• Stress management tip: Don’t let your anger drive

    March 15, 2017 | curtrosengren
  • [Back to How to stop stressing so you can change the world]

    I have seen so many people lately who are determined to “stay angry!” so they can keep feeling motivated to be a voice for change.

    While I agree with the underlying sentiment – anger is a fantastic catalyst for action, and it definitely keeps us focused on the issue at hand – committing to staying angry is precisely what we shouldn’t do if we want to stay in it for the long haul.

    There is a LOT to be angry about just now, no question about it. And while it can be super effective at kicking us into gear and to do something, it really, really (did I mention really?) sucks as a long-term source of fuel.

    The negative impact of chronic anger

    Letting yourself soak in a poison pool of chronic anger has a negative impact both emotionally and physically. It puts you at greater risk for heart disease, increases your potential to have a stroke, weakens your immune system, and even damages your lungs.

    Besides the obvious emotional impact of feeling angry, it also feeds anxiety and depression.

    Anger isnt’ just detrimental to your well-being. It also constricts your outlook. It gives you a kind of mental tunnel vision. When that happens, it’s harder to see the big picture. From a problem-solving perspective, it blocks you from the creative possibilities. And it hides what’s good from view, restricting your view to the kinds of things that confirm and reinforce your anger.

    See how this might be a problem?

    To add insult to injury, the more you indulge your anger, the harder it is to control. You feel more chronically stressed, and it stimulates a steady drip of the stress hormone cortisol into your system. You become more on edge, more reactive. It’s a vicious circle.

    To make matters worse, anger can be addictive. You know that feeling when you’ve worked up a good self-righteously angry head of steam? If you’re honest, you’d probably have to admit that there is something there that feels good.

    It turns out that anger can actually result in a dopamine-induced rush, similar to drugs or dangerous, thrill-seeking activities. Your body can actually start to seek the dopamine reward of another hit of anger. Crazy, no? But it’s true.

    If you’re interested in getting a better picture of what effect anger has, this paper on The Effects of Anger on the Brain and Body is interesting.

    A more constructive approach

    To be clear, I’m not recommending repressing your anger (that has a negative impact as well). I’m talking about engaging it in a more constructive, less destructive way. Here are three ways to approach that:

    • Don’t feed the anger
    • Mind your anger
    • Aim your anger

    Don’t feed the anger

    With so much going on that is anger-worthy, it’s easy to get into the habit of cruising the news for our next hit of outrage. But as I discussed above, that ultimately has a toxic affect, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and limits your potential to have a positive impact.

    This one fits hand-in-glove with the previous post about managing your news consumption. If you find yourself surfing news sites, finding yet another thing to be pissed off about, you might consider that you might be unnecessarily feeding that anger. The same goes for Facebook.

    Mind your anger

    In an upcoming post I’ll be talking about applying mindfulness to negative emotions. For now, I’ll just say that the more you cultivate an ability to step back and watch the emotion of anger happen objectively, the less likely you are to get swept away by it.

    Aim your anger

    Let’s face it, if you invested your time and energy being outraged at all the things there are to be outraged about in this world, you would never have a micro-second of peace.

    Treat your anger more like you would anything that is helpful in short doses, but toxic in big doses. Getting an x-ray can be helpful, but if it lasted all day – or worse yet, for days on end – the radiation would be immensely destructive.

    The same holds true for anger. So be selective. Resolve to start using your anger as a catalyst. Pick an issue and focus on getting results with that one issue. Or do what one of my clients started doing and make space for your “daily rage.” Get pissed off and identify an action that anger can motivate you to take. Then step back and let it go.

    Everyday anger

    While we’re on the topic of anger, let’s talk about day-to-day anger that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the world.

    We all twisted up from time to time. That’s just part of the human experience. The more work you do with, e.g., grounding practices or mindfulness, the less reactive you’re likely to be. But when that anger does flare up, regardless of the source, it’s helpful to have a way to engage it that doesn’t involve punching a wall.

    Here’s a good video that offers a step-by-step approach to taking a different approach to anger.

    In a nutshell

    Don’t confuse the rocket fuel of action-prompting anger with something you can use as fuel for a long-term journey. Use that anger intentionally and judiciously. Staying angry is a poor strategy for being a long-term force for positive change.

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