Often by the time women are forced to deal with anger problems – either in anger management classes or in therapy for a combination of other concerns – they have been dealing with the consequences of their anger for some time. These women have been made to feel that they are the problem – the reason things end badly in their relationships, in their families, and in their jobs. Their self-esteem has taken too many hits and even though they may present with a kind of boldness, under all that defiance and fury, a deep sadness resides. Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose; rage and anger are primal defense mechanisms. When a mammal is presented with a threat, hormones are quickly released by the adrenal glands that prepare the animal to deal with the threat in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Anger is an emotion that prepares us to fight. When we experience intense anger, our blood rushes through our veins and we stand up taller, we speak louder and sound more threatening to whoever has threatened us. We have the energy at our disposal to attack.
Tiger vs. Traffic Jam
Frequently, however, this response gets turned on when we are not in danger. All too often, rage and anger become habitual responses to high-conflict relationships in which our brains perceive psychological or even subconscious threats, or to environments we find stressful, such as shopping in crowded malls or trying to find a parking spot on a rainy Monday with a crying toddler in the backseat. The body’s stress response to the threat of a saber-toothed tiger is exactly the same as its stress response to being cut off in traffic. The adrenal glands do not function differently according to the level of perceived threat. The adrenals trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream and this is one reason why it can be hard for people who are sensitive to adrenaline and cortisol levels to calm themselves when they experience a situation they perceive as stressful. But calming oneself is essential to living a psychologically functional as well as a physically healthy life, and it is as good for you as it is for those you care about.
How to Change Your Responses
- Recognize what’s happening every time you get angry. You are throwing a tantrum. Yes, some adults throw tantrums, but by and large, tantrums are for young children. It is perfectly reasonable for children to have tantrums because they do not have the brain and nervous system development or the capacity to change their environments when they get hungry or angry or lonely or tired. But you do.
- Write down triggering people, places, and situations. Triggering people, places and situations have the power to make you feel uncertain, unsteady, uncomfortable, unsure of yourself or afraid. These are the things that are likely to make you feel angry, because at the bottom of anger lives fear. Your anger is a defense against fear, so you want to take a good look at what makes you afraid and why. You aren’t trying to avoid these things, but only to look honestly and authentically at these triggers from a place of emotional safety. Go over your list with a therapist or trusted friend. Be gentle with yourself but be certain to maintain the honesty it takes to truly see through to the bottom of these issues. For example, one of your triggers may be a co-worker you don’t know well. You may feel she triggers you, i.e., makes you angry, simply because you don’t like her even though you can’t articulate why. Perhaps you think she’s rude. After looking more closely and honestly at the situation, you might discover that the truth is that your co-worker is attractive and well-liked. These things cause you to feel insecure but rather than acknowledge this painful truth, you have chosen the psychological defense of distrust, dislike and even anger.
- Eliminate all expectations, even the reasonable ones. You may have reasonable expectations that your children sit in their seats and finish their dinner. It is reasonable, but it may not be realistic. Small children can rarely stay seated for long and often have difficulty eating everything on their plates. Don’t set yourself up to become unreasonably angry with your children. You may have a reasonable expectation that your husband throw away the empty milk container after he consumes the last of the milk, and this may even be realistic, but he may still disappoint you. Don’t set yourself up to become unreasonably angry if you know your husband’s habit; practice letting it go.
- If you’ve managed not to behave outwardly on your anger, the next step is to vanquish negative internal dialogue. After a while, you will become good at not losing your cool. Sometimes you might erupt, but the idea is not to beat yourself up when that happens. Just keep moving and keep working. The next step is to release the resentment. Resentment is a broken record of seething anger about a perceived wrong you cannot forgive. But resentment doesn’t hurt anyone but you. Held too long, it will eventually turn destructive. Practice the art of releasing resentments by simply honoring them and letting them go. Imagine a resentment blowing away like a feather and thank it for its willingness to go and leave you in peace.
- Forgive yourself. And simply accept the anger that has dwelled with you for so long, but let it go. It’s time, and you’re ready or else you wouldn’t be reading this.
- Laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at your humanness. Take a lot of deep breaths.
Anger has a purpose and may even serve to keep us alive at times, but when out of balance, this emotion can be destructive. The stressful impact of anger can lead to heart attacks and is implicated in other life-altering conditions such as pulmonary hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Relationships and jobs and quality of life are all inalterably impacted when someone succumbs to the habit of allowing anger to reign. Women have historically been forced to reckon with much hardship, much fear, and much pain, so it is no surprise that many struggle with the consequence of overactive stress responses and a heightened sense of anger, but it would be a shame and a waste for those women to allow that response to take away their right to happiness and a life of fulfillment. We’ve come a long way. Anger and fear need to move aside so we can shine.