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understanding anger
Photography by sophie parienti

understanding anger

by Amy DeFilippi amy defilippi
Live Healthy | Tips

learn to understand and work with the emotions behind your anger
We have all felt anger. For some of us, surges of anger are quick and familiar; an experience we have several times per day. Anger in itself is not a bad thing, and many amazing things in the world have come from anger. Without anger we would not have had the civil rights or the women’s suffrage movement. Anger can be transformative, even a uniting force.

Of course we know that there are different kinds of anger. Anger at being stuck in traffic or someone cutting you off while you are driving is very different than the anger that you experience when you feel that your spouse is taking you for granted. Because we know this to be true it is important to understand the emotions and actions behind our anger. With this understanding we can empower ourselves to make a choice in how we are going to use our anger and to what effect we are using it for. 

In order to begin to work with anger we need to learn to identify the physiological symptoms that anger triggers in our bodies. Most people find that their body temperature rises and they begin to sweat. Anger is depicted in cartoon characters by drawing them with red faces, even smoke coming out of their ears. We know that fire is a transformative element that makes things malleable, even steel bends in a forge, whether this transformation is positive in nature often depends on how it is used. 

As a therapist and a yogi, I am interested in the feelings that are behind our anger. Anger is not a primary emotion. It is a result of a compilation of other emotions. Think of a time that you were very angry. Was there something behind that? Frustration? Fear? Shame? Anxiety? Guilt? When we become skilled at identifying the emotion or emotions that lead us to become angry, we can better express our feelings and communicate our experience more clearly.

In my therapy practice I often work with couples and families. One of my couples was fighting continually about keeping their apartment clean. The wife was at home with the baby all day, and when her husband arrived home in the evening, he found it to be a nuisance to take his shoes off at the door. This was a small example of something that caused great friction between them and lead to many screaming matches. At face value, this seems to be a small hurtle to overcome in a marriage. Why was she getting so angry about his shoes in the apartment? When we discussed how she interpreted his refusal to leave his shoes at the door, we found that she was frustrated because she felt he did not listen to her. She felt abandoned in the care of their home, hurt that he did not feel the same pride in having a nice home, and anxious that their child was going to crawl on a floor filled with germs. Until they came to therapy, she hadn’t expressed any of the emotions behind her anger when she was communicating with her husband. After she was able to discuss the feelings behind her anger, they came to a greater understanding and it became important to him that no one else wore shoes in the apartment either.

What you can do to work with your anger:

1. When you become angry, start to notice the physical sensations in your body, such as you’re your body temperature rising or hands beginning to shake. When we notice these physiological changes as the anger begins to arise, we have a better chance of a controlling the anger and using it as an opportunity for positive change and expression.

2. Take some deep breaths.  This helps to calm the “fight or flight” response in the body and tells your central nervous system that you are indeed “ok”. When you become more skilled at this, see if you can elongate your exhale which will cool and relax your body.

3. Look at the feelings behind your anger. Use these emotions to come to a greater understanding of yourself and to improve your communication.

4. Practice listening for understanding  rather than listening to prepare a response.

5. Practice having patience with yourself and others.

It is important to remember that anger does have an effect on your body on a cellular level and that learning to breathe deeply through the emotion of anger will greatly support you in calming the mind and therefore the body.