Another view of anger

Red drum & altar for the four directionsReaders of this blog will recall that one of the themes I have explored through my work in nature and writing on this blog is the phenomenon of anger. New insights keep arising over time, and new information comes to light that I’d like to share with you. Last time I wrote about Gabor Maté’s book When the Body Says No. He explores the relationship between stress and illness, and documents research that links the suppression of negative emotions with the likelihood of relapse or death in cancer patients. There is a very strong link between repressing anger and disease, because repressing anger increases physiological stress on the organism. Not only that, but “the experience of anger has been shown to promote healing or, at least, to prolong survival”! (p. 269)

This is a new perspective on anger that I have not come across before. Yet the expression of rage leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. That doesn’t sound healthy either. What is a person to do? The resolution to the paradox is that both repression and rage are ways of avoiding the genuine experience of anger. According to Toronto doctor and psychotherapist Allen Kaplin, “Healthy anger… is an empowerment and a relaxation. The real experience of anger ‘is physiologic expereince without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system, along with a mobilization to attack. There is, simultaneously, a complete disappearance of all anxiety. When healthy anger is starting to be experienced, you don’t see anything dramatic. What you do see is a decrease of all muscle tension.'” (pp 270-1) Astonishing!

When experiencing rage, people tighten up, breath shallowly, and tense their muscles. These are all signs of anxiety! Gabor explains that acting out through bursts of rage is a defence against the anxiety that invariable accompanies anger as a child:

Anger triggers anxiety because it coexists with positive feelings, with love and the desire for contact. But since anger leads to an attacking energy, it threatens attachment. Thus there is something basically anxiety-provoking about the anger experience, even without external, parental injunctions against anger expression… Naturally, the more parents discourage or forbid the experience of anger, the more anxiety-producing that experience will be for the child. In all cases where anger is completely repressed or where chronic repression alternates with explosive eruptions of rage, the early childhood history was one in which the parents were unable to accept the child’s natural anger. (pp 271-2)

Gabor goes on to describe the two forms of defence people tend to use against feeling the aggressive impules of anger. One defense is to act out by yelling, hitting, or swearing. This is a defense against keeping the anger inside where it can be deeply felt. The other defense is to repress the anger. Both of these methods, as we have seen, lead to illness. (Gabor documents this extensively in his book.)

Gabor concludes that anger does not require hostile acting out. It is a feeling to be experienced. Learning to do that can be difficult (because of the incredible anxiety that often co-exists with anger), and it is something a trained person such as a therapist can help us learn to do. In the times when I have successfully felt my anger as a physical experience, it is actually quite simply a feeling of heat and energy in my body. It is sometimes even beautiful—a sparkly strawberry-red substance that can even have a sweet taste!

The second thing about anger is that it contains valuable information. If instead of acting out I can consider what triggered the anger, I can learn what is really going on (or, often, what I think is going on but is actually just an old pattern being activated in my psyche). Do I feel threatened and powerless? Unloved? Not considered? Has someone trespassed on my boundaries? Whatever the case may be, the anger can give me the energy needed to effectively deal with the situation. This is much different than unconsciously acting out my rage!

As I have mentioned before, anger and the red essence are energies we can work with in the direction of the south in the four shields psychology. It is very valuable work, learning to protect our inner child through the skillful expression of anger. BC therapist Joann Peterson says “Anger is the energy Mother Nature gives us as little kids to stand forward on our own behalf and say I matter“! (p. 274)