What Is Anger?
Anger is the emotion we feel when a boundary has been crossed. Once the violation is corrected and respect restored, anger is no longer necessary.
Like every emotion, anger has a beginning, middle and end. We can observe this cycle in babies or animals. They feel anger, express it and move on to another feeling.
Physiologically, each cycle of anger arousal lasts about 20 minutes. We are not rational in this fight-or-flight state; our pre-frontal cortex is shut down.
So it’s not a good time to make decisions or come to an understanding with someone. It isa good time to vent and be empathized with.
Anger is an integral part of our life force energy. As is the case with all of our emotions, we are meant to feel angry, acknowledge our anger, and either express it or take action to restore our boundary.
If no action is necessary, we can simply watch anger arise and dissolve.
However, if we have been taught that anger is wrong or dangerous, or that we will be punished if we express it, then our natural flow of anger is disrupted. We may start habitually stifling our anger.
Unacknowledged, stored up anger can cause health problems, or lead to abrupt explosions of rage that damage our relationships.
If we want to access choice when we feel anger, then we can make friends with it. Befriending our anger opens up more emotional ease and options.
I will soon share some befriending anger practices, but first, let’s look at what we are up against.
Fighting comes naturally to us mammals. It is one of the brain stem’s five survival strategies. But when we are hurt by people with more physical or social power than us, fighting is not an option.
Instead we resort to freezing, fleeing, placating or dissociating. We learn to push down our anger to avoid punishment or escalation of abuse.
Our physical bodies learn muscular patterns that suppress our anger and hold back angry words, growls or yells.
With repeated practice, stuffing down anger becomes an automatic way of holding our jaws, clenching our stomachs, tightening our throats, and unclenching our fists.
We may learn to drop our eyes, and suppress tantrums (stopping our feet from stamping, our arms from waving) and make ourselves small. We may take shallow breaths so that we feel less anger, less urgency to express it.
At this point we have developed a reliable trauma survival strategy to fit our particular situation. Once these muscular holding patterns are deeply embodied, they are difficult to change.
Later in life, when we try to practice new ways of being with anger, we may meet with fear and reluctance. Our body is still terrified of the consequences we faced in the past.
Of course, in the case of the collective trauma we call “oppression,” the consequences we fear s are not in the past—they are current. For example, it is common knowledge that Black, Latino and First Nations people are disproportionately vulnerable to police violence, because of the implicit and explicit racism.
For many people of color, even using assertive body language– much less angry body language–in the presence of police officers can be deadly. So the ability to tightly control body language and conceal feelings of anger or rage is an essential racism survival strategy.
A key part of the trauma healing process involves creating safe contexts to express our long-held-back anger in new ways.
On a somatic level, reclaiming the anger stored in our bodies means getting our dignity back, and taking a stand for ourselves and our community.
Violence in Your History
Another obstacle to letting anger flow in our bodies is a history of physical or emotional violence. Maybe we have been a victim of or a witness to violence. Maybe we have harmed others with violent outbursts.*
Because of these dangerous associations, our feelings of anger may trigger a swift self-censoring fear. “I don’t want to get angry the way my parents/abuser did. The way I used to do.”
If we haven’t had appropriate, non-violent ways of expressing anger modeled for us (the media rarely offers such models!), we may believe our only choice is to contract our muscles, or use food, drugs or busyness to anesthetize it.
Despite these obstacles, it is entirely possible to expand our anger repertoire.
However, we need to work gently and patiently with any embodied obstacles or current limitations if we want to change our relationship to anger.
These obstacles, founded in real lived experiences, deserve our respect.
Satisfaction does not require confronting the people who have crossed our boundaries (although this is one option). Certainly somatic satisfaction can involve feeling “heard” and respected by others.
But even feeling “heard” and taken seriously by yourself can convince your body that it has done its job.
Finger holds can help us to welcome and regulate anger and other difficult emotions. The method is simple: wrap the fingers of one hand around the middle finger of the other hand, hugging it gently.
Relax, breathe, and feel your sensations. Notice if this practice is a yes, no or maybe for your body. You can do this for as long or short as you like.
An explanation of fingerholds can be found here: http://www.capacitar.org/emergency_kits.html
Do you have a favorite angry song you like to listen to? How about a sing-along? Play the song, and sing (or yell) along with it as intensely as you can. Then see how you feel.
Once when I was grieving a terrible loss (rage being one component of grief), I found myself playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away” over and over, singing and stomp-dancing along.
Sometimes I felt energized; sometimes I ended up crying hard and then finding stillness. Somehow this song matched the anger and sadness I was feeling; it helped me survive those first difficult days and weeks.
Ani DiFranco’s “I Could Be the Million (That You Never Made)” has also worked for me. What about you? What songs meet your anger where it is?
Breathing Out Sounds
Breathe in deeply. As you breathe out, let the exhalation turn into a long growl, snarl or hissing sound. Repeat this at least 3 times.
Find out which sound satisfies your body. Check in after you have hissed or roared a few times—is your body a bit more relaxed?
Take a deep breath in, and then, engaging your whole body (ie. eyes bulging, arms flung wide, fists clenched, etc) open your mouth and scream silently. Make it a huge scream–imagine you are filling the room (or the building, or block, or planet!) with your rage.
After you have done one scream, check in with your sensations—are you a bit more present in your body? Do you feel some relief? Is this practice a yes, no or maybe for you? If your body feels safe, try doing one or two more screams, and then rest.
Many of us had to stifle rage when we were toddlers. This practice allows your body to have a safe, contained tantrum. Start by lying down on a bed or wide, well padded mat. Start this practice in “slo mo.”
Slowly clench your fist, lift your forearm and then drop it, letting your fist hit the pad–slowly! Repeat this with your other fist, alternately pounding the mat (gently), one fist at a time.
Now, still in “slow mo,” bend one knee and, keeping your heel on the mat the whole time, straighten your leg while pushing your heel forward. Feel the friction of your heel against the mat.
Once your leg is fully extended, pull your knee back up and repeat with the other heel and leg. Now put it all together: pound the floor with alternate fists as you thrust forward with alternate heels.
Pay close attention to your sensations, so that you are truly “in” your experience. Once you know how to do this practice without hurting yourself, feel free to speed it up or slow it down.
If punching the floor makes you worry you will lose control, then slow it down or turn it down. For example, try punching the floor just once or twice, and then taking a break. Or punch the floor several times, but gently.
You can modify the intensity of any anger practice by doing it for shorter periods of time or reducing the number of repetitions. And remember, less is always more: it is best to start out with modest expressions of anger, and check in frequently, asking yourself: “Am I still okay?” “Have I harmed anyone?”
Then, use your senses to find out the answer: “Am I still breathing?” “Are my limbs intact?” Next, you can look around the room: and find out: “Is anyone hurt? Is anyone mad at me?”
Once your body is reassured that all is well, try to express a little more anger.
Respect your animal body’s pace. If you start where you are and do what you can, you will gradually build your body’s capacity to tolerate feeling and expressing anger. Your confidence and self-trust will increase.
*If you are currently struggling to manage violent outbursts, please consult with a therapist, clinician or clergy before trying the practices I have shared.
While I hope this article will increase your insight and self-compassion, neither this article nor the practices I have shared are meant to replace therapy, anger management programs or community-based transformative justice support.
For the sake of you and your loved ones, don’t go it alone. Get some community support.