If someone has a habit of throwing out trash talk about us, realize that we are not a trash collector. We don't have to pick up what they throw down just because they put it there.


In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to think logically. It's helpful to have a personal motto that we can put on repeat until we calm down. Examples of a motto include:

  • I don’t need to prove myself in this situation. Staying in control of myself and my response demonstrates greater power and strength.

  • What other people say doesn’t matter. I am the only person who can make me act out or keep me calm.

  • I’m in charge of me; they aren’t.

  • If that person wants to behave that way, that’s on them. I don’t need to change them or be threatened by them.

  • I am a fair and respectful person and not self-centered. Their needs are just as important as mine. I can be the bigger person to find a way to help us both.


Once we feel calm and have access to our whole brain, we can brainstorm ideas and determine if a solution is likely to fix the original problem or make it worse. If we express anger in the wrong way, we are very unlikely to get our needs met and the anger will continue to build. Consider this example:


Problem: Your friend forgot about plans you made to get together.


The problem is that you feel unimportant to your friend. Anger is giving you the motivation to do something to restore this rupture in the relationship. Which one of the options below make it likely that your friend will want to hang out with you and restore the feeling of connection?

  • Solution 1: Block their number.

  • Solution 2: Gossip about them to others and say they are a loser.

  • Solution 3: Remind yourself of the other times you have been disappointed in relationship and tell yourself you shouldn't have thought this time would be any different.

  • Solution 4: Tell them that forgetting the plans hurt you and that you need for them to confirm plans the day of the event from now on in order to protect the relationship.


Solution 4 is going to be the most effective use of your anger. Notice how solutions 1 and 2 may feel like a relief in the moment because they feel like you are "hurting the person back," but because your feeling of being unimportant to them is still there, the anger doesn't go away. Solution 3 is turning your anger inside yourself.


Anger is information about a problem. If you don't address the actual problem of feeling unimportant - either by strengthening the communication in the relationship or setting boundaries for yourself - the warning light continues to flash and anger sticks around. Once you address the problem, anger is not needed and your amygdala goes back to just monitoring incoming information again.


Embracing anger for what it is - a warning system, not a GPS - means we can embrace the benefits that anger has to offer. It also means we are able to solve our problems faster and more effectively, helping us feel more confident and in control of ourselves, and allowing us spend more time in activities we enjoy.


 

If you are having a hard time understanding what your anger wants from you or finding effective solutions, consider talking with a therapist.





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